East Baltimore Poets: The Greatest High School Basketball Team Ever
Driving through East Baltimore, amid the despair of antiquated housing projects and the imposing dungeon like the presence of the Maryland State Penitentiary, you may come across an unassuming building on the corner of Orleans and Caroline Streets. While the State Prison is often a grim reminder of the pitfalls and misfortunes to be had on the rough streets of Baltimore, the building that more resembles an industrial warehouse, than an institution of learning, has produced some of the greatest basketball players in the world.
Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is named after one of the first relevant black writers and poets in America. It has a strong health care program for students and a proud tradition in basketball. The kids in the surrounding area have grown up competing against one another on the courts of Oliver Street. There is a strong foundation and infrastructure for youth basketball that often begins in places like Lafayette Park, Madison Square and Cecil-Kirk. While New York City has the infamous Harlem Rucker Courts, Baltimore has The Dome. The rules of The Dome are fair and simple. If you have game, then you can play. If not, then take your wack game back to the factory and get to steppin. On any given summer day during the offseason, it is not unusual to see ballers such as Carmelo Anthony or Rudy Gay abusing some stiff. If you are lucky enough, old school hoop legends like Mugsy Bougues, Sam Cassell or Keith Booth may brush off their kicks, and show the youngins the real way to play the game of basketball. Crowds gather en masse, with kids on their shoulders, to catch a glimpse of the East Side/West Side Baltimore Classic. A rambunctious and unruly contest that is filled with bravado, trash talking and high flying dunks. The contests have all the intensity of a game 7 NBA Final or an urban version of the Final Four. Holding bragging rights over the opposing hood, is an honor that many of these kids will hold onto for their lifetime.
Nestled firmly and entrenched in this lifestyle of basketball greatness is Dunbar High School. The public school has won numerous State Championships in basketball. From 1956–1988, they won 17 conference crowns, as well as 4 mythical National Titles. This isn't a sprawling private school campus, with a state of the art basketball complex, or a lilly white Catholic School that caters to the more affluent and wealthier families of Maryland. These are kids straight from the concrete jungles of Baltimore who are surrounded by the pressures of drugs and violence, and equipped with a basketball and a dream.
Upon entering the school's gymnasium you will find yourself humbled by the championship banners that have been hung meticulously with care, and are so numerous that they put the Boston Garden to shame. I have always felt small and insignificant in the face of all those banners. My eyes and mind wander throughout the fabled gym and become transfixed on the two biggest banners in particular. They were so gigantic as a kid that it always seemed more appropriate to use them to cover the infield at Memorial Stadium during rain delays. These are the banners for the 1982–83 and the 1983–84 legendary Dunbar basketball teams. Arguably, the greatest collection of high school talent ever assembled on one roster.
Many of those players grew up listening to the men in their family speak reverently about the almost biblical Skip Wise and his exploits at Dunbar. Under the direction of Coach William " Sugar" Cain, (who was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters) the Poets defeated the basketball powerhouse Dematha, for the state title and the first of the "mythical" National Championships in 1973. Skip Wise, who is regarded by many of the local basketball historians as the true G.O.A.T of the Baltimore playgrounds, almost single-handedly dismantled the D.C team led by Adrian Dantley. Wise scored 39 points, with 22 of them coming during the fast and furious finish in the fourth quarter.
After 32 years of coaching service, " Sugar" Caine retired and passed the torch to a fellow alum named Bob Wade. Coach Wade was a strict disciplinarian, who ran practices like a boot camp. Admittedly, he never envisioned from the beginning how great they would become, but he knew he had something special. He also knew that the young boys were going to need a whole new set of standards to live by, other than what they had been exposed to in life. When you come to practice, you come to work. No dilly-dally, no nonsense. No Headphones. Make sure you have a proper uniform, neatly tucked. If you're on the team bus for a road trip, dress smart, no talking, read a school book or a newspaper. When one member of the team makes a mistake, the team pays for that mistake. Coach Wade had a special corporal punishment regiment he would impose on the players for infractions, ranging from cutting class, to missing the open wing man on the fast break. The "ghetto dumbells" were bricks wrapped in tape and Poet practice jerseys for padding. Upon rule violation, players could be seen and heard doing jumping jacks and cross-country runs, with their bricks in hand. Wade used the "ghetto dumbells" as punishment, but also felt that the bricks gave his players stronger legs and wrist than their opponents. Above all, he believed in defense and pressure. Slap the hands on the floor, hard nose defensive pressure. There are no free rides to half court, and every dribble from the opponent is challenged. The point guard is going to be a crucial element in the defensive scheme, which will translate into easy buckets from the offense. Thank goodness for Coach Wade, he had the perfect player to lead his ferocious attack.
Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues
The jitterbug firestarter was the perfect weapon for such a defensive attack. The diminutive neighborhood gym rat was nicknamed "Short Man" and was a defensive hawk, with hands quicker than a snakes tongue. Using his low center of gravity, he would neutralize opposing point guards and be a constant annoyance throughout the game. He was the team's catalyst and all things flowed through him. He had an outstanding relationship with Coach Wade, that still exist to this day, and immediatley bought into his philosophies.
Muggsy would go on to Wake Forest, where he would play for four years and average 14.8 points, 9.5 assists and 3.1 steals per game in his senior year. He has the unique distinction of being the shortest player to ever play in the NBA (5'3"), and He was drafted 12th overall by the Washington Bullets. He would also play for the Hornets, the Warriors and finally finished his career with the Toronto Raptors. During his NBA career, Bogues tallied 6,858 points, 6,726 assists and 1,369 steals.
All great point guards need a smooth shooting guard to stretch the court with jumpers, as well as drive to the hole when needed. Muggsy Bogues had the perfect complimentary backcourt mate.
Reggie Williams had the perfect mixture of athleticism and touch. He was the primary scorer on the team, and with his long legs he could cover amazing ground, while slashing to the hoop. He also had an unstoppable jump shot that was lethal. In 1983, USA Today voted Reggie the National High School Player of the Year. He averaged 25.3 points a game. While Muggsy was the Heartbeat of the team, Reggie was the assassin, who was quick to rip the heart out of opponent's chest.
He then moved on to the feared Georgetown Teams of the '80s and enjoyed tremendous success in his four-year collegiate career. Hoya coach John Thompson dubbed the 1984 Georgetown team: Reggie and The Miracles. After his college career, he was drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. In his ten year NBA career, he also played for the Cavaliers, the Spurs, the Nuggets, the Pacers and the Nets. He finished with 7,058 points and 2,393 rebounds.
Wingate, was an exceptional small forward who was a senior when Bogues and Company were juniors. He had amazing length with his long arms and relished playing above the rim. He, like Bogues bought into the coaches defensive philosophy, and took advantage of plodding high school forwards with limited handles. He sometimes gets lost in the shuffle because he was a year older, but the other boys looked up to his competitive nature and experience.
After he graduated Dunbar, he would go onto play for Georgetown University, and was a major contributor in the Hoyas 1984 National Title win over Houston. He was also on the team that lost to the Cinderella Villanova squad of 85. He averaged 16 points per game in his senior season and played in over 100 games without fouling out. He finished his Hoya career with the third-most points in school history, behind only Patrick Ewing and Eric "Sleepy" Floyd. Wingate was selected in the second round with pick number 44 by the Philadelphia 76ers. During his 15 year tenure in the NBA, he also played for the Spurs, the Bullets, the Hornets, the Supersonics and the Knicks.
Truth be told, even though Reggie went on to have successful career with the Boston Celtics, before his untimely death, he couldn't even crack the starting lineup for the mighty Poets of Dubar. He was a prized commodity being one of the most devastating 6th man in the history of high school basketball. Many friendly jokes were made at the good natured Lewis' expense, but the truth is that of the 15 players on the team, no less than 12 of them had Division I NCAA abilities. Lewis, made enough of an impact that Northeastern University recruited the young man to be the centerpiece in their program. After his four years of college, he was drafted in the first round with the 22nd pick by the Boston Celtics. Reggie was an up and coming superstar for the squad. He was an All-Star, who achieved the prestigious Captain title for the Celtics. Boston was still dealing with the consequences of Len Bias's death in 1986, and it looked like they were starting to pull out of their doldrums. In a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets in 1993, Reggie was in transition, when he all of a sudden he slumped to the court. Muggsy Bogues and David Wingate both played for the Hornets, and watched with bewilderment and horror as their high school comrade lay still on the parquet floor. Reggie would presumably recover, but collapsed again in an off season pickup game, and would tragically die playing the game he loved.
The team was an unstoppable force going a combined 60-0 during their junior and senior years. In a span of five seasons, they went 132-10 with 5 MDMSA Championships to their credit. In many ways, they were as big as any of the professional sports teams in the region. The Washington Bullets would play a few games in Baltimore during the season, and would have to take into account Dunbar's schedule. They would also plead for the team to make an appearance during the game, to maintain the integrity of the gate. Scalpers would charge close to $100 for game tickets, and there would be over 5,000 screaming fans, packing the small high school gyms. They beat teams by an average of 30 points, and they still get together today and joke about the time that they played Walbrook High, and didn't miss a shot for the whole first half. The chances that another public school would ever have 4 NBA players, with three of them being drafted in the first round, on the same team is rather remote.
The basketball teams of Dunbar are still powerful, as evident by their State Championship victory in 2011. However, there will never be a team like the one that dominated the early 80's and today's generation of Poets understand that. As the players do their drills under the huge banners that adorn the gym, it is a constant reminder of what people who have the same background as them can accomplish. In the locker room there are four-wheeled carts that carry jerseys and towels. There is one cart in the corner that every player is aware of, but no one ever touches. It is a cart full of Coach Wade's infamous "ghetto dumbells".
Roll Call: Former Dunbar Poets Who Have Played in the NBA
- Keith Booth
- Muggsy Bouges
- Sam Cassell
- Kurk Lee
- Reggie Lewis
- Reggie Williams
- Skip Wise
© 2011 Jake Robinson