After years of anonymity, high school basketball in Baltimore has gained attention throughout the United States with the emergence of Dunbar and Calvert Hall as national powers. To find the source of that power, you need look no further than the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League (BNBL), the city's most prestigious summer basketball program.
Sponsored by The Baltimore Sunpapers, WMAR-TV, Bethlehem Steel, the Baltimore Bureau of Recreation, Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and the Washington Bullets, the league was started in 1970. It filled a void created by the lack of junior high school basketball and gave the city's youth an opportunity to develop skills in an organized setting before entering high school.
"Over the last 10 years the BNBL, more than anything, is responsible for the upgrade in quality of basketball coming out of the Baltimore area," said Calvert Hall Coach Mark Amatucci of the league, of which ex-Bullet Wes Unseld is honorary commissioner. "The BNBL attracts all the top players. If you ask any coach in the area, he'll tell you he wants his kids to play in the BNBL program."
Baltimore basketball was first noticed in 1973 when Dunbar High School, using the tantalizing talents of Skip Wise, defeated De Matha and Adrian Dantley in a memorable game at the Baltimore Civic Center. Then, in 1974, Baltimore high school product Marvin (the Human Eraser) Webster led Morgan State University to the NCAA Division II championship. This year things peaked with the phenomenal success of Dunbar (27-0) and Calvert Hall (34-0), coupled with the Chicago Bulls' selection of Quintin Dailey, a former star at Cardinal Gibbons, as their No. 1 draft choice. Clearly, Baltimore basketball had arrived.
"Give the credit to the amateur and recreation coaches who have donated their free time," said John Murdock, coordinator of Project Survival, another summer league program. "Those are the ones who are really responsible."
Many of those coaches have spent hours upon hours in hot, matchbox gymnasiums working with prospects. It all starts with the fundamentals: hit the open man, take the high-percentage shot, play tough defense--and, above all, practice good sportsmanship.
"I'm not looking for any personal credit," said Henry (Serge) Powell, who has coached several Calvert Hall players. "If it wasn't Amatucci (getting the credit), it would be someone else. I get credit just seeing the kids succeed. I teach more than basketball, I teach kids to be young men."
"I feel good knowing these kids grew up under me when they were 10- and 11-year olds," said Leon Howard, who tutored Wise and Larry Gibson (Maryland) when they came to Lafayette Courts Recreation Center as youngsters. "I've seen these kids when they could barely lift up a basketball." Like Amatucci, Howard believes it is the success of the BNBL that has put Baltimore basketball on the national level.
That may well be the case. Some have said the city is just beginning to get results from its summer programs. The talent is improving every year as players come to high school ready to play and, in some instances, start.
"The high school coach doesn't have time to teach the fundamentals," BNBL Commissioner Charles Colaianni said. "He will pick the player who has the fundamentals and fine-tune them. Now each kid has the skill and is well-schooled when they go to high school. They play high school ball for three years, but they play for us anywhere from 10 to 11 years."
Lake Clifton Coach Woody Williams, who has coached Baltimore high school basketball for 17 years, said the city has always had quality basketball, but it was overlooked. "It's the nation's loss," he said. "With the Bullets here and other professional teams, the tendency was not to pay attention to high school basketball. Football and lacrosse were put in the forefront."
In the early 1970s, for example, Williams' Lake Clifton team was ranked No. 3 in the nation and defeated Dunbar of Washington by two points when it had Craig Shelton and John Duren, both later to star at Georgetown.
Still, the impact of the BNBL on high school basketball is obvious. Joining Wise, Gibson and Webster on a star-studded list of BNBL alumni are: Dailey (Chicago Bulls), Dudley Bradley (Phoenix Suns), Charles Bradley (Boston Celtics), Tony Guy (Boston Celtics), Ernest Graham (Maryland), Pete Budko (North Carolina), Larry Harrison (Wake Forest), Kenny Johnson (Virginia), Calvert Hall's Marc Wilson (Minnesota) and Dunbar's David Wingate (Georgetown).
With the success of these players, more scouts are coming to the city and more kids are going to the gyms hoping that basketball can, at least, get them a college education.
"My hat's off to the BNBL--the administration and especially the coaches," said Dunbar Coach Bob Wade. "They've done their share to put Baltimore basketball on the map."