Bijan C. Bayne is the author of “Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race & Class” and “Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball.”
Hit cable-TV shows about the drug trade. The death of Freddie Gray and subsequent unrest. Racially biased law enforcement. These are the images that flood the mind these days when we think of urban Baltimore. What about close-knit families? Inspiration? Educational excellence? What about hope? In “The Boys of Dunbar,” Alejandro Danois gives us a portrait of a Baltimore where these qualities predominate. His tale of the basketball exploits of a handful of high school students in the 1980s shows young men motivated by their coach and other recreation leaders to dream beyond the hardship of their geography.
Thirty-five years ago, U.S. high school basketball began a transition from a regional sport marked by limited national recruiting, a few popular national champions, a lack of funding for travel and only a few players known outside their own regions. East Baltimore’s Dunbar High School was one of several area schools, including DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., that helped inspire change. Unlike DeMatha, which first gained national attention in February 1965 after ending the 71-game winning streak of New York City’s Power Memorial High School and its 7-foot-1-inch center, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Dunbar was a public school, located in economically challenged East Baltimore.
Danois provides historical context for the decline in shipyard and factory employment, and the associated despair and drug sales, that hardened East Baltimore and other segregated sections of the city into often dangerous areas made famous by TV series such as “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire.” The book primarily focuses on the Dunbar Poets’s 1981-82 season under veteran coach Bob Wade, an early 1960s graduate of the school. Wade employed rigorous endurance training and imposed strict academic standards on his players. He also familiarized himself with the boys’ off-court life at home.
The least likely Poets player was Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, a 5-foot-3-inch leader who faced derision and low expectations each time Dunbar faced a school that had never watched the diminutive dynamo in action. Bogues grew up in Baltimore’s huge Lafayette Courts housing project, which became the feeder community for Dunbar High School sports. The 1980-81 Poets were a formidable team, though they lost a triple-overtime city title game to the Catholic school Calvert Hall. Coach Wade thought the addition of Bogues made Dunbar a squad without weaknesses. Bogues was a tireless sparkplug of the fast break and could not only disrupt opposing playmakers but also submarine big men and wing players in double-teams that resulted in steals.
The author introduces us to the compelling family stories of the ’81-’82 Poets. Bogues, who was inspired to play by his older sister Sherron and another player at Dunbar, David Wingate, was too embarrassed to tell schoolteachers that his occasional tardiness was because he had to get his mom, who used a wheelchair, settled, downstairs and fed before he left for school. We learn about rail-thin Reggie Lewis, the quiet sixth man whose mom, Inez, had her first heart attack at age 17 and was diagnosed with a heart murmur and leaky valves, and about his brother Jon, who had a hole in his heart. Their teammates included jumpshooter Gary Graham, whose big brother Ernie had starred at the University of Maryland before succumbing to drug abuse; 6-foot-7-inch scoring machine Reggie “Russ” Williams; and center Tim Dawson. In early practices there were heated rivalries, with Bogues and Williams, who grew up as teammates for the nearby Lafayette Recreation Center, on one side and Wingate, who was from the crosstown Cecil Kirk Recreation Center, on the other. Wade wisely allowed the beefs to play out, and the boys evolved into a cohesive unit known for disciplined offensive patterns, a suffocating full-court press spearheaded by Muggsy and high-flying finishes.
But 1981-82 was a different season in the high school game. Dunbar, not considered by national and some local media as Baltimore’s premier team, faced stiff challenges. The team was scheduled to play a tournament in Harlem and other competitive games across the country, and had to face the nation’s No. 1 ranked school, Camden (N.J.) High, which starred 6-foot -8-inch Billy Thompson, widely regarded as the top prospect in the country. In 1981, recruiting, ranking, scouting and elite tournaments were becoming more national in nature. Highly rated teams traveled out of town to test their mettle early in the season or in preseason scrimmages. USA Today, a new publication, ranked the top 25 boys programs each week. Sports Illustrated devoted more attention to high school ball. The McDonald’s All-American Game near Washington brought in the top 12 U.S. players to face the D.C. area’s best.
Danois’s narrative takes readers aboard for spirited team bus rides and inside Wade’s grueling practices: He had the Poets carry bricks in each hand and wear sand-filled backpacks to increase their strength and stamina. The author also takes us inside the apartments of the ballplayers as family issues arise, and courtside for thrilling games against schools favored to defeat the upstart team with the tiny point guard. Former players recount the year, as do recreation leaders, opposing coaches, players’ relatives and Wade.
The result is a work that expertly re-creates not only a season but the mood of a growing sport. The Harlem trip opened the players’ eyes to a side of life even they had not witnessed. Danois reveals the care and support of the players’ parents and extended families, and how the boys inherited a work ethic and respect for others. On the street, grown-ups approached the players, telling them how much their accomplishments meant to a city struggling with hard times. Everywhere, the boys were buoyed to keep up the good work and put a positive face on “B’more.”
In Danois’s crisp telling, the Poets demonstrate their confidence and will on the court, and Bogues exerts his dominance. Though Dunbar had fine teams before Wade arrived, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and Detroit were considered the hotbeds of boys high school basketball. The boys of Dunbar forever changed that map. Their winning season also changed their lives. Bogues, Williams, Wingate and Lewis went on to college stardom and pro careers, though Lewis died of a heart attack as a Boston Celtics star at age 27. Their high school exploits set the stage for nationally televised games, recruiting websites, powerhouse urban and suburban AAU and travel teams, camps and tournaments sponsored by sneaker companies, and high school kids going directly to the NBA, until that league changed its policies concerning eligibility.
What unfortunately has not changed are the unemployment, dilapidated housing, inefficient public-transit system and police abuse that thrust Baltimore into recent national news.
By Alejandro Danois
Simon & Schuster.
260 pp. $26