A Charm City Classic
Poet Pride recollects one of America’s storied HS basketball programs.
When you think of cities that have produced some of the greatest basketball players to lace up a pair of sneakers, New York and Chicago seem to be at the forefront of the memory banks. But most overlooked is Baltimore, MD, a metropolis that has been a breeding ground of blue chip talent for nearly 50 years. A new basketball documentary, Poet Pride, looks to change this oversight once and for all by taking a look at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Located in the heart of East Baltimore, this famed institution has produced some of the greatest basketball players in the country; including local legends Allen “Skip” Wise, Kurk Lee and Donta Bright, and national superstars such as Sam Cassell, Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and the late Reggie Lewis.
Directed and produced by Dunbar graduates David Manigault, Robert Foster and former NFL player Tommy Polley, is a visual collage of Dunbar alumni sharing their fondest memories of a school and basketball program they love. Some on camera even compare their poet love to the feelings you would have for the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics, bearing their school colors of maroon and gold with pride. Founded in 1907 and named after one of the most influential poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Dunbar’s basketball prowess came to fruition in the 1960s under renowned coach William “Sugar” Cain. Graduates from this era still remember Coach Cain’s demand for discipline and respect, instilling in students a school pride that wouldn’t waver, even in the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement.
The 1970s would be the catalyst for Dunbar’s greatness, but the beginning of the decade would also put a temporary smear on the school’s image. In 1971, in a game against Baltimore catholic school rival Mount Saint Joseph, a riot broke out that ended up with several people being arrested, including Hall of Famer and Baltimore Bullet Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. The riot led to the configuration of the Baltimore Catholic League, as most schools refused to let their programs set foot on Dunbar’s soil. After receiving their punishment from the Maryland Scholastic Association for the riot, the school would have to play all of its games on the road. But under the direction of Coach Cain and led by the talents of Skip Wise, the Poets would go undefeated.
All of the interviews in the film seem to have one common thread: Skip Wise put Baltimore basketball on the map with his brilliant performance in 1973 against Maryland’s nationally-ranked DeMatha High School. Wise would score 39 points, including 22 points in the fourth quarter, on a squad led by legendary Coach Morgan Wootten and NBA great Adrian Dantley. Wise would go on to Clemson University and become the first freshman to win first team all-conference honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Drug-related problems would ultimately derail Wise’s professional career, but it never diminished the hardwood luminosity he brought to the Dunbar basketball program.
After the retirement of Coach Cain, who died in 1999 at the age of 80, the 1980s brought Coach Robert Wade and his formation of maybe the greatest basketball team in the history of high school basketball. Wade, a former NFL cornerback , went undefeated from 1981-1983 with a team that featured David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues and a sixth man in Reggie Lewis. Bogues, who at 5-3 was the shortest player to ever play in the NBA, recalls in the film when he was shot at the age of five in his neighborhood for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This presents the classic paradigm of basketball being a way out for most inner-city youths, especially in a city whose murder rate and drug trade has been the center of television shows such as HBO’s The Wire. But Poet Pride presents two sides of this story; for every success story such as Bogues, Sam Cassell and University of Maryland standout Keith Booth, there are players who never explored their potential by making dire decisions, such as Dunbar stars Charlie Hurt and Terrance “Scooter” Alexander, two men who served time in federal prison for drug-related offenses.
Then there’s Reggie Lewis, a Boston Celtics captain who collapsed during a 1993 playoff game that featured his former teammates Bogues and David Wingate playing for the Charlotte Hornets. Later that summer, Lewis died at the age of 27 during a practice game in Waltham, MA. Many feared that Lewis had met the same drug-infused fate as another Maryland-bred, Boston Celtic draft pick, Len Bias. But Lewis died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect that is considered one of the most common causes of death in young athletes. Lewis’ legacy not only resides on the hollowed ground of Celtic basketball lore, but his contribution to one of high school basketball’s greatest dynasties lives on forever.
The 1990s brought a change of direction for Dunbar basketball. Coach Wade would go to become the first African-American coach in the ACC by accepting a position at the University of Maryland. Wade’s replacement, Coach Pete Pompey-a ’91-92 USA Today Coach of the Year-would bring the school its last national championship that same year. With the implementation of Proposition 48, which requires a student-athlete to have at least a 2.0 GPA in high school, and after entering the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA), Dunbar went from being a national powerhouse to a state powerhouse. Even though the Poets have won 11 State Championships during their 16 years in the MPSSAA, the media recognition and nationwide grandeur has not compared to the days of old.
Several Dunbar players have seen their success carry over to the college level; such as University of Maryland assistant coach Keith Booth, and the NBA level, with Sam Cassell becoming a three-time title winner with the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics. Skip Wise now mentors young players in Baltimore, warning them not to make the same mistakes he made during his playing days. Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay, Baltimore products who didn’t go to Dunbar but have become NBA superstars, reflect in the documentary on the affect Dunbar Basketball has had on every generation to pick up a round ball in Charm City.
After all of the success and banners that the past and present players from Dunbar have accumulated, the most important victory these Poets have netted is the opportunity to share their sagas of tragedy and triumph with us all, through the medium of film.
Timothy Cooper is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. He has contributed to BlackBookMag.com, HipHopDX.com, BET.com, The Village Voice and The Huffington Post. He co-directed/produced a documentary on Baltimore hip-hop called Paused in Time (Myspace.com/ThankGodForHipHop).