Dunbar High: Brick House

By Tom Dunkel

Look to the heights that are worth your attaining
Keep your feet firm in the path to the goal
Toward noble deeds every effort be straining Worthy ambition is food for the soul!”
—From the poem “Emancipation”
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

You might expect a high school named after one of America’s first celebrated black writers to have a helluva literary magazine, consistently cranking out all-star sonneteers and blue-chip wordsmiths. Not quite. Dunbar High School in East Baltimore is known for basketball.
For winning basketball. Dynastic basketball.

The school’s gym—where “Poets Country” and “We Love Those Poets” has been painted in head-high letters on the wall behind the home-team bleachers—is festooned with banners reminiscent of the ribbony fuss found on a five-star general’s chest. Seventeen conference championships between 1956 and 1988. Four national championships in the previous 10 years. For all we know, Paul Laurence Dunbar couldn’t have whupped Emily Dickinson in a game of one-on-one, but his namesake Poets have had extraordinary success on the basketball court thanks to their “noble deeds” and “worthy ambition.”And a couple dozen bricks.

A laundry hamper inside the room is filled with bricks rather than the customary socks, jocks and t-shirts. Plain ol’ chimney-red, patio-perfect bricks. Each is wrapped with a few turns of duct tape; on some the tape also covers a tattered maroon-and-gold Dunbar practice jersey that has been added for extra padding. Ghetto dumbbells. Nobody uses those bricks anymore. But nobody dares to throw them out. They’re artifacts of a sort, tangible reminders of not-too-distant glory days. Former Dunbar basketball coach Bob Wade, who left the school in 1986 and is now superintendent of Baltimore’s Bureau of Recreation, calls those bricks his “motivator.” He used them to instill discipline: When one of his players misbehaved, the whole team ran up-and-backs before practice, bricks in hand. He used them as a conditioning tool. Doing jumping jacks with bricks makes for strong fingers and legs, which makes for strong jump shots.

In short, Bob Wade used his beloved bricks to help build what many people consider to be the best-ever high school basketball team. His 1982-83 Poets stormed to a 31-0 record and were crowned the No. 1 team in the country by USA Today. That roster boasted three future NBA players: Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams and the late Reggie Lewis. Factor in the 1981-82 Dunbar team that went 29-0, and you’ve got an unbelievable winning streak, plus a fourth NBA player, then-senior David Wingate, who started at guard alongside Bogues.

Just how good were those teams? Pick a yardstick. The Poets drew as many as 5,000 fans to games; scalpers were said to have gotten as much as $100 for the hottest tickets. Despite playing top schools and tournaments all over the country, Dunbar had only one close call during that 59-game run: a five-point squeaker over New York City’s Martin Luther King High School. Most victories were 30-point-plus laughers.

In addition, those three aforementioned players from the class of ’82-83 were all ultimately selected in the first round of the ’87 NBA Draft. Williams was the fourth overall pick and Muggsy went No. 12. When Lewis became the dark-horse choice at No. 22, Bob Wade’s wife phoned him at work to deliver the news of that unprecedented trifecta. “She said, ‘Are you sitting down or standing up?’” Wade recalls. “She said, ‘Reggie Lewis was just drafted by the Celtics.’ I said, ‘HO-O-O-LY shit!’”

Just how talent-rich were those teams? Reggie Lewis, who would become Northeastern University’s fourth-leading career scorer with 2,709 points and an NBA All-Star, couldn’t crack Dunbar’s starting five. He saw mostly garbage time backing up Williams. “How the hell the coach of Northeastern knew Reggie Lewis had the talent he did is beyond me,” says Tim Dawson, the starting center on the ’81 and ’82 squads. “Because Reggie Lewis never really played.”
Herman Harried, who also came off the bench, played four years in Syracuse and is now tearing up the Budweiser League in England, occasionally earning player-of-the-month honors (and presumably a few cold ones). Staff Sergeant Darryl Wood, who played firefly at Virginia State before enlisting in the Marines, was captain of the 1982 Dunbar team. But he didn’t start either. “We carried 15 players,” notes Wood, “and I’d say at least 12 of us had Division 1 ability.”

No wonder those back-to-back teams loom so large in Dunbar’s collective psyche. All the school’s other championship teams are acknowledged with beach blanket-size banners at one end of the gym. At the opposite end hang two humongous banners commemorating 1981 and 1982, both as big as a parking space and both listing every team member. The current crop of Poets literally look up to that storied past. “It gives them hope,” says Dunbar AD Gail Robinson. “Sometimes I think it gives them too much hope.”

Indeed. The odds of such NBA lightning again striking the same high school team—not some parochial or prep school hoops factory, but a public high school—is infinitesimally small. Back then, even Wade and company didn’t quite comprehend what they had. They knew they were good. They had no idea they were bordering on the unforgettable. “We just wanted to go out and play basketball,” says Reggie Williams. “We was in high school havin’ fun.”
“I couldn’t really value what we had until I went off to college,” says Dawson. “That’s when it kind of hit me and you realize, Man, those guys that you were playin’ with, you had pure thoroughbreds everywhere you looked.”

If the ’82 team had a weakness, it existed only on paper: There was no certifiable big man in the middle. Dawson played center at 6-5, but he was a leaper and formidable shot blocker. As for the perimeter game, Reggie Williams was a drop-dead outside shooter (and the USA Today Player of the Year after hitting 57 percent from the floor and averaging 25.3 ppg), as were the two starting underclassmen: junior forward Mike Brown, who played college ball at Clemson, and junior shooting guard Keith James, who played for UNLV.

Then there was Bogues, dubbed “Short Man” by his teammates. He was voted Dunbar’s MVP. Wade credits him with being Dunbar’s “catalyst,” the cook who stirred the pot. Muggsy water-bugged his way to the basket on unstoppable drives. Muggsy fastened himself to opposing point guards like a leech. Muggsy flicked blind passes. Muggsy regularly stole the ball, as well as the show, with his lizard-tongue quickness.

Put it all together and whattaya got? As Sam Davis, local sports editor of The Baltimore Sun, puts it: “You needed two balls out there for all the kinds of talent they had.”

From such a deep bag of accomplishment, different people will draw different memories. Dawson remembers one steamroller win: “We beat the crap out of those guys like 120-something to 20-something.” Darryl Wood remembers a game against Baltimore’s Walbrook High where “we didn’t miss a field goal in the first half.”

Everyone seems to remember a wild confrontation on the road against New Jersey’s Camden High during the ’81 season. Camden was no patsy. They were vying for the No. 1 national ranking and hadn’t lost a home game in some 15 years. They had two Louisville-bound stars in Billy Thompson and Kevin Walls. When the starting lineups were introduced, the Camden players and fans cackled with delight at the sight of the 5-3 Bogues. “I said, Short Man, you OK?” says Wade. “He said, ‘I’m fine, Mr. Wade. That doesn’t bother me, ’cuz when this is over, we’re gonna have the last laugh.’”

After the game, Short Man could walk tall and laugh loud. Walls posted up Muggsy inside his first two times down the court on offense and scored two easy buckets. Then the leech sucked him dry. Dunbar took a 33-point lead into the locker room at halftime before slacking off and winning by a mere 29. At the buzzer, the Camden faithful were not amused. “They were trying to turn the bus over,” says Wingate. “They had to call the police and everything. They were throwin’ rocks and stuff at the bus.”

The riot squad didn’t usually need to be called. Teams were more apt to be awestruck after getting thumped by Dunbar. Stu Vetter knows quality basketball when he sees it. He coached against Alonzo Mourning and Len Bias when they were in high school. He knocked heads with St. Anthony’s of Jersey City in the Bobby Hurley-Terry Dehere era. In 1982, Vetter was coaching Virginia’s Flint Hill HS when he had the simultaneous pleasure and misfortune of encountering Dunbar on an “on” night. Flint Hill was rated in the Top 25 nationally. Five Flint Hill players later went on to D1 programs. To accommodate the overflow crowd, the dream matchup was held at Morgan State College. It should have been held at a sausage factory. Flint Hill got ground up big-time.

“We would have had to play a miraculous game to have won. But it was a great experience,” says Vetter, who adds that Bogues was a more dominant presence on a high school court than either Mourning or Bias. “Even looking back, I cannot think of a better team that I have seen or played against.”

Sam Davis, who covered that Flint Hill game for The Baltimore Sun, wouldn’t challenge that assessment. “They took that team apart like they were nothing,” he said. “After watching that game, I was convinced that what I was seeing was something extremely special.”

The 1994 season hardly qualifies as a rebuilding year. The Poets’ 6-8 forward Norman Nolan signed early to attend the University of Virginia. Lanky 6-8 center Rodney Elliot is sifting through a stack of scholarship offers. Nolan and Elliot lead a 15-3 team, ranked 13th in the country, onto the court against Douglas High. Nobody is expecting a nail biter. Consequently, only about 200 fans are on hand. The cheerleaders don’t even bother making an appearance. The visitors’ section has vacant seats and a depressing air about it; kind of like a Mexican restaurant with a reputation for food poisoning.

Comfortably ensconced in the bleachers are three middle-aged guys: Ray, Andy and Paul. Diehards. Ray Short is president of the Poets Followers, a satin-jacket-clad booster club that tags along with the Dunbar basketball team wherever it goes, including tournament swings to Hawaii. Andy, a Dunbar loyalist since the ’50s, saw every one of those ’82 and ’83 games; he says he’s only missed about 10 games in the last 12 years. Back when the Bullets were based in Baltimore, their group sales office used to court Poets Followers, hoping to get more business for their NBA games. No dice. “The Poets were more fun to watch,” declared Short.

And the Poets were never more fun to watch than when Bogues, Williams, Wingate and Lewis held court. Basketball is still good at Dunbar, but it’s not the same. Poets Followers spot subtle signs of erosion. In fact, they’re on public display this afternoon: A Dunbar guard’s shirt sticks out of his shorts; a Douglas player basket-hangs and gets an uncontested layup. Sloppy is a kind word, and not a word one ever associates with that 1982 team.
“You gotta understand,” says Short, harkening back to ’82, “that team was number one in a lot of ways. They were good kids. They knew what it meant to be number one. They weren’t just a good team. They worked hard.”

Bob Wade was a notorious taskmaster. A former Dunbar football and basketball player who had a five-year fling in the NFL as a defensive back, he returned to his alma mater in 1975 to take over the basketball reigns from his old coach, Bill “Sugar” Cain, the man revered for launching Dunbar’s winning tradition. Wade was also hired to coach football. The football season would end Friday, basketball season would begin Saturday at 7 am sharp. Rules were immediately laid down. No clowning before practice—work on your skills. No headphones on the team bus—read the newspaper or a schoolbook. The team exits the locker room after games together. The team goes to study hall before practice together. The team does penalty drills together.

Wade once nabbed two of his boys cutting class. He put 20 minutes up on the scoreboard clock before practice, got out the bricks, and told everybody to pick ’em up and start running. More than a decade later, he still won’t finger who he caught playing hookey: “It’s an in-house thing. It’s a family thing.”
David Wingate, however, willfully confesses to having violated one Wade commandment: Thou shalt dish off to the lead man. He was dribbling down court in a game on a fast break accompanied by a teammate who was “probably a step in front” when he elected to go to the hoop himself. Bad decision. Wade told him how bad in no uncertain terms.

“At the end of the half, man, he was so mad he grabbed me by my shorts, in front of everybody,” says Wingate. “He pulled me and he was fussin’ at me: ‘Hey, if somebody’s in front of you, I don’t care if it’s an inch, you’re passin’ the ball!’ Right then, you don’t want to hear it, but as you get older, you’ll be like, ‘Damn, that’s true what he was saying.’”

Those selfless messages got repeated over and over at practice. Wingate insists Dunbar practices were harder than games. They were definitely longer. Practice started at 4 and went…until the team got things right. “Sometimes they’d practice till 10:30, 11 at night,” says Andy, the Poets Follower. “I used to stop in and watch ’em practice, then go home and eat dinner and come back.”

It’s not that way now. Different coach. Different kids. Different time. Andy’s buddy Ray Short says that the 1982 team was the toughest ever assembled, mentally as well as physically. Most every Dunbar observer concurs. Sam Davis refers to the “killer instinct” that set that club apart. Start to finish, they never eased up on the accelerator.

Ray Short gazes wistfully down upon the Dunbar basketball court. The Poets circa 1994 are playing patty-cake with a noticeably inferior Douglas team. Even though a nine-point lead will balloon to 29 by the end of the game, Ray’s feeling pangs of nostalgia. “That’s one thing about a Bob Wade team,” he says. “They didn’t play down to the competition. If Little Sisters of the Poor showed up, they got beat.”

“Short Man? You can’t win a game, man.”

Coaches may stop coaching, but they never stop razzing their players. It is a lifelong privilege, and Bob Wade exercises his right regularly. He was sitting in his office when he got the urge to phone Muggsy Bogues and rib him about the Hornets’ bumpy fortunes. The team is punch-drunk from injuries. Now Bogues may need to have some fine-tuning done on his right knee after the season.

“They talkin’ about cutting on you?” asks Wade. “That’s the first time you been hurt like that, right?” Pause, then laughter. “That’s ’cause you don’t run with the bricks, man!”

There is no Dunbar memorabilia on display in Wade’s office, unless you count the two rings on his fingers: one from ’82-83, another from the national championship in ’84-85. Wade says he has a cardboard box of Poets newspaper clippings at home but has never gotten around to sticking them in a scrapbook.

Pity, because Wade played much more than a supporting role as drill instructor during the golden years. True, extenuating circumstances affect this particular basketball equation. Baltimore has a strong network of rec centers that serve almost as an athletic Head Start program for kids. Lafayette Park, Madison Square and Cecil-Kirk are among the top spawning grounds. (“We had a winning tradition there and you take that winning tradition to high school,” says Wingate, a Cecil-Kirk alumnus.) Furthermore, the city has a magnet system of specialized schools, and students can cross neighborhood boundaries at will. Dunbar, for example, is known for its health-related curriculum. But who believes Muggsy Bogues went there to pursue a career as a nurse? Critics say Dunbar and other basketball powerhouses recruit players on the sly. Wade says success simply breeds success.

Bob Wade is built like a bodyguard, not a coach. But he knows the game and admits that, contrary to what some folks think, coaching at Dunbar is more than making sure there’s air in the balls. He worked his kids hard on how to counter the four-corner, circle-the-wagons offense that opponents so often employed. Since schools don’t have the luxury of scouting reports and film, Wade believes it’s crucial to play “hard-nosed” defense. That means no free ride to halfcourt; always challenge the dribble. Bogues badgered point guards unmercifully. Some became so unglued they might as well have been trying to dribble with BBQ mitts on their hands.

“They may have been a little ahead of their time, whether they were doing it on purpose or by mistake,” says The Baltimore Sun’s Davis. “You see a lot of teams now, they will hound the point guard because they feel the team has only one good ballhandler. Muggsy did that every game.”

One thing Wade tried to resist was the temptation to over-coach. Admittedly, that temptation is a lot less seductive when your 15th player could start on most other high school teams. Nonetheless, he kept things simple. Strong D. A few set plays. Then let the thoroughbreds run.

“We’d come and set and try the first one or two options,” he explains. “If it didn’t go, then all it was was screening and movement of the basketball. That’s what we did. I said, If you have a shot, don’t be bashful. Take your shot. But these are the things I want covered: I want the weak side of the basket covered, fight for someone being in front of the basket, and I want someone to protect against the break. I said if those things don’t happen, you got a problem with me.”

That is to say a “problem” whose solutions would require a brick. Similarly, Wade nipped complacency in the bud by scrawling a number—invariably an odd one, say, 47—on the locker room chalkboard before every game. If his players didn’t hold the opposition to that amount, they had another “problem” to sweat.

The one area Wade wasn’t reluctant to over-coach was his players’ personal lives. His own father had abandoned his family when he was 4 years old. He knows the torn fabric of urban existence. Wade says he “beamed like a father” when his players graduated and derived his greatest satisfaction from lining up scholarships for them. He asked everyone to check in by phone weekly once they drifted off to college.

They are still checking in. Reggie Williams and his family stop by the house for summer cookouts. Tim Dawson, now an assistant school principal in Miami, calls whenever he visits relatives in Baltimore. Herman Harried recently dashed off a letter from England. “When I looked in the mirror this morning,” wrote Harried, fondly reminiscing about a nasty elbow taken under the boards years ago, “I looked at the scar I received against Calvert Hall. Yes, the same one you told everyone I cried about.”

“I was probably one of the few kids on that team that came from a family where we had both parents,” says Dawson. “Coach Wade was a mother, and he was a father. He was a teacher, he was a coach and a brother to all those guys. Mr. Wade, in my opinion, was the savior that kept ’em off the street, that kept ’em from going astray.”

Time passes. Gifted and graceful high school basketball players grow up to be accountants, insurance salesmen, and Marines. An undersized center goes to graduate school, becomes a father. David Wingate weathers a party-boy reputation and two sticky civil suits involving underage women. Reggie Lewis’s heart betrays him when his life is in full flower. Muggsy Bogues’ father does time for armed robbery and dies three days after Lewis’s funeral.
And a coach stops coaching.

Bob Wade left Dunbar in the fall of 1986 for the greener pastures of the University of Maryland, where coach Lefty Driesell had just been dumped, accused of broadly interpreting the NCAA rule book. A shotgun marriage made in basketball hell. The Terrapin athletic department was in turmoil. Driesell partisans were eager to undermine any newcomer. Some players wanted out. Wade, in turn, had no experience recruiting athletes or reading the fine print of NCAA regulations; had never had to deal with hyperactive alumni or sportswriters. Nor did he exactly welcome advice on how to do so. A Washington Post columnist observed that Coach Wade “wore a shell as thick and forbidding as a terrapin itself.”

After three years, Wade resigned under pressure. Not due to an uncharacteristic sub-.500 record but because of another NCAA dustup, this time involving transportation improperly provided to basketball recruits and Maryland players who received courtesy cars and frequent flyer points. Sounds like small potatoes, but the NCAA eventually hit Maryland with three years probation, plus temporary bans on televised games and postseason play. University officials accused Wade of not coming clean on the infractions and an attempted cover-up. Wade, the first black coach in ACC history, detected a faint odor of racism; as unmistakable in his mind as the “nigger” catcalls he heard at games or the death threats hissed into his phone.

These days, Wade’s basketball life is pretty much limited to running the Mayor’s Holiday Tournament every Christmastime. It’s open to children and adults, and attracts about 100 teams, some stocked with players he coached at Dunbar. Wade has no second thoughts about making that ill-fated leap to Maryland. He squeezed the sponge dry at the high school level. He had the Nike endorsement, won local and national titles, collected enough trophies and plaques. He had a 272-24 career record and was named Coach of the Year by USA Today.

“No,” vows Wade. “I would not return to the high school level.”

Won’t even sneak back for a visit, thank you. Wade hasn’t been to a Dunbar game in two years. Claims he’s “too busy.” Maybe, but he also heard reports of showboat dunks and untamed shirt tails. Still, he thinks someday, another once-in-a-lifetime team will come along. Who knows? Maybe Michael Jordan’s wife will give birth to quintuplets.

Wade is young enough to come back and coach that whippersnapper club himself. He is 48. Too young, according to Reggie Williams, to be walking around without a whistle on his neck. “Even if you’re not winning, you still need somebody like that to get on the kids, to make sure, you know, that basketball’s not your whole life. I don’t think that’s going on a lot these days.”

Bob Wade is boycotting Dunbar. Reggie Williams hasn’t been free to catch a game since his freshman year at Georgetown.

Tim Dawson, however, makes a point of periodically stopping by, even just to glimpse an empty gym. “Whenever I go back to Baltimore,” says Dawson, “I always make a trip—I call it my pilgrimage—back to Dunbar. It’s just something you feel when you walk into that gymnasium. It’s not so much the banners that are there. It’s all the sweat and blood that you left behind on that court. It always kind of hits me and brings just a little tear to my eye.”