— Upon entering the storied gymnasium at Dunbar (Baltimore)
, you immediately notice four quilt-sized banners hanging on the left corner of the wall.
Three of those banners commemorate Dunbar's national title teams (1982-83, 1984-85 and 1991-92). The fourth, an undefeated 28-0 season in 1981-82, shows when the foundation for Dunbar's 1980s dominance was set.
For the latest and most recent group of Poets playing basketball, the banners serve as a reminder that they're part of a long-lasting legacy in Baltimore City. High school basketball has historically been a huge attraction here, considering the NBA's Baltimore Bullets only lasted from 1944-54 before moving to Washington, D.C.
The state's best college basketball program, the University of Maryland, is located in College Park, which isn't convenient for basketball fans in Charm City. But there's rarely been a shortage of young basketball talent, making the notable prep teams entertaining to watch.
Dunbar coach Cyrus Jones grew up in Baltimore and played for the Poets' varsity squad from 1989-92. As he got older, Jones would attend Dunbar basketball games, where the likes of Sam Cassell, Karl "Boobie" James and Hensley Parks became stars.
"It was the best basketball in the city," Jones said. The brick house that Wade built
A lot of people point to the 1982-83 Dunbar team as the best high school team to ever take a floor in basketball history. The squad possessed three future 1987 NBA first round draft picks in Reggie Williams (fourth overall), Muggsy Bogues (12th overall) and Reggie Lewis (22nd overall). To prove the point of this talent-rich unit, Lewis was the sixth man on that 1982-83 team.
"I can't imagine any other basketball team assembled like the one we had," Bogues said.
The previous year's team in 1981-82 finished 28-0 and won a city championship. But it was the 1982-83 team that achieved the national notoriety of earning Dunbar's first national title, an honor USA Today bestowed upon the program.
Games weren't typically close. In a much-anticipated contest on the road against Camden (N.J.), Dunbar won by 29. Poets home games were the hottest ticket in town, as contests generally sold out and attracted thousands.
Bob Wade coached those nationally recognized teams. Wade grew up in the city and played for Dunbar under legendary coach William "Sugar" Cain, who won 485 games in 32 years, including his last 35 in a row. Described as a tough disciplinarian, Wade presided over those powerhouse Poets teams that worked well within the confines of the team concept, despite possessing such incredible individual talent.
"Teams could not press us because of the ballhandling skills of Muggsy, Reggie Williams, David Wingate (former NBA player who played on the 1981-82 team) and Gary Graham (also on the 1981-82 team)," Wade said. "That was a very special group."
Dunbar's tallest player on the 1982-83 team was Tim Dawson at 6-foot-5. But Wade said Dawson was an excellent rebounder who could compete on the boards with the bigger and longer players the Poets competed against.
Wade also attributed the team's success late in games to the way the team trained. Practices were tough. Bogues described them as "brutal." The team would begin practicing at 3:30 and sometimes wouldn't end until 8 p.m.
"(Wade) was all about details, making sure we were in the best-case scenario, had discipline and were sharp," Bogues said. "The only way to do that was by spending a lot of time with one another."
But Dunbar, located in a low-economic area of Baltimore, didn't have a weight room to assist with strength and endurance. So Wade came up with an idea to supplement weight training.
Neighborhoods in the area were being renovated and torn down, with cast-away bricks lying around the construction sites. Wade and Dunbar's managers walked with laundry baskets down to the site and collected the thrown-away bricks. When they returned, the managers wrapped old, cut-up Dunbar baseball jerseys around each brick, fastening the makeshift padding with tape.
The Poets would do shadow drills, slide drills, sprints and conditioning exercises while carrying those bricks.
"What we found is it helped those kids late in the third and fourth quarter, when you've got to reach down and play defense, get that special rebound and come up with the big block," Wade said. "It really helped them play with their hands up, strengthened their upper body and helped with endurance."
A lot of Wade's former players have since become coaches. After Bogues' 14-year NBA career, he became coach of the WNBA's Charlotte Sting before taking over the boys basketball team at United Faith Christian Academy (Charlotte, N.C.)
. Following his own NBA career, Williams now coaches at Archbishop Carroll (Washington, D.C.)
. Other former Dunbar players, including Herman "Tree" Harried (Lake Clifton of Baltimore
) and Wade's son Daryl Wade (City College - Baltimore) have also become high school basketball coaches.
The Wade disciples all implement Wade's method of using bricks with endurance training for their teams.
"It helps them go after that ball when the fourth quarter comes," Bogues said.
Dunbar after Wade
In 1986, Wade left Dunbar, the school he spent a much of his life with, and accepted an offer to take over the University of Maryland's basketball program.
Replacing Wade at Dunbar was Pete Pompey, who played basketball at Frederick Douglass (Baltimore) and previously coached at Edmondson-Westside (Baltimore). There was some concern among the Dunbar alumni about hiring an outsider. But the move proved to be a success.
Pompey continued the Dunbar legacy, which was capped with a 29-0 national title season in 1991-92. That team featured Jones, who later played college basketball at West Virginia, Keith Booth, who starred at the University of Maryland and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and Donta Bright, who was a key contributor on the 1996 University of Massachusetts team that nearly knocked off Kentucky in the Final Four.
Dunbar earned every win it got during its 1991-92 title run. The Poets defeated Simon Gratz (Philadelphia), led by Rasheed Wallace, three times that year. It played in preseason tournaments in Pennsylvania, Hawaii and South Carolina before playing a midseason tournament in St. Louis.
The Poets defeated St. Joseph Notre Dame (Alameda, Calif.), which featured Jason Kidd. They also upended Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), which had former UNC star Jeff McInnis and former Virginia standout Curtis Staples.
"With the history of this school, it goes way back," Jones said. "A lot of people feel as if they beat Dunbar, they've accomplished something for the season."
But Dunbar's run as Baltimore's best would soon come to an end when the members of the Baltimore City Public Schools left the Maryland Scholastic Association (MSA) and joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) in 1993. With the MSA dissolving, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) was formed, which became the league for the private and Catholic schools in the state of Maryland.
The MIAA schools allow for players to live anywhere and attend the school as long as they're qualified academically. Thus, over time in the mid to late 1990s and 2000s, the private schools began attracting talent that would previously go to public schools such as Dunbar — a magnate school that allows students throughout the city to attend for a specialized health careers curriculum.
"All of the talent was flushed here," Jones said. "Now it's being spread out to the different schools within the area, others outside the area. Nothing's automatic anymore."
Wade cited Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay as an example. After spending two years at Eastern Tech (Essex, Md.), Gay transferred to Archbishop Spalding (Severn, Md.) before later attending college at the University of Connecticut.
"Dunbar's program fell as far as talent," Wade said. "But there's been a resurgence of talent there. Those kids are gravitating back to Dunbar because of Cyrus."New era
After Dunbar defeated Patterson (Baltimore), which features Baltimore's top player Aquille Carr, 64-55 on Jan. 13, the Baltimore Sun placed the Poets at No. 1 in its weekly rankings. Following the game, Jones said he couldn't remember the last time Dunbar was considered the city's best.
"We haven't been here in a long, long time," Jones said after the win. "We had a lot of alumni support which helped us. Hopefully, we'll be able to stay there."
Booth, now an assistant coach with Loyola's women's basketball program, attended the game to cheer on his alma mater. Baltimore Ravens receivers Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams (neither of which went to Dunbar) attended the game to see how Dunbar battled the city's top player in Carr.
But in this new era of Dunbar basketball, many of its players aren't growing up aware of the tradition that's taken place on the corner of Orleans Street and Central Avenue. Many don't know much about the storied basketball program until they choose to enroll and glance at the banners in the Poets' famed gymnasium.
Players come from all over the city, whereas most high school teams used to be associated with local recreation centers. Bogues said he and his friends knew they would attend Dunbar growing up. These days, that just doesn't happen. It's much like a miniature version of recruiting, where high school players in Baltimore choose which school best fits their needs for basketball and academics.
Senior point guard Donte Pretlow
didn't know much about Dunbar as a child. But he chose to attend the school as he deemed it the best opportunity for him to hone his craft.
"They teach you the history," Pretlow said. "You keep hearing 'Poet Pride.' Once you're around it more you start to understand it. You see it's real. It gives you a good feeling."
Past Dunbar teams were littered with top-tier collegiate talent. The players on this squad know there isn't one player with the kind of Division 1 talent the former teams in the 80s and 90s possessed. But since Jones came back to take over the varsity squad in 2007, the players have bought into a team concept to help defeat teams that arguably possess better individual skill.
"There are no stars," senior forward Evan Singletary
said. "If we don't play together we're not going to have the record we want to have."
But it's not like the Poets have been pushovers. Since joining the MPSSAA, the Poets have 13 state titles, and are the two-time defending Maryland Class 1A champions. After beginning the 2011-12 season 13-0 and achieving the city's top ranking, the Poets have since lost three games and are ranked No. 7 in the Baltimore Sun's latest poll, as of Feb. 14.
As the Poets prepare for a run at a third-consecutive state title and possible city crown, they're constantly reminded of the groundwork laid before them with just the tilt of a head. Championship banners cover two walls of the small gym, which has remained the same except for the installation of new bleachers.
With each step on the hardwood, the senior class is reminded of the history that's preceded them. Though the latest crops of basketball players have arrived unaware of the "Poet Pride" Pretlow spoke of, they leave the school with the appreciation of the tradition they've contributed to.
"I know when we get older that our kids and their kids are going to come into this gym and see our names up there," Singletary said, referring to the state title banners he and his teammates names are on. "We can tell our kids how Dunbar was."