BALTIMORE — The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball. It’s hard to put down this book. Alejandro Danois, a native of Brooklyn, New York has curated a well-written account of the Dunbar Poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s nationally acclaimed basketball team.
“Boys of Dunbar” is more than a book about basketball. At a deeper level, it’s an inspiring tale about the magnificence of the human spirit played out in the lives of young people on and off the court. For Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Gary Graham, David “Gate” Wingate, Reggie “Russ” Willams, Reggie “Truck” Lewis and Tim Dawson, and nine other darn good players, attending Dunbar and playing basketball taught them how to cope with the struggles they faced growing up in the crime-ridden public housing communities. They learned how to survive difficult, challenging and often, dangerous times.
At center stage in their story is Dunbar’s 1981-82 (29-0), undefeated basketball season. The team was led by the stellar 5’3” point guard Muggsy. The head coach, revered as a father figure among members of the team, was Bob Wade. Prior to taking the reigns, he served as assistant coach at Dunbar to the incomparable, late William “Sugar” Cain, who passed the torch after 32 successful years.
Wade, also an ex-NFL cornerback, comes across in the book as a mix of a brilliant basketball strategist and a hard-as-nails U.S. Marine Corp drill instructor. Wade once played under NFL’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, (then, with the “Washington Redskins”). So, it’s evident where some of that tough guy, take-another-lap-around-the-field persona came from.
The 1980-81 season ended on a bummer note for the Poets. They lost to the Calvert Hall Cardinals, coached by the Catholic League legend, Mark Amatucci, (94-91), at the Towson Center before a capacity audience. The game went into triple overtime. The Poets were “actually winning by nine points with less than two minutes to play in regulation,” writes Danois.
After that bitter defeat, Wade and his team, were committed to the 81-82 season— not only for the win, but to also extract some sweet revenge on the “boy-ohs” from Towson, who wore the cardinal and gold uniforms. From the first practice session—incidentally they usually lasted about four hours— Wade pushed hard to create a mindset of victory, no matter how high the price.
Danois takes readers through this phenomenal season game by game. Noting, poignantly at times, what was going on inside the sometimes difficult family lives of the players. His words ring with the pain-filled truth of how these youth soldiered forward despite the roadblocks and the setbacks their families faced.
Lurking on the perimeter of this story are the ubiquitous drug dealers who are responsible for the havoc and ravaging of inner city neighborhoods. The 81-82 Dunbar carried with them the memory of what happened to one of the school’s’ greatest basketball stars, Allen “Skip” Wise, who was “the man” in the early ‘70s. Wise only lasted one year at the University of Clemson, turned pro and then became a serious drug user. He also served time for drug related offenses.
Wade’s players knew that this could be their fate too, if they hung around with the “wrong characters.”
Besides drugs, Danois also mentions another curse that seriously impacted all the blue-collar, neighborhoods in the city in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and particularly in black East Baltimore—deindustrialization.
During this era, globalists pushed through trade agreements, like NAFTA, that robbed the U.S. of many of its steel mills, shipyards and booming manufacturing plants, such as the Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant.
There are a host of unsung heroes in the communities around Dunbar High that also shaped the lives of the players and other students at the school.
One of them is Leon Howard. He ran the Lafayette Projects’ Recreation Center. He was Muggsy’s first mentor.
Another hero was the long time principal of Dunbar, the late Julia B. Woodland. She was a first class motivator, who insisted on the surrounding communities being an “integral part of the school community.”
Does Wade’s Dunbar team get its revenge on Calvert Hall in the end?
You will have to read the book to get the answer to that one. In addition, Danois also addresses how the lives of the members of the team played out post Dunbar, including perhaps, the “eighth wonder of the world”— Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues.
Summing up, Alejandro Danois has written a gem of a sports story. It belongs in the library of all lovers of high school athletics. Danois definitely takes home a win for this one.
Bill Hughes is the author of “Baltimore Iconoclast.” His book is available at: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000076922/Baltimore-Iconoclast.aspx