I know it’s a cliche, but I found it hard to put down The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball. It’s not only well written by its Brooklyn-born author, Alejandro Danois, but captivating on a number of levels. It’s surely more than simply a book about the Dunbar Poets—a winning and acclaimed public high school basketball team—from the hard streets of East Baltimore. At a deeper level, it’s an inspiring tale about the magnificence of the human spirit played out in the lives of young people who had to learn to survive, struggling to do their best daily in the crime-ridden housing projects, in very difficult, challenging and often dangerous times.
Sports, basketball, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School helped to focus their lives. Their names: Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Gary Graham, David “Gate” Wingate, Reggie “Russ” Willams, Reggie “Truck” Lewis, and Tim Dawson, along with nine other darn good players, will long be associated with this celebrated team. But at center stage in their story is Dunbar’s 1981-1982 (29-0), undefeated basketball season. The team was led by its stellar, 5’3’’ point guard, Muggsy. Its head coach (and father figure) was Bob Wade. Wade had earlier learned his craft serving as an assistant coach at Dunbar under the incomparable, late William “Sugar” Cain, whose reign as head coach lasted 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 you can see where he may have inherited some of that tough guy, take-another-lap-around-the-field persona.
The 1980-1981 season ended on a bit of a bummer. They lost to my alma mater, 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 1981-1982 season—not only for it to be a winning one but to also extract some revenge on the boy-ohs from Towson, who wore the Cardinal & 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.
Author Danois take you game by important game through the season. He also tells you, at time, poignantly, what was going on inside the sometimes-difficult families lives of the players. It rings with the pain-filled truth. But, despite the roadblocks, the setbacks, the players (and their family supporters) soldiered onward.
Lurking on the perimeter of this story are the ubiquitous drug dealers who have been ravaging and causing havoc in the black neighborhoods. The 1981-1982 Dunbar team knew what had happened to one of the schools’ greatest basketball stars, Allen “Skip” Wise. He was “The Man” on its team in the early 1970s.
Wise only lasted one year at the U. 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 had seriously impacted on all the blue-collar neighborhoods in the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly in black East Baltimore—“deindustrialization.” The globalist schemers pushed through trade agreements like NAFTA that robbed our country of many of its steel mills, shipyards, and booming manufacturing plants, such as the Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant in South Baltimore. (To learn more, go to: http://economyincrisis.org)
After the breadwinner lost his job, Danois underscores, in some of the cases, “these teenage drug dealers became their family’s main wage earners.” As the years progress, he writes ominously, the drug dealers have become “younger and younger.”
Like in many stories of this kind, there are a host of unsung heroes. One of them is Leon Howard. He ran the Lafayette Projects’ Rec center. He was Muggsy’s first mentor. Another hero was the long time principal of Dunbar, the late Mrs. Julia B. Woodland. She was a first class motivator who insisted on the surrounding communities being an “integral part of the school community.”
I’m not going to tell you if Wade’s Dunbar team got its revenge on Calvert Hall—you’ll have to read the book to get the answer to that one. He does write, however, about each of the team’s players and how they fared after Dunbar, including that “eighth wonder of the world”—Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues. Alejandro Danois has written a gem of a sports story. It belongs in the library of all lovers of high school athletics. Bottom line—The Boys of Dunbar is a winner!
Bill Hughes is a Baltimore-based author, actor, and photojournalist.