1980s Po­ets were this writer’s muse

New book ex­plores Dun­bar bas­ket­ball dur­ing the era of its leg­endary dom­i­nance

Baltimore Sun - - VARSITY - By Childs Walker childs.walker@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/childswalker

Ale­jan­dro Danois’ fas­ci­na­tion with Dun­bar bas­ket­ball be­gan far from Bal­ti­more, on the con­crete courts out­side his fam­ily’s apart­ment build­ing in Brook­lyn, N.Y.

Danois was a hoops-ob­sessed kid con­vinced that the Big Ap­ple de­served the first and last word on the sport’s great­est teams and play­ers. He was en­gaged in a typ­i­cal play­ground de­bate when an older neigh­bor, who’d been quite a player him­self, piped up to say, “New York is the king of bas­ket­ball, but the best team I ever saw is from Bal­ti­more.” Blas­phemy, he thought. But from that day on, the 1981-82 Po­ets — led by fu­ture pros David Wingate, Reg­gie Wil­liams, Reg­gie Lewis and a Lil­liputian point guard the neigh­bor re­ferred to as Bug­gsy — lived in Danois’ imag­i­na­tion. His in­ter­est only in­ten­si­fied when he watched the 5-foot-3 Ty­rone “Mug­gsy” Bogues (Bug­gsy!) drive larger play­ers to mad­ness as the im­prob­a­ble star of the Wake For­est De­mon Dea­cons.

“I’m putting the pieces to­gether and think­ing: ‘What was go­ing on at Dun­bar?’ ” he re­called.

Twenty years later, Danois, then a free­lance writer, de­cided to pitch a maga-

Hear it on­line

Lis­ten to Dan Rodricks speak with Ale­jan­dro Danois about “The Boys of Dun­bar” on his Roughly Speak­ing pod­cast at zine piece about that in­com­pa­ra­ble Dun­bar team. No, an ed­i­tor told him. He should write a book.

So he did. And “The Boys of Dun­bar,” re­leased ear­lier this month, is the re­sult. Danois, who’ll ap­pear today at the Na­tional Book Fes­ti­val in Wash­ing­ton, has also con­trib­uted to a documentary on the Po­ets, ex­pected to air as part of ESPN’s ac­claimed “30 for 30” se­ries.

“My whole fas­ci­na­tion was how great th­ese guys were as bas­ket­ball play­ers,” said Danois, who now lives in Bal­ti­more. “But the more time I spent go­ing through the ar­chives at the Pratt Li­brary, the more I re­al­ized this wasn’t just a bas­ket­ball story.”

It was, he dis­cov­ered, the story of a com­mu­nity grap­pling with the dis­ap­pear­ance of its in­dus­trial econ­omy and epi­demics of drug use, and of an in­sti­tu­tion that brought peo­ple joy in the midst of all that pain.

“Dun­bar was like the cen­ter­piece of the com­mu­nity,” said Bob Wade, who coached the Po­ets.

That team, stocked with play­ers who’d known each other since they were chil­dren, prob­a­bly could not ex­ist in this era, when top high school play­ers are of­ten more loyal to shoe com­pa­nies than to their schools.

“This was a team of guys who grew up to­gether,” Danois said. “They didn’t know they were go­ing to go on to do this.”

If the book has two main char­ac­ters, they are Bogues, the most un­usual player, and Wade, the coach who brought the dy­nasty to­gether.

Danois knew how spe­cial Bogues was go­ing in, but he came away from the project with deep ad­mi­ra­tion for Wade, whom he be­lieves is un­justly re­mem­bered for his rocky three-year ten­ure as head coach at Mary­land.

Wade had known some of the play­ers’ fam­i­lies since be­fore they were born, and he be­came a fa­ther fig­ure to many. Wil­liams, for ex­am­ple, slept at Wade’s house on the week­end so he could re­ceive tu­tor­ing from an ac­coun­tant who lived next door.

“They slept in our home, next to my chil­dren, and ate at our table,” Wade re­called. “To me, it was like fam­ily.”

He was the one who kept them on track and helped them sort through the muck of col­lege re­cruit­ing. And re­cruiters surely did swarm to East Bal­ti­more, be­cause Wade col­lected a mass of tal­ent un­matched in the city be­fore or since.

Be­yond Bogues, who could drib­ble any­where he wanted and pick any­one’s pocket, Wil­liams was grow­ing into the No. 1 high school prospect in the coun­try and Wingate was a de­fen­sive stop­per and fe­ro­cious dunker from the wing. Gary Gra­ham, who went on to play for Jerry Tarka­nian at Ne­vada-Las Ve­gas, was Bogues’ back­court mate and the best de­fen­sive guard in the city. The Po­ets were so loaded that Lewis, a fu­ture NBA All-Star be­fore his death from a heart ail­ment, came off the bench.

The play­ers knew they had some­thing spe­cial, Wade said, and po­liced each other to make sure the team reached its po­ten­tial.

“They cared about one an­other and they held each other to the let­ter,” he re­mem­bered. “They knew that if one of them wasn’t in class, it hurt the team. And they all suc­ceeded to­gether.”

Dun­bar went largely un­chal­lenged, though as Danois de­tails, Wade’s crew fought for top billing with Mark Amatucci’s Calvert Hall team, which was ranked higher to start the sea­son. The Dun­bar play­ers never got their wish to set­tle the de­bate with the Car­di­nals on the court.

But given their later col­lege and pro suc­cess, they’ve gone down as the greater team.

When Danois con­tacted the key play­ers, they agreed the time was right to tell their story to a wider au­di­ence. Wade cher­ished do­ing group in­ter­views with his for­mer play­ers, and he noted that when Bogues’ sis­ter died last year, Dun­bar team­mates trav­eled from far and wide to grieve with their for­mer point guard.

“To a man,” Danois said, “they will tell you that col­lege and the NBA were great, but their most cher­ished ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing bas­ket­ball was wear­ing that Dun­bar ma­roon and gold.”

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