1980s Poets were this writer’s muse
New book explores Dunbar basketball during the era of its legendary dominance
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-
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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.”