It was summertime in New York City in the early 1980s, and Alejandro Danois was talking hoops alongside some basketball courts the way 12-year-old kids have been doing since the advent of professional sports.
“One day we were out there talking junk about how New York City is the best basketball city because we’ve got these young players like Pearl Washington and Chris Mullin and Walter Berry,” said Danois, now the editor-in-chief of The Shadow League and a freelance sports journalist.
“An older guy who lived in my building pulled me aside and said, ‘Yeah, New York is the king of basketball, but the greatest team I ever saw was this high school team from Baltimore named Dunbar.’ Obviously we were fascinated and wanted to hear about this team. It turns out he had seen them play at the Harlem Holiday Classic in 1981, and he’s like, ‘Dude, everybody on the bench is going Division I.’”
It got better, though: “They’ve got the top high school player in the country, but he’s not even the best player on his own team.”
“We’re like, ‘Wait a minute, this kid’s the No. 1 player in the country?’” Danois recalled. “He told us about Reggie Williams. Six-foot-eight, nothing on the basketball court that this kid can’t do. He’s only a junior, but he’s incredible.”
Danois was flummoxed. This didn’t make any sense.
“He’s not even the best player on his own team?” he asked.
“Exactly,” the older kid responded.
“Well then, who’s their best player?”
“You guys aren’t going to believe me.”
“C’mon man, who’s the guy?”
The suspense was killing them.
“It’s a five-foot midget named Buggsy.”
A couple of years later, Danois was watching Wake Forest play basketball on the relatively newly-formed ESPN when that playground conversation came rushing back to him.
“I see this 5’3 point guard named Muggsy Bogues,” Danois said. “I never had witnessed anything like that on the basketball court. A guy who could dominate a game without scoring a point. He was a great leader, a facilitator, a defender. He was just an uncanny type of talent, and that made me remember that this was the guy I had heard about.”
From there, he started to put the pieces together about where Bogues came from and how special that early ‘80s Dunbar Poets team really was.
“At the time, I was at a prep school in New England and there was a kid named Reggie Lewis who was tearing things up at Northeastern, coached by Jim Calhoun, and the story was that this guy couldn’t start for his own high school team,” he said. “I’d go watch him play, and I also knew about Reggie Williams and David Wingate at Georgetown. Gary Graham was at UNLV, and I put all the pieces together that these guys were all on that same high school team that I’d heard about all those years ago.”
That team was the 1981-82 Dunbar Poets, a homegrown group of insanely talented high school kids hailing from Baltimore. The team featured Bogues, Williams and Lewis, all of whom were taken during the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft, as well as David Wingate (selected in the second round the year before) and Gary Graham (a former UNLV standout drafted in the sixth round in 1987).
Danois, fascinated by a prep group that saw five guys get drafted and four actually play meaningful minutes in the NBA, had wanted to write a book about the greatest high school basketball team in American history for years.
Now, in the fall of 2016, his book, “The Boys of Dunbar,” finally has been released, making the full story of those players and their enigmatic head coach, Bob Wade, available in a way that it never has been before.
The book is about basketball, obviously, but it’s also about family and determination and brotherhood and inspiration, making it just as interesting socially as it is from a basketball standpoint.
From Danois’ perspective, while the players on the cover are sure to be what draw in potential readers, the book itself is really about the man who brought this team together and saw those future Division I and NBA talents live up to their massive potential.
“The book really is about Bob Wade’s legacy,” Danois said. “Unfortunately, people who have just a passing interest in basketball or who are not familiar with who Wade is in terms of his East Baltimore roots, a lot of people only know him as the high school coach who got fired from Maryland and wasn’t really good. But when you delve into who this guy really is, that was one of the major pulls while trying to figure out what this story was really about.”
Wade took over the University of Maryland team as head coach when Lefty Driesell resigned in a cloud of scandal that came to light following the drug-related death of former Maryland player and No. 2 overall draft pick Len Bias.
With so many players suspended following that incident, Wade finished the year 9-17, the worst record in the university’s history. Despite an incredible bounce-back year the following season that saw the team back in the tournament, Wade ended up on the wrong end of a questionable investigation that mired him in what some would argue was unfair controversy, forcing him to resign after only a few years helming the team.
In Danois’ book, he tells the story about Wade that matters.
“He grew up on the same East Baltimore streets a generation earlier,” Danois said. “He was a product of a single-parent household, had watched his mother struggle, but education was very important in his family. That was drilled into him from day one. He parlayed his athletic excellence into an athletic scholarship and eventually played in the National Football League, but he’s very aware of the harsh realities of life as a pro athlete when he shatters his wrist and is basically thrown to the trash heap after such a promising start to his career. He was focused on going back to his community to make a positive difference.”
Like many other Dunbar players, Bogues and Williams would be given access to the Dunbar gym to watch the older boys dominate. Those moments were foundational experiences for the would-be NBA stars, and it all was orchestrated by a man who understood their struggle better than anybody.
“Just to see the reverence these guys had for Wade, to see how passionate he was to see these kids make something of their gifts, how hard and mercilessly he drove them, he was a father to a lot of these guys,” Danois explained. “They would go to games at that Dunbar gym as kids and do all the dances, all the cheers, but nobody knew what they would turn out to be. His influence on their lives was a phenomenal testament to who he was as a mentor. He had a big impact in a lot of lives.”
So big, in fact, that many of his former players went on to become basketball coaches themselves. Bogues was the head coach of the Charlotte Sting from 2005-2007 and served as the head coach at United Faith Christian Academy for three years. Williams also coached at the high school and junior level. Herman “Tree” Harried, who also was a member of those early ‘80s Dunbar teams, is now considered one of the best high school coaches in Baltimore, and has himself coached a future NBA player in Will Barton.
There’s a legitimate Bob Wade coaching tree, which shows what an impact he had for a decades’ worth of high school players in the city of Baltimore.
“All these guys talk about how Coach Wade taught them about leadership, how to be a man, hard work, being a man of my word, what it meant to be a family man, a husband, dependable,” Danois said. “His impact was much broader than just the basketball court”
There have, of course, been other great high school teams. There was an Oak Hill Academy team in 1993 that featured future UNC stars Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis and Makhtar Ndiaye, as well as 2015-16’s Chino Hills team that featured a trio of brothers that played like a junior version of the Golden State Warriors. All three of them look pegged for the NBA.
None, however, come close to what Dunbar accomplished in the early ‘80s, and that’s the story Danois writes in his new book.
“This wasn’t a situation like today where you’ve got these prep schools that are recruiting not just all over the country but all over the world,” said Danois. “With Dunbar, you’ve just got these four kids from the same general area who played with and against each other outside on the playgrounds and in the recreation leagues since they were little kids. These were just kids from the neighborhood.
“What an amazing collection of talent. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.”
“The Boys of Dunbar,” by Alejandro Danois, is available for purchase at all major book outlets now.
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