In the early 1980s, Dunbar High School in Baltimore enjoyed one of the most successful basketball programs in the nation. Many would argue that the Dunbar Poets of 1981-82 was the best ever.
Future NBA stars Reggie Williams, Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis formed a foursome that year that captured the imagination and hearts of local high school basketball fans.
Now, author Alejandro Danois has captured their tale in a new 246-page book, “The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball.”
The book not only highlights the on the court success of the athletes, but the various struggles of a city that was in the throes of a drug epidemic that threatened to claim many residents, including Baltimore’s youth.
“That was a very trying time for residents of East Baltimore and other working class neighborhoods,” said Danois, who interviewed Bogues and many others for the book. “The plague of crack cocaine and heroin changed the entire construct of the community, the drug business changed from being sold in controlled environments to open air drug markets, the manufacturing base declined as the union wage disappeared with the closing of many factories, iron foundries and steel mills, and families were struggling.
“There was a steep rise in violence and street crime, those who could afford to, fled to the surrounding suburban counties, the quality of public education declined and people were struggling — and the community suffered immensely,” he said.
That his four primary subjects in the book succeeded is a testament to community role models and their strong families, Danois said.
“You also have these exceptional men like Anthony Lewis at the Cecil Kirk Recreation Center and Leon Howard at the Lafayette Recreation Center who’d worked with some of the boys and began harnessing their talents since they first began picking up a basketball,” he said.
Dunbar Principal Julia B. Woodland, a product of Baltimore City Public Schools, also served as a strong influence, imploring her students each day, “Yes I can,” Danois said.
Then there was the coach, Bob Wade, whose work ethic, drive and determination was as important a factor as any.
“Wade was Dunbar’s head basketball coach, but he was much more than that. He was a mentor and father figure who was serious about education providing a passport to a better life,” Danois said of the coach who attended Dunbar a generation prior, won a college football scholarship and played a few years in the NFL.
“Many of the players did not have fathers in the home, and he helped to fill that vacuum. He was stern, tough and abrasive at times, but extremely protective of his kids with a familial love that was a byproduct of him being from the community, and knowing many of his player’s families before they were even born,” Danois said.
The new book provides “rock solid proof for young men and women that walk these same streets today that, despite the surrounding turmoil, there are bountiful examples all around them of people that overcame their circumstances,” he said.
On the surface, it’s a basketball story, but it’s much bigger than sports. It’s about love, hope and family, about believing in the beauty of one’s own dreams and putting in the work to make it happen, Danois continued.
“The Dunbar Poets team had a huge impact on the community,” he said. “People struggling through financial distress, unemployment, frightening crime and homicide rates, a worsening drug epidemic and normal life struggles in this poor neighborhood left the gym feeling better about their own lives, encouraged by the vitality of this talented team displaying its originality, dominance, brilliance that approached artistic proportions, and rare ingenuity. They offered a lot of people a respite, along with hope.”
Danois also noted that the city itself is one of the book’s leading characters, and much can be learned about its unique culture and sensibilities.
The book takes readers into the homes of the players, peels away who they really are and is as much about sociology as it is about basketball.
“Not only were they a great team, they also touched so many lives, providing inspiration, eliciting pride and offering hope in the unseen,” Danois said.
Published by Simon & Schuster, “The Boys of Dunbar” is available at most retailers.