Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

ESPN's 'Baltimore Boys' much more than just a fine sports film

Like the city in its title, “Baltimore Boys” is a film steeped in grit. But the documentary that revisits the undefeated Dunbar High School basketball teams of 1981-1983 is also charged with moments of grace, beauty, poetry and even transcendence.

Its power lies in what it says about Baltimore and the tenacity of four young men and a coach from those teams who refused to let their circumstances define their lives.

The best documentaries are almost always the result of wise decisions made by filmmakers before a frame is ever shot. Directors Marquis Daisy and Sheldon Candis clearly understood that the stories of struggle and accomplishment by the former Dunbar athletes and their coach could only be appreciated if their film re-created a sense of Baltimore’s reality in the wake of the 1968 riots. It’s the world into which these future athletes had been born — and had to overcome.

Such sociology and urban history are a tall order for a film that runs 77 minutes on a cable sports channel. But Daisy, Candis and a filmmaking team that includes editor Jeff Reilly and executive producers Bobby Sabelhaus and Eric Levy capture more than enough of that social reality to make the journeys of Dunbar players and future NBA stars David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Reggie Lewis and their coach, Bob Wade, resonate with the character, resilience and troubled history of Baltimore itself.

Hats off to the filmmakers for not pulling punches and romanticizing this city’s past. Bravo to them for showing how hard, down and nasty life could be for some children born in this city in the 1960s. And all praise for gracefully connecting the dots from the 1968 riots to the unrest in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray to make a subtle but strong point about how much some social conditions in Baltimore have not changed in almost half a century.

Following an opening montage that includes images of boarded-up rowhouses, fires from the ’68 riots and passers-by stopping to look at a dead body on the sidewalk, narrator Jesse Williams says, “This is a story about a very simple fact of life: Who you are is always, more than anything else, about where you come from. In this tale, it’s a city called Baltimore, a place whose problems sadly long ago came to overshadow its pride. But struggles, even the worst kinds of struggles, don’t extinguish hope. Actually, it can strengthen it and shine light on a narrative just like this one.”

The core narrative is that of the Dunbar Poets teams coached by Wade that went undefeated from 1981 to 1983 and are widely remembered as one of the greatest high school basketball teams of all time. Eleven members of those teams went on to play Division I college basketball, with Wingate, Williams, Bogues and Lewis having distinguished careers in professional basketball. Three of them were picked in the first round of the 1987 NBA draft.

The portion of the film dedicated to the on-court accomplishments of those teams is an adrenaline rush thanks to the storytelling prowess, rich context and detailed research brought to the film by Daisy and Candis.

Typically of the film’s skilled use of talking heads, Alejandro Danois, author of the 2016 nonfiction book “The Boys of Dunbar,” appears on camera at one point giving viewers a sense of what a joy it was for Poets fans to see the 5-foot-3 Bogues take apart team after team during Dunbar’s climb to national recognition during the 1982-’83 season.

Explaining how Wade was scheduling nationally ranked opponents to get his team seen outside Baltimore, Danois, who is also a producer on the film, described a miracle moment from Bogues during a game against powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School of Hyattsville.

“In that game, Muggsy did a move that has never been duplicated by him again,” Danois says in the film. “He went up for a layup and two tall defenders boxed him in. In mid-air, he did a 360-degree turn and threw an alley-oop pass behind his neck that Reggie Williams caught in flight and dunked. They had to stop the game for a minute, because fans couldn’t believe what they had seen.”

As Danois gets to the part about Bogues’ being boxed in by two defenders, the screen fills with a Baltimore Sun archive photo of Bogues in mid-air boxed in by two defenders. And then, as Danois describes the dunk by Williams, there’s a news photograph of Williams soaring above two defenders.

Only one of the photos is actually from the DeMatha game, but I only know that because I asked Daisy in an interview after I screened the film. The two images perfectly captured the movements Danois described. And thanks to the research effort that brought them to the screen, I felt as if I actually got a glimpse of Bogues and Williams in all their high-school glory.

Bogues, who would go on to play 14 years in the NBA, grew up in the Lafayette Courts housing project on Baltimore’s east side. He says he got his first basketball when he was 3 years old in 1968, the year of the riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Two years later, Bogues says in the film, he came out of his family’s apartment when he heard a fight going on outside one day and was inadvertently shot.

Still, he says in the film, he felt as if he was one of the lucky kids in the projects, because he had both a mother and father living at home — until his father went to prison.

“I thought he was down there working on the waterfront at a loading dock. But at the same time he was out there hustling, making ends meet,” Bogues says in the film. “And one day, he just got caught up and served 12 years in prison and paid for that.”

Each of the four Dunbar stars and their coach overcame similar challenges: helping care for a mother who went in for what was described as routine surgery and came out of the hospital paralyzed from the waist down, an older brother on heroin, a household in which older brothers and sisters filled the roles of parents and guardians.

Talking heads, ranging from attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. to former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, describe East Baltimore in the wake of the ’68 riots as a place where businesses and jobs were leaving as drugs arrived in greater quantities. The culture of drugs was everywhere in the neighborhoods in which these young men lived, Murphy says. And things got even worse when crack cocaine arrived in the 1980s.

The film also includes Baltimore Sun managing editor Sam Davis, who covered high school sports during that time.

“You can ignore history and not present Baltimore for what it really was in the early 1980s,” Daisy said in a telephone interview.

“But in documentaries, you are documenting history and you can’t ignore realities. In the end, by presenting what life was really like for these guys, you give the audience a reason to root for them, because, in some cases, they probably should never have made it out of that environment. That’s why it was important to tell the Baltimore story in the most accurate manner possible.”

Set against that harsh backdrop, the personal histories of these athletes make their accomplishments after Dunbar all the more remarkable. Wingate, who graduated a year ahead of his teammates, went to Georgetown University. In the film, he recalls how he used to cry in his dorm room when he first got to that elite institution.

Navigating the cultural passage was easier for Williams; he had Wingate waiting for him when he arrived at Georgetown the next year. Together they starred on a team that won the national championship with Williams as a freshman and Wingate a sophomore.

“You think about Reggie Lewis,” Daisy said of the member of this quartet who went from being sixth man while at Dunbar to stardom at Northeastern University. “He went to Boston, which has a very special history of race relations. But these boys, because of people like Bob Wade, were able to thrive despite being uncomfortable.”

Lewis’ story is the most poignant of the narratives in “Baltimore Boys.” He went onto become a star with the Boston Celtics only to die at age 27 of cardiac arrest during an offseason practice. His family has a history of heart disease.

At the end of the documentary, viewers see members of the 1981-1983 Dunbar teams reunited with Wade. They are in uniform and on court, huddling with their coach and then running a layup drill as if warming up for a game. One of the chairs alongside Wade has Lewis’ jersey draped over it in memoriam.

“This is the first time folks are going to see tears running down my eyes like this,” a tearful Bogues says. “But I’m happy they’re coming out, because it shows how thankful I am to have an angel up there in Reggie looking down among us.”

As the camera pans back to Wade, Bogues continues: “And it all starts from that man, Bob Wade, and his understanding of how to manage all these egos and make each individual feel special.”

The triumph of “Baltimore Boys” is in sensitively understanding and powerfully communicating how special the accomplishments of all these men are.

On TV

“Baltimore Boys” premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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