The corner of Orleans and Central in East Baltimore was swarming with anticipation.
Dunbar's boys basketball team had a big game to play, which meant an eager crowd began forming outside the school's gym doors more than two hours before the opening tip.
Not everybody would make it inside, but those who did saw the numerous championship pennants that take up an entire wall, each square foot needed to recognize the decades of excellence. The music blared, with cheerleaders and the crammed-in crowd enthusiastically feeding off it. And then, on cue, the Poets — decked out in their traditional white, maroon and gold — emerged onto the court surrounded by applause.
This wasn't in 1983, when Reggie Williams, Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues and the late Reggie Lewis led the Poets to an undefeated 31-0 season and the program's first national championship under Bob Wade. And it wasn't 1992, when Keith Booth, Donta Bright and Michael Lloyd took their turn in wrapping up a third such crown with a 28-0 season guided by Pete Pompey.
This was a couple of Fridays ago, Jan. 13, when the 2011-12 Poets showed much of the same determination, discipline and resiliency of the gifted Dunbar teams from years past to knock off then-No. 1 Patterson. The 64-55 victory catapulted the Poets to the area's No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2003.
Fifth-year coach Cyrus Jones, a key member of Dunbar's1992 national championship team, tried to downplay the achievement as best he could, talking about the importance of practice and the rest of the season.
But to see the Poets back on top had to feel special, right?
"Yeah," he conceded. "It's definitely a great feeling."
The two-time defending Class 1A state champions carry a 13-0 record into the 16th annual Basketball Academy this week at Lake Clifton, where they'll face two-time defending Class 3A state champ and No. 2 Milford Mill at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Jones acknowledges it's not a matchup that many expected to be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 at the start of the season.
But Dunbar's success this winter has brought back memories of the old days and also conjured up an overflow of Poet Pride.
During the game against Patterson earlier in the month, the public address announcer acknowledged the presence of Cliff Johnson, a player on the 1956-57 Dunbar team that won the first of the program's 20 Maryland Scholastic Association titles. Since joining the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1993, the Poets have added 13 state championships.
Booth, a 1993 grad who went on to play at Maryland and then two years with the Chicago Bulls, was at the barber shop that Friday of the Patterson game. Upon hearing all the buzz about it, he cleared his schedule and made sure he could be there.
"I still remember walking in the gym as a freshman and seeing all the banners and thinking about all the great players that I heard about for all my life," said Booth, now an assistant coach for the Loyola women's basketball team. "And to walk the same hallways as those great players and become a part of that is truly incredible. You just feel a certain pride being a member of the Dunbar basketball team that's like nothing else. A lot of my success in life is a credit to my time there."
The late legendary coach William "Sugar" Cain laid the program's foundation with 485 wins that covered 32 years. After Skip Wise, still regarded by many as the city's greatest player, poured in 39 points in a historic 85-71 win over Washington D.C. power DeMatha at the then-Baltimore Civic Center in February, 1973, Cain promptly stepped down having won the last 35 games he coached.
Cain's teams captured seven of the MSA championships with the likes of Charley Leach, Petey Harris, Dickie Kelly, Larry Gibson and Wise paving the way.
Another one of Cain's players was Wade, who was fine with spending as much time next to him on the bench as on the court.
"When I played for Mr. Cain, I wasn't a starter," Wade said. "I was the starting quarterback for the football team and played multiple positions on the baseball team. But to make the basketball team — that was my highlight. Just to be associated with the basketball team and sit beside Mr. Cain was a big thing for me."
The Brickwork for a national power
After playing football at Morgan State and then three years in the NFL, Wade returned to Dunbar in 1975 and lifted the program to national prominence, producing two national championships (31-0 in 1982-83 and 29-1 in 1984-85) and a second undefeated season (29-0 in 1981-82) in his 10 years.
Early in his tenure, many of the low-income houses near the school were being torn down and replaced by townhomes. Driving by each day, Wade would see the piles of bricks and he came up with an idea to put them to good use. He and his two managers went to the demolished homes to pick up the better bricks and take them back to school. He then cut up some old wool baseball uniforms, wrapped the strips around the bricks and added some tape.
The bricks were used as a practice tool, with players holding them as they went through drills
"I liked using them because it helped not only with endurance, but it strengthened their upper arms and fingers. In the fourth quarter, when you gotta play defense and gotta keep your hands up, it helped out a lot," said Wade, now the coordinator of athletics for Baltimore City public schools. "The kids didn't like it at first, but they eventually bought into it."
Herman "Tree" Harried, a key member of the 1982-83 team who is in his 15th year as coach at Lake Clifton, believed the bricks brought more than just the added strength.
"It strengthens your arms, but it's also a mental toughness thing," he said. "It was like 'I know you don't work with brick and we do.' So it puts you in a class above."
That 1982-83 national championship team is still often regarded as the greatest high school team ever assembled. During those days, the team would travel all over the country and challenge the top competition.
"The school got a lot of notoriety and we had kids getting college scholarships from the first guy to the 15th," Wade said.
'One vision, one family'
These days, Dunbar is no longer on the national map. After Pompey's 1991-92 national championship team, the school joined the MPSSAA and has been limited by schedule guidelines, resulting in less exposure. With some of the area's highly touted players opting for private schools and other city public schools that have caught up, the Poets have been able to maintain success at the state level — winning seven state titles since 2001 — but they have become just another good basketball team among many in Baltimore City.
That's why these days are special.
"We win state championships now, but being No. 1 kind of goes back to what we once were," said 1968 alum Diane Leach, a founding member of Poet Followers, a group that was formed to support the team in the early 1980s. "It feels good and as an alum, it really makes me feel proud of my school."
This year's Dunbar team doesn't have the wealth of blue-chip college recruits that past teams had, but the Poets have many of the same qualities. Beginning with the starting five — Donte Pretlow and Evan Singletary in the backcourt along with Aaron Parham, Gavin Pettiford and Rodrick Harrison up front — the players works hard, share the basketball and play relentless defense.
And the history remains a staple in the program.
Before the start of each season, Jones has the team watch the documentary "Poet Pride" and the bricks are still used in practice. It also isn't uncommon for one of those former players to stop by and impart a few words of encouragement, as Booth did inside the locker room following the victory over Patterson.
"I take them to heart because I know they've been where we are now," said Singletary, a senior. "So I just listen to them, and whatever they tell me I put it in my head and try to use it."
"It's about everybody coming together as one," Parham said. "One person can't do it all — it's one team, one vision, one family."