Throughout his lengthy professional career, William Wells comfortably stood before generations of Baltimore City youth, knowing he could relate.
The legendary St. Frances Academy boys basketball coach had once been in their young shoes. As a boy in Waverly, he found a path to success that sent him to the Madison Square Recreation Center in East Baltimore.
“I always believed that most of the guys that came through grew up like myself,” Wells said. “I was from a broken home. There was 10 of us. So, I knew what they were going through and had a shared experience. And when I would see a kid struggling or something was going wrong, I would reach out and try to pull them in and get them on the right track.”
Starting with an entry-level position at Madison in 1969, climbing the ladder to senior director in 1974 and serving until 2002 — 32 years in all — Wells most notably coached basketball and organized leagues with some of Baltimore’s greatest players on the courts at 1401 E. Biddle St. In addition, he directed other sports, art and music festivals, modern dance recitals and plenty more for the boys and girls who called the rec center a second home.
Mostly though, Wells served as a do-it-all mentor — a calm, common-sense voice to all.
Now, Baltimore City and a grateful community are giving back. On July 30, Democratic City Councilman Robert Stokes and a committee led by former player and colleague Fred Wright will honor Wells at a street-naming ceremony. The corner of Biddle and Eden streets will be marked with a sign for William Wells Lane.
“I really don’t know what I want to say. I know I’m going to thank a lot of people, because I didn’t do it by myself. I had a great staff and people who believed in what I was doing,” said Wells, 77, who lives in Pikesville.
Wright, who played basketball for Wells and then worked under him for five years at Madison, initiated the campaign. He filed the paperwork to the city, providing the background material on Wells’ work in the community. Once approved, plans for the special day began. The ceremony will start at 2 p.m. and continue until 4 p.m. A VIP reception will follow.
“He’s always been a great mentor, a leader, and not for just myself, but hundreds and hundreds of basketball players in the community,” Wright said.
“Wells provided lifestyle skills, showing young people how to go out and have a good quality of life and become well-rounded individuals — spiritually, mentally and physically. Madison Square was always a safe haven for young people, and he was always leading the charge.”
Like many other city recreation centers, Madison Square, which opened in 1962, was renowned for basketball. The games between Madison Square and Lafayette Square Recreation Center were known to draw crowds. In 1972, when construction was complete on “The Dome” — a flat, gray roof over Madison Square’s outdoor court, complete with concrete bleachers that seated thousands — the interest soon reached a national level.
It was there that players established their games in front of large crowds that brought a festival-like environment. Featured over the decades at Madison were area greats Skip Wise, Larry Gibson, Muggsy Bogues, Sam Cassell, Reggie Williams, Mark Karcher, Duane Ferrell, Keith Booth and many others. Many went on to enjoy successful college careers, some played professionally and others found career paths outside the sport.
Most were under the watchful eye and wise mentorship of Wells, who also founded the St. Frances boys basketball program in 1980 and took it to national prominence in his 28 years at the helm.
Karcher started going to Madison Square when he was 7 years old, with football topping the list of his favorite sports. It soon became basketball, and under the tutelage of Wells, he made history. A prized recruit coming into high school, Karcher decided to follow his mentor at St. Frances. From 1993 to 1997, the Panthers reached the Baltimore Catholic League championship game every year, winning the last three.
“I was raised by my grandparents, so Coach was more like a father figure to me. He embraced me,” said Karcher, who enjoyed a standout career at Temple University and then played professionally overseas.
“With Coach, he supports you off the court more than on the court, in my opinion, and the reason I say that is, we always had a lot of talks before and after practices, and they were about life. He always wanted us to stay on the right path, do the right things, and he was always consistent with that. Basketball kind of spoke for itself, but the stuff he taught me off the court has helped me with my life and moving forward with my kids now.”
The support Wells provided reached further than at Madison and St. Frances, as he regularly brought players into his home. His daughter, Keita, saw the hope he instilled. Now, as director of marketing and community engagement for the city, she’s helping others, just like her father.
“To watch him mentor and be a role model for these young men ... they weren’t just going over basketball, he was giving basketball plays of life,” she said. “That was exciting to see. And as I got older and started getting into my own career and profession working with youth, I learned so much of him inspiring me without even knowing it.”
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Sean Mosley, a 2008 St. Frances graduate, knows where he plans to be on July 30. The former Panthers star became a two-year captain at Maryland and played professionally overseas.
Now he’s the founder and president of Mosley Basketball Inc., which offers several activities to provide Maryland youth an opportunity to excel in the classroom, on the basketball court and in life.
“Coach Wells always gave kids an opportunity,” Mosley said. “Having a coach that I could connect with on the basketball level and as a person outside of basketball was huge. He used to drop me off at home sometimes after late practices and we would have conversations about life. So, he’s definitely a leader and inspired a lot of guys to do the right things, and the ones that listened to him, took in the conversations, it paid off for them.
“He’s legendary. Having the street named after him is huge and hopefully all the guys that played under him and all his friends and everybody can make it. I’ll be there for sure.”
St. Frances — where he won more than 500 games, six Baltimore Catholic League tournament titles, two Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference crowns and coached the last Baltimore-area team to win the prestigious Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament championship — is where Wells received most of his accolades.
But Madison Square Recreation Center laid the groundwork.
“That’s the beginning of all of it for me, Madison,” he said.