Dunbar carries pride of neighborhood CHAMPS IN WAITING

Twilight falls over Orleans Street in East Baltimore, and the sidewalks that weave through the low-rise housing projects are empty. A chain-link fence surrounds one building. Bedsheets hung on a clothesline in a courtyard whip in a chilling, late-autumn wind. From up the hill, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, comes the sound of a siren.

In the middle of the neighborhood stands a brick and steel high school built to withstand an invasion. Inside, there is the unmistakable sound of sneakers squeaking on a wooden floor.


Banners marking past successes and championships hang on metal beams above the polished floor. The 12 players sprint and sweat, as the coach, who watches in silence, occasionally blows a whistle. There is no need to talk. Each whistle signals the start of a neatly choreographed drill, from jump shots to layups to three-on-three passing exercises.

This is a place of hope, and this is a team with a dream.


Dunbar High School, the country's preseason No. 1 high school team, is practicing to win a national championship in basketball. The players are preparing for a fall and winter filled with promise and pressure. They are local heroes who can float through the air.

"There's not a lot around here," senior guard Mike Lloyd said. "But what there is, people are proud of. Dunbar is the heart of East Baltimore."

For five decades, this predominantly black school has been at the center of high school basketball in Baltimore. Twice during the 1980s, Dunbar won national championships, emerging as mythical titlists from among more than 10,000 schools. Dozens of Dunbar players have gone on to star in college. Six have made it to the NBA.

Some might say basketball is just a game that means nothing. But in a school surrounded by a half-dozen housing projects, in a neighborhood where crime, drug abuse and teen-age pregnancy are everyday problems, the game is often everything.

In national preseason polls, Dunbar -- which opens its season tonight in Johnstown, Pa. -- is ranked No. 1 by USA Today, Street & Smith and The Associated Press. The team, 27-1 last season, is led by three players with extraordinary gifts burnished on asphalt playgrounds and in neighborhood recreation centers. There is Donta Bright, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound senior forward whose slim build masks a powerful playing style. There is Lloyd, the 6-2 guard as traffic cop, waving his arms to unclog human gridlock and set up fast breaks. And there is Keith Booth, 6-6, 205, a junior whose effortless grace sets him apart in the often ragged flow of a high school basketball game.

The man responsible for these players and their teammates is Pete Pompey, ex-college football quarterback, ex-journeyman pro, lifelong Baltimorean. He is 52 years old, with a gravel voice that can echo through a gym. Around Dunbar, he is known simply as "Coach."

Five years ago, he replaced a local legend named Bob Wade, becoming Dunbar's fourth basketball coach since World War II. Pompey has seen great teams and great players come and go, first at Edmondson High School and then at Dunbar. This could be the best of all seasons. But, for now, there is only practice. The coach pacing. The players running. The season approaching.

A team of role models


This is what it is like to play basketball for Dunbar:

"You go to a playground, and you hear the little kids, that they want to be like you," Bright said. "I used to be the same. When I grew up, I wanted to be like a Dunbar player."

Teachers know you on sight, even if you're not in their classes. They know your grade-point average, your study habits, your reading level. And, if you miss a class, they surely know that, too.

L "We're role models," Lloyd said. "We can never forget that."

Game night is the time to see Dunbar. Get there two hours before the opening tip. The doors are about to close. More than 1,600 people are crammed into the gymnasium. Coats come off. Music screeches over a loudspeaker. The crowd sways. Cheerleaders stomp at center court, their voices forming a chorus. There is a junior varsity game.

And, then, the varsity takes over.


The Dunbar players, dressed in white, maroon and gold, rush on to the floor, and the crowd shrieks. During the game, there is a constant buzz, the crowd responding to each dunk with a wave of high fives and a serenade of cheers. Inevitably, another victory is recorded.

This is a place of history. It's up there in the rafters of the gym, pennants representing 19 Maryland Scholastic Association titles, the first one won in the 1956-57 season, when the citywide league became integrated. And there is that clutter of flags from the 1980s -- undefeated teams and national championships won in 1982-83 and 1984-85.

The school's program became a testament to the strengths and abilities of two men, William F. "Sugar" Cain and Wade. It was Cain, an ex-basketball barnstormer, who came from Washington Baltimore in 1943 and created a 30-year dynasty at Dunbar, arriving in an era of set shots and leaving in an age of dunks. Wade arrived in 1974 and broadened the dynasty, taking it national in a bid to win championships for the school and scholarships for the players. The team stored its gear in a trunk, which became its trademark.

"Someone wrote that we were like a traveling circus," Wade said. "What we did was bring pride to the community."

Able to attract students citywide to attend the school's health professions program, Wade brought together the best basketball talent in Baltimore. Opposing coaches complained about the recruiting loophole, saying players transferred to Dunbar with no intention of becoming dental hygienists or X-ray technicians. But the complaints were muffled as Dunbar's prominence grew. Wade produced an all-star team, a magnet that drew college recruiters and raised the visibility of the city's basketball program around the nation.

"If I was a student and a basketball player, I would have probably transferred to Dunbar, too," Pompey said.


Pompey got his chance to come to Dunbar in 1986, when Wade left for Maryland.

More than a coach

To coach Dunbar is to be a tactician, schedule-maker, local celebrity, fund-raiser, teacher and father figure. It is to sit and listen to criticism that comes spilling out of the stands. It is to field the dozens of weekly calls from college coaches. It is to intervene quietly in family disputes. It is to make sure a kid has a sport coat for a road trip. It is to make the first hard cuts of the year. In a school with fewer than 300 male students, 95 players attended this season's first practice Nov. 15.

Above all, to coach Dunbar is to be a realist in a world of fantasy.

"If it takes basketball or football or the band to get a kid to come to school every day, we have to exploit that," Pompey said.

But what of a different sort of exploitation? Are Dunbar's players falling into a trap, lured by a pursuit of fool's gold -- making the NBA?


The idea troubles Pompey.

"Once kids get in here and are a part of Dunbar, the reality hits them," he said. "Our aim is to win games. But kids are aware of the NBA. They come in with the desire to get to the NBA. But once you get perspective on your game, once you come here and play against others, some -- most -- should realize that they're not going to be NBA material."

So, at Dunbar, varsity athletes practice for the games and the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In October, the basketball players weren't shooting jump shots, they were learning 35 words a week to increase their vocabularies.

"We don't want to be known as that school with the great !B basketball team," said Elzee Gladden, the school's principal. "We want to be known as a next century high school. For now, we know that we have produced more basketball stars than medical professional stars. But that will change."

This year, the stars are basketball players. The two best are Bright and Booth, cousins who began to play together long ago in an alley, shooting basketballs into a stack of crates. Bright was always the star on the block, growing tall and lean, developing this beautiful inside game. Booth was self-made, walking out to a playground each afternoon to take 500 shots, learning to score off his dribble, imagining what it would be like to hit a winning shot and, finally, making everything seem as natural as it was wondrous.

Three views of the game


Their outlook is tilted by their experience. Bright can express cynicism. He took a trip to Indianapolis last summer to a one-week camp sponsored by Nike, and performed before the (( top college coaches in the land. He called it "a meat market," but came away with the MVP of the Week award, all but securing his future for the next four years. Massachusetts, Clemson, Miami, Ohio State and Texas await his signature on a letter of intent.

But what appears to be a charmed life for Bright is a mirage. He talks of being the next Michael Jordan, "if God means for me to be in the NBA." Two blocks from his home in East Baltimore, crack dealers set up shop on a corner.

"We can be targets," Bright said. "There might be jealous people who don't want us to get out of Baltimore.

"I probably play basketball 364 days a year," he said. "I can relax on the court. I'm my own man on the court. I'm in control of things. No one can say that I can't do this or I can't do that. To me, basketball means freedom."

For Booth, the game is all fun. The dance with college recruiters -- who consider him one of the top juniors in the country -- is still exciting. His mother, Norma Salmon, a telephone operator, and stepfather, Denny Salmon, a truck driver, dote on him, counsel him, offering him gifts for good grades, attending his games.

"I tell him to stay away from drugs, stay away from getting girls pregnant and get to school on time," Denny Salmon said. "He doesn't go to places I worry about. He handles himself well."


Booth realizes, even at 17, that he has been given a gift, a talent that could lead him to a better life. Every night, he does 125 push-ups. Every night, he reads the letters that arrive daily from college recruiters.

"This is not the greatest player I can be," he said. "I'm still working on my dreams."

For Lloyd, the dream is simplicity itself. Basketball can provide him with a fast break out of Baltimore.

"You go to a tough school," he said. "You've got to walk through a tough neighborhood. We get out of the gym, it's dark. You walk through the projects to catch a bus. You have to keep an eye out."

The youngest of five children, Lloyd lives alone with his mother, Norma Solomon, in an East Baltimore rowhouse. Trophies fill a bookcase. Newspaper articles and pictures of Lloyd in uniform hang on a wall in the dining room. Still more trophies sit on a glass-topped table above an open Bible.

Lloyd's mother talks of her hopes and fears for her son. She works for a cleaning service, and she wants something more in life for her son. She wants him to select wisely from his list of final college choices -- Minnesota, Tennessee, Providence, Clemson and Miami. She wants him to get a degree. And she wants him to become a pro player.


"It's terrifying to go out your door," she said. "But you can't be afraid to take that challenge."

A horrifying night

There was a night last April when Mike Lloyd left the house and almost didn't come back. He played in an all-star game with his best friend, Rodney Beasley, a former Dunbar player who transferred to Walbrook. After the game, they went for a ride. Lloyd's sister, Kristal, driving and Rodney sitting up front in the 1980 Buick Regal. Lloyd and the two others in the back.

There was rain. A stop light. A skid. And a crash.

Lloyd injured his groin and his stomach. Kristal broke her thigh bones and a hip. And Rodney Beasley, the one who would brighten a room and make everyone laugh? Rodney was dead.

"I'm still not over it," Lloyd said. "Things can go so fast."


In Lloyd's room, there is a picture of his friend smiling. There is also an empty bunk bed that Rodney used to sleep in. They were like brothers.

Lloyd and his mother sit and talk in the room. Lloyd shows the letters from college recruiters that fill three shoe boxes, a tool chest and a carton that once contained a 19-inch television. The visitor asks Lloyd what he wants to get away from. Lloyd looks around. The paint is peeling. The hardwood floor is bare.

"This isn't the best place in the world," he says. "It's nothing I dream of."

Norma Solomon pats her son on the shoulder and says, "I know, baby. It's nothing you strive for."

To the visitor, she says: "Mike's dream is his dream. I don't build my tomorrows on his tomorrows. I pray every night to God, to let my son get on with his life."

For now, Mike Lloyd's life, and the lives of his teammates, revolve around a season filled with games and hopes and a dream.


"Everyone is talking about how good Dunbar is," Pompey said. "We'll see."

Dunbar pros

Former Dunbar players who have played in the NBA, with their current or last teams:

.' Player........ Years.... Team

Tyrone Bogues.... '88-..... Char.

Reggie Lewis..... '88-..... Bos.


Reggie Williams.. '88-..... Den.

David Wingate.... '87-..... Wash.

Terry Dozier..... '90-91... Char.

Kurk Lee......... '90-91... N.J.

Dunbar's schedule



6-7 at Johnstown (Pa.) Tournament

fTC 10 at Mount St. Joseph

12 at Coca Cola-KMOX Shootout, St. Louis

17-22 at Oceanic Iolani Prep Classic, Honolulu

27-30 at Beach Ball Classic, Myrtle Beach, S.C.



7 at Loyola

10-11 at Erie (Pa.) Tournament

16 at Poly

17-18 at Charm City Classic, Towson Center

21 vs. Southwestern

24 vs. Southern


28 vs. Mount St. Joseph

31 vs. Lake Clifton/Eastern


4 at Northwestern

7 vs. Walbrook

11 vs. Loyola


14 at Lake Clifton/Eastern

20 at Southwestern

21 vs. Northwestern

26 MSA Playoffs


1 Metro Classic, Baltimore Arena -- *


* -- must qualify for final