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Cain dies, 'father' to Dunbar rise; Basketball coach, AD brought Poets, city to national prominence; DeMatha win caps 32 years; Many coaches learned respect playing for him


William "Sugar" Cain, the legendary Dunbar High coach who guided the school's basketball team into the national limelight, died of cancer Saturday night at his West Baltimore home. He was 80.

A coach, disciplinarian, counselor and father figure to countless outstanding inner-city athletes, Cain culminated his coaching career in 1973 with an 85-71 victory over Washington power DeMatha at the then-Baltimore Civic Center. That outcome thrust Baltimore -- long considered inferior in talent to Washington, Philadelphia and New York -- into the college recruiting frenzy that still exists today.

It was a triumphant ending to a 32-year career at Dunbar, where Cain also coached the baseball and football teams and served as the athletic director and vice president of the Maryland Scholastic Association. Overall, his basketball teams had a 485-105 record with his most satisfying titles in his first and last years.

But he also endured the tough times before integration -- when Dunbar and two other Baltimore black schools could play only each other and travel to Washington or Virginia as best as they could to complete season schedules.

Bob Wade, a Cain disciple who later took Dunbar to mythical national scholastic titles and became coach at the University of Maryland, still calls the Washington native "Mr. Cain."

"He passed the baton to me and all I tried to do was continue his legacy and his values," said Wade, who coached the Poets from 1975 to 1985. "He demanded respect and discipline and was a father figure not only to me, but to many kids from single-parent families. Guys looked up to him."

"He was my mentor and I emulated everything he did, even tried to dress like him," said John Nash, a player under Cain and later longtime football and basketball coach at Douglass High. "We have lost a great person who did so much for basketball and kids in this city. I'm really at a loss."

Pride of community

The Poets' basketball team became a rallying point for the East Baltimore community.

"Everyone lived to go to Dunbar's games," said Wade. "It was the focal point of the area. To everyday guys on the street even, Mr. Cain and Du Burns were the mayors of East Baltimore."

"I don't think there is a person in East Baltimore 40 or above who doesn't know Sug," said Roy Cragway, retired Douglass athletic director. "He was one heck of a guy, always the same disposition. I never saw him angry and he was always well-groomed. We used to socialize quite a bit after MSA meetings, and we always had a great time."

After integration in 1956, Cain's teams captured seven MSA A Conference basketball titles and produced a who's who of players, from Charley Leach to Petey Harris to Skip Wise. Ralph Lee and Dickie Kelly played for him. Larry Gibson was a star as a freshman. Joe Pulliam. Jimmy Files. Charlie Moore. The list goes on.

"In those days, kids had a desire to play and produce. They were conditioned with competitive spirit," said Allen Meacham, who taught at Dunbar for 16 years and was a coaching colleague of Cain's. "He was a coach who knew how to coach, how to use the talent, and he gave it his all."

Meacham said "you can't imagine all the adversity" Cain's teams faced before desegregation. "Sometimes, it was a major event just to get to the games."

Cain the athlete

Cain was a gifted athlete himself, playing football and basketball in high school, then at Morgan State. He also earned money by barnstorming with several pro teams, including the Harlem Globetrotters in their infant days.

"Sugar was good in all sports but was best in basketball," said boxing guru Mack Lewis, who played against him in high school and with him at Morgan. "He was skinny, but rugged."

"When I bowed out [of basketball], players were hitting me on the shoulders with their elbows," said the 6-foot-3 Cain in a 1972 interview.

Lack of finances prevented him from pursuing his goal of becoming a doctor, so he earned a master's degree in physical education from Columbia University. At first, he was a traveling teacher in Baltimore, but the system decided to plant him at Dunbar -- obviously a good match.

A doctor advised him to give up coaching in 1964 because of a stomach ulcer, but Cain told him to operate, removing half his stomach. In his later years, he developed blindness because of glaucoma and could only listen to others' accounts of the exploits of Dunbar teams.

Gregarious with an infectious laugh, Cain also took responsibility for policing the gymnasium during games, banning unwelcome visitors whenever possible. But a melee after a 1971 game against Mount St. Joseph at Dunbar led to the withdrawal of the city's Catholic schools from the MSA and probation for the Poets.

The next season, Dunbar went 18-0 while playing every game away from home. It was the start of a 35-game winning streak neatly wrapped by the victory over DeMatha in which Stags star Adrian Dantley, a future NBA standout, was thwarted by a Cain-devised defense that limited him to two field goals.

Eventually, Cain grew to detest his policeman's role because the hold he once had over fans had decreased. "It seemed as if no one was hearing what I had to say," he lamented.

Along the way, Cain received offers to coach at the college level -- "Morgan was hot and heavy after me at one time" -- but resisted them all.

Pain amid the joy

He realized that he wasn't going to succeed with every player.

At a testimonial honoring him after the DeMatha game, Cain said: "As coach, you take what you can get and you do the best you can with it. If a boy graduates and goes on to college and becomes a good citizen, beautiful. But I'm not naive enough to think that all of them are going to make it. Some of them, no matter what you do for them, are going to be bums. You just have to do what you can."

Tony Brown, a standout in the early 1970s, was stabbed to death. Wise left Clemson after one year, signed with the American Basketball Association's Baltimore Claws, who folded without ever playing a regular-season game, and wound up in prison. James "Box" Owens served time. Others settled for menial jobs.

"I got down on my hands and knees and begged Skip to stay in school," Cain said in 1977. "I told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life. I didn't think he was ready for the pros. You want to sit down and cry, it makes you so sad."

"A lot of guys thought they could make it with just the ball," Nash said. "But there were many who combined the athletics and academics and did well. He produced quite a few of those who succeeded in life."

Still, even a number of those who didn't revered Cain. One of his awards -- and a check for the Project Survival basketball program -- came from a Colt Corral located in the Maryland Penitentiary.

"Sometimes, it's hard to figure how some kids make it at the school because they had so many outside problems," said Archie Lewis, Cain's longtime junior varsity coach who succeeded him with the varsity. "But the good part was athletics and Sugar kept a lot of them in school. He was a very popular man."

William "Sugar" Cain Field, where Dunbar plays football, was named after the coach and is a constant reminder of his legacy.

Cain's body is being cremated. A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for Dunbar High at 11 a.m. on Feb. 20.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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