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'Sugar' Cain's touch went beyond playing field


Here's how we measure the impact of William F. "Sugar" Cain: "One of the biggest thrills for me was seeing my brother, David Harcum, score 28 points against Dunbar when Skip Wise was on the team," Larry Harcum said Saturday as he sat in Dunbar High School's auditorium and listened to speaker after speaker pay tribute to Cain, coach of the Poets' football, basketball and baseball teams for 32 years.

Cain died Feb. 6. His memorial service was held two weeks later. The "final time out for a legendary coach," it was called.

Harcum, brother of a man who played basketball, not for the Dunbar Poets, but against them, had come to pay his respect. Harcum's thrill more than two decades ago wasn't in seeing his brother score 28 points for Walbrook High School. The thrill was seeing his brother score 28 points against a team coached by Sugar Cain.

Even other legends came to pay homage. Vince Bagli, retired sportscaster for WBAL television, was there. So was Bill Tanton, the retired Evening Sun sports columnist. They came because Cain had requested, before he died, that four specific sports journalists attend the memorial service. Bagli and Tanton were two. The others, Sun sports columnist John Steadman and Baltimore Afro-American sports columnist Sam Lacy, couldn't make it.

"I got to know Sug through Ed Hardigan, the Loyola High School football coach," Bagli told the audience. "Both taught, coached and played while playing semipro ball. These two lanky guys - Hardigan and Cain were both about six-three - are probably playing a game of horse up in heaven."

"Sugar was a pivotal force in my life," Tanton said, telling the crowd how he was educated in Baltimore's totally segregated school system from 1937 to 1949.

"By the time I came to work for the Sun, I barely knew any black people," Tanton continued, hinting that the situation was a travesty. Cain's basketball teams "were a joy to watch," Tanton said, and Cain a joy to listen to.

"He had such a colorful use of language," Tanton recalled. "I remember at one practice he was teaching his players how to defend against a man down low. He said, 'Force your man to the baseline. That baseline is the greatest defender in the world. Nobody gets by him."'

In several quarters worth of anecdotes, the best came from Del. Clarence Davis, a Dunbar alumnus who played on one of Cain's football teams. Davis spotted another Dunbar alumnus and former student-athlete, Billy Tinkler, in the audience. Davis asked Tinkler to stand.

"Billy believed everything Coach Cain taught him: Be honest, have integrity. One day on the baseball field Billy made a diving catch of a fly ball that looked like it hit the ground. The umpire called the batter out, and Billy jumped up and shouted 'I trapped it!"' The crowd roared with laughter.

For the past 33 years, Tinkler has been the principal of Roosevelt Elementary School in Bridgeport, Conn. He journeyed all the way to Baltimore to pay tribute to the man Tinkler called "a fantastic influence on me."

"I wouldn't have been principal, or graduated college, without his influence," said Tinkler, a 1960 Dunbar graduate. John Nash played on Cain's teams before Dunbar, Carver and Douglass - Baltimore's only three black high schools at the time - joined the Maryland Scholastic Association to form an integrated league.

"We played Carver, Douglass, Dunbar in D.C., Armstrong," another D.C. school, Nash said when asked privately how the three schools filled their schedules. "We finally got Cardozo [in D.C.] on the schedule, and after playing against Cardozo all those times, I went to Virginia State and the Cardozo coach was my coach there."

Nash, a 1952 Dunbar graduate, returned to Baltimore, where he taught physical education to a geeky, four-eyed kid of uncommon athletic disability by the name of Greg Kane at what was then Harlem Park Junior High School. Nash moved on to coach football, basketball and baseball at Douglass.

"I coached the same things Sug coached," Nash said. "I did the same things he did - except win championships. One thing I have to my credit: I beat my coach one time in basketball."

That happened in the 1967-1968 season. Nash's only victory over Cain knocked Dunbar out of a tight divisional title race with Polytechnic Institute.

But Cain's influence extended far beyond the playing field. It stretched into the court of life.

Chuck Cooper, who struck up a friendship with Cain when both were members of the Sphinx Club, a social organization, may have summed up Cain's legacy best.

"He was a basketball giant to me," Cooper said. "He did a terrific job for Dunbar as a coach and as a person. I'll miss him, and everybody he ever touched is going to miss him greatly."

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