The first collegian to be selected by the NBA next summer might be Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony, who is from Baltimore. So is the player who dominated last season's NCAA tournament, Washington Wizards rookie Juan Dixon.
Few Baltimoreans, however, had left a substantial mark in basketball until a coach working his last game and a gang of talented but star-crossed teens from Dunbar High School conquered DeMatha and two figures headed to the Hall of Fame, Morgan Wootten and Adrian Dantley.
Their landmark meeting occurred 30 years ago tomorrow. The Inner Harbor was a series of run-down steamship piers, 1st Mariner Arena was the Civic Center, and local hoops had an identity crisis.
After its pro team, Baltimore basketball had little credibility, street or otherwise.
"The best thing that Dunbar-DeMatha game did was bring publicity to Baltimore, and finally influence recruiters to come here," said Allen "Skip" Wise, considered by many to be the city's best player ever. "There had always been exceptionally good players here, but they weren't pushed."
Near the end of a giddy Saturday afternoon, when Wise had crammed 22 of his 39 points into the fourth quarter and Dantley was frustrated by Larry Gibson and a defensive wrinkle installed by coach William "Sugar" Cain, the largest crowd ever to watch a high school game in Baltimore began the cheer that was Dunbar custom:
"Get your hat, your coat and LEAVE!"
Abe Pollin took the advice. The NBA owner prepared to relocate his Bullets to the other end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but the city game was finally enmeshed in the local fabric. After Dunbar beat DeMatha, coaches from the Atlantic Coast Conference and throughout the nation added Baltimore to their recruiting itinerary.
The game's angles included the Diner Guy who arranged it and the origins of the Baltimore Catholic League, but the central figures were inner city kids who weren't prepared for the fame and opportunity thrust upon them. It's a Black History Month memory touched with melancholy. Wise spent more time in prison than he did pro basketball, as the player who put Baltimore on the basketball map got lost before he found himself in middle age.
Breaking the barrier
While the nation's capital turned out players like Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing in the 1950s and early 1960s, Baltimore went more than two decades between local products being taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Gene Shue went in 1954 and Marvin Webster in 1975.
Minus a high-profile college program in the region until Lefty Driesell landed in College Park in 1969, the game was played in a recruiting vacuum. An exception was Lee Dedmon, who went from City College to North Carolina and was co-MVP in the ACC tournament in 1971.
"I can't think of anyone else from Baltimore who played in the ACC back then," said Dedmon, a high school principal in Gaston, N.C. "It befuddles me why more players weren't recruited."
Shue and Dedmon are white, and racism posed roadblocks to many African-American players.
JoJo Parker was among the Bullets' last cuts one season late in the 1960s, when the NBA had just 10 teams. He had graduated from Carver High in 1958, went to historically black North Carolina Central and then played with the Harlem Magicians.
"No one was recruiting in the city in the late 1950s," Parker said. "I got a directory from the guidance counselor, wrote to 20 colleges, sent them my clippings. Montana State said that they would give me a scholarship. When they asked for film, I said, 'Uh-oh.' "
"We had some great players in town then," Jones recalled in an interview in 1999. "I'm the only [black] one who attended a major school."
Baltimore's Catholic high schools were also just starting to integrate their teams in the mid-'60s, long after Jesuit high schools and colleges in other regions. DeMatha integrated in the late 1950s, strengthening a brand of basketball that was already superior.
"My first year at DeMatha was 1956," Wootten said. "I think that was the last year that we had an informal league among the Catholic schools in the two cities. The arrangement dissolved, because we [Washington] dominated for the most part. We were bigger, stronger. I suspect that our kids started attending summer camps earlier than Baltimoreans."
Racial strife and some considerable role models turned Baltimore into a player. The Bullets had a cult following at the Civic Center that barely kept pace with the Clippers, the city's minor-league hockey franchise. What the Bullets lacked in attendance, they made up for in charisma.
Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld were ready-made heroes for young blacks, but the boys at the recreation center just south of Dunbar were immersed in other sports.
"It amazed me how many little kids were playing softball year-round at Lafayette Courts," said Leon Howard, who began working there in 1967 and is still a youth coordinator with the Department of Recreation and Parks. "It seemed like every kid had a No. 5 jersey and wanted to be Brooks Robinson. There were no basketball goals inside Lafayette. Someone donated a portable goal, but just one. We had so many kids lined up, you only got one shot."
Wise was one of those youngsters.
"Mr. Howard," Wise said, "brought basketball to Lafayette."
Like other cities, Baltimore erupted in violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. One remedy was the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, which started in 1970 with Unseld as a hands-on commissioner. From Farring Bay Brook Park in Curtis Bay to Leith Walk off Northern Parkway, children and adults, male and female, competed in an organized setting.
The rising seniors that summer made for a simmering pool of talent that bubbled over the next winter. The All-Metro team had a dominating center in Edmondson's Webster, the shot blocker nicknamed "The Human Eraser." He led Morgan State to an NCAA Division II title in 1974 and had his moments in the NBA. Mervo's Nate Barnett went to Akron and played briefly with the Indiana Pacers.
Mount St. Joseph featured a slasher named Barry Scroggins, the first black All-Metro from a Catholic school. He and the rest of the Gaels needed a police escort to escape a riot after a game at Dunbar, which led the Catholic schools to pull their basketball teams out of the Maryland Scholastic Association and form their own league.
The MSA in turn banned the Poets from playing at home during the 1971-72 season, but the road became a crucible.
The seniors during Dunbar's season of wandering were Tony Brown, a rugged inside player, and guard James "Box" Owens. The junior class featured forward Billy Snowden. Wise was a sophomore. The Poets were so deep that Tim Greene, another key contributor in the 1973 DeMatha game, spent his junior year on the junior varsity.
"There have been a lot of great teams at Dunbar - Reggie Williams [in the early 1980s], the ones that had Donta Bright and Keith Booth in the '90s," Wise said. "Everyone knows what we did in '73, but I didn't even start on the best team I have ever seen Dunbar put on the court. When I was a sophomore, we went on the road and won every game."
If the winter of 1971-72 toughened Dunbar, the offseason hardened the Poets' hearts. Brown was knifed to death in a Southeast Baltimore apartment. Owens was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover agent, and sent to prison.
Poetry in motion
Cain, however, had another crop of talented Poets coming up.
The winning streak grew behind Wise, a cool 6-foot-3 guard blessed by the basketball gods. His gifts included range, touch and a flair for the dramatic. In the fourth quarter alone, he dropped 16 points on Loyola, then 20 against Edmondson.
Charles "Duke" Richardson, a gritty 5-9 guard, was Wise's backcourt partner. Gibson, by now a 6-8 sophomore, was developing into a force in the middle. Snowden and Petey Butler were the other starters, and Greene and Donnie Joy did the dirty work off the bench.
"We had 15 All-Americans," Greene said.
The Poets' only serious challenge in the MSA came from City, which would supply players that turned the University of Baltimore and Towson State into NCAA Division II powers. Dunbar made quick work of its other opponents. It averaged better than 86 points, but Cain got the Poets to play just as hard at the other end.
"The man was blind in one eye and barely could see out of the other, but he knew what was going on," Wise said. "If you weren't playing defense, he knew. You couldn't hide from him."
Cain, like Wootten, was from Washington. Cain's dynasty was little known outside Baltimore. Wootten and DeMatha, a Catholic high school near College Park, had been national names since 1965, when his Stags handed Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) his only prep loss. Like Dunbar, DeMatha rolled through the 1972-73 season unbeaten, and against a tougher schedule. Dantley, 6-5 and 230 pounds, averaged 26 points and 18 rebounds. Maryland and UCLA were among his suitors.
Dan Snyder, who played lacrosse at Maryland and was studying law at the University of Baltimore, followed the two prep powers. Snyder hailed from the northwest Baltimore circle that spawned filmmaker Barry Levinson and clothier Boogie Weinglass. The group included Diner Guys author Chip Silverman, who ran the short-lived lacrosse program at Morgan State. Snyder was one of his volunteer assistants.
"He asked me to help him promote a game between DeMatha and Dunbar," Silverman said. "There were a lot of negotiations with city government and the board of education. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. "
After considerable haggling, the Civic Center was agreed upon, over Cole Field House.
There was a crowded schedule Feb. 24, 1973. Maryland pummeled Duke at Cole, but lost Len Elmore to a stress fracture. In the final game played at Morgan State's Hurt Gymnasium, Webster and the Bears were beaten by Maryland Eastern Shore and Joe Pace.
In the evening, the Bullets drew fewer than 5,000 against the Portland Trail Blazers. They were coached by Shue, in their last season before heading to Landover and eventual transformation into the Wizards.
A few hours earlier, the Civic Center teemed with 8,500.
"It looked sold out," Dantley said. "It was packed, like Cole used to be for the [D.C.] city championship. When we walked in the arena, people were saying 'Not tonight,' and 'We're going to be on top of you.' Had we known who Dunbar was, we would have been pumped up more.
"I ran into a picket fence of defenders, which was usually the case. Skip Wise started hitting from downtown and I knew we were in for a fight."
Dunbar had won 34 straight since the St. Joe loss. DeMatha's 43rd consecutive victory had come the night before, in overtime against St. John's. Wootten made no alibis, but the Stags staggered into Baltimore. Cain stationed Snowden in front of Dantley, Gibson behind him, and the Poets bided their time through a first half that ended tied at 25.
It was the last game for Cain, who was 54. In announcing his retirement earlier in the week, he cited more than three decades in coaching and hurt from an expose in The Evening Sun. Too many of his players found their way to prison; not enough went to college.
Cain followed his team into a locker room next to the Civic Center stage, and spoke words his players still remember.
"Sugar didn't do a lot of talking," Joy said. "He said, 'We can beat them. We can beat them.' That was just about enough."
Richardson and Wise were so loose, they might as well have been playing H-O-R-S-E. The left-handed Richardson made all six of his shots in the third quarter. Wise took over in the fourth, when he made eight of nine attempts. He dribbled through pressure and assisted Gibson with a behind-the-back pass, but first he buried the Stags under a series of long jumpers.
"If we had a three-point line back then, his 39 would have been 50," Wootten said. "Dunbar missed only five shots in the second half. It was one of the best shooting exhibitions I have ever seen."
Dunbar won going away, 85-71. Gibson had 15 points and 13 rebounds. Snowden had 10 points, Greene had 10 rebounds. All helped limit Dantley to two baskets, none in the second half, but the Poets' inside play was not what left the biggest impression.
"Skip Wise was definitely the man," Dantley said earlier this month. "I said to myself, 'he's gonna make it in pro ball if he does the right thing.' "
Wootten retired last autumn as the winningest American high school coach ever. Dantley was an All-American at Notre Dame, played 15 seasons in the NBA and remains the 17th leading scorer in league history. He's now an analyst for Comcast.
His point guard at DeMatha was Billy Langloh, who scored more than 1,200 points for Virginia. Kenny Carr, a junior forward who missed the Dunbar game with a knee injury, became an All-ACC selection at North Carolina State. Kenny Roy, who had 20 points for the Stags in the Dunbar game, played in the NFL.
Dustin Hoffman's character in the Levinson film Sleepers was named Danny Snyder. The man who matched DeMatha and Dunbar and promoted the game died of cancer at age 55 in 1996.
"Years later, I heard Dan made thousands off the Dunbar-DeMatha game and blew it at the track," Silverman said. "I think my cut was $400."
The Dunbar football stadium is named for Cain, who died in 1999. He was succeeded at Dunbar by assistant coach Archie Lewis, who is 85 and lives in northwest Baltimore. Lewis resigned after two seasons. Bob Wade was hired and took the Poets to another level.
Western civilization uses the birth of Jesus to mark time, but AD - after DeMatha - also designates a dividing line for Baltimore basketball. Kansas came for Lance Hill and Tony Guy. North Carolina got Dudley Bradley and Pete Budko. Clyde Gaines went to Wisconsin. Norman Black became a force for St. Joseph's. Quintin Dailey helped turn San Francisco back into a power. Ernie Graham set a Maryland scoring record that still stands.
No one rose higher - and fell harder - than Skip Wise.
In the summer of 1973, he lost most of a big toe in an industrial accident. A city teachers strike interrupted his senior season for seven weeks. It resumed with a loss to St. John's, which halted Dunbar's win streak at 48 games. Then Wise's fame grew at Clemson.
Wise lit up the ACC as a rookie in 1974-75, when he averaged 18.5 points and made an all-conference team that included N.C. State's David Thompson, Maryland's John Lucas and North Carolina's Mitch Kupchak. The list of freshmen since named All-ACC is short: Kenny Anderson, Joe Smith, Stephon Marbury and Antawn Jamison.
The Tigers and coach Tates Locke were being investigated by the NCAA, and the findings were severe enough to get Clemson placed on probation for three years. Wise didn't wait for the hammer to fall, as he signed a $1 million, five-year contract in the summer of 1975 to play for the Baltimore Claws. They folded before the final ABA season began. The money was not guaranteed.
"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Wise said. "It would have been nice to play for a pro team. I wanted to be a part of something that was happening in Baltimore."
Wise was picked up by San Antonio. His professional career consisted of 10 minutes in two games with the Spurs in 1975-76. The next season, he was the last man cut by Golden State. He became involved in Baltimore's heroin epidemic, and was sent to prison in 1977 and again in 1985 for drug-related offenses.
"I lecture to high school kids throughout the summer," said Locke, who's in his seventh season as a Trail Blazers scout. "I bring up Skip's name every time, talk about how great he was, and how sad his story became. Everyone talks about Len Bias. That was tragic, but Skip was so good.
"The game came so easy for him. I put him in the category of gliders, like Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier. He did it when the ACC was real, and he went to Clemson just a few years after it had been integrated. I was in their basketball offices last summer, and they don't have him among all the photos on the wall. How can you leave out your best player ever?"
Locke disputes accounts that Wise used drugs when he left Clemson. Wise declined to discuss that aspect of his past. Last year he began to work at the Druid Hill YMCA, as a fitness coordinator and physical education teacher. Wise, who will be 48 in July, lives in northwest Baltimore with his wife. He has two sons and six grandchildren.
"I want to raise the consciousness of the kids around here," Wise said. "I'm not looking for attention. As much as I can, I want to put things in one accord for the kids. I tell them to stay in school, get an education, because that's something nobody can take from them."
Gibson missed part of his senior year at Dunbar after being stabbed, went to Maryland, earned a degree in 1987 and is the Terps' seventh all-time leading rebounder. Despite a knee injury, he played professionally in Europe for 10 years, the majority in Italy. That's where the oldest of his three children, Laura, was born. She plays volleyball for Coppin State.
"I picked up some Italian, Spanish and Dutch along the way," said Gibson, who lives in Frederick with his wife and two younger children, and works for a shipping company.
Joy followed Wise to Clemson, then transferred to a junior college in Southern California. For the past six years, he's been a steelworker for a firm in South Baltimore.
"I don't think I was prepared for the opportunities that came to me," Joy said.
Greene is a mail carrier in the city. He attended Howard University, then Catonsville. He was a junior college All-American, but didn't follow up on the summer school work required to get into the University of Baltimore.
"That's when my life stopped," said Greene, who stresses schoolwork to his son Terron, who wants to play for Dunbar. "That's why I'm carrying mail. It's aged me 10 years."
Efforts to reach Butler, Richardson and Snowden were unsuccessful. According to Greene, fellow reserve Philip Alford died of kidney failure three years ago.
Baltimoreans by the dozen have made it big in the NCAA and NBA since the Dunbar-DeMatha game of 1973. Dixon and Reggie Williams got Maryland and Georgetown, respectively, their NCAA titles. Muggsy Bogues, Duane Ferrell and the late Reggie Lewis enjoyed lucrative pro careers. Sam Cassell still is. Toss Mark Karcher's name and anyone else you want into the debate over Baltimore's best player ever.
The majority who saw them play will agree that they are all Skip's children.
"The way some people talk," Wise said, "you'd think I could fly."
Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.