In Baltimore City, particularly on the east side, talking Dunbar boys basketball never gets old.
The program has enjoyed decades of success covering generations. With it has come countless championship teams – the one in 1982-83 was widely considered the best in the entire country; legendary coaches; and great players who enjoyed success on and off the court after their time at Dunbar.
On Monday, some past Dunbar greats -- Coach Bob Wade and standout players Sam Cassell Sr., Ernie Graham, Kurk Lee Sr., Dwayne Wood and Mike Brown – took part in a panel discussion on all things Dunbar basketball at Shoe City on Monument Street.
Stories were told, laughs were had and what it meant to put on the Dunbar basketball uniform was shared. Clearly, it went far beyond basketball.
"It's just as much about life when talking about all the great players, how they were able to use their skills to get college degrees," Wade said. "And then from there, a few were fortunate to play in the NBA and those who didn't make it into the NBA were able to go out in the work force and became productive members of our society."
The event comes about a week before ESPN Films is airing "Baltimore Boy," a documentary about the powerhouse teams in the early '80s that featured future NBA stars Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and David Wingate. It will air Aug. 8.
Cassell was one of the many who made it to NBA, enjoying a 15-year career that included two championships with the Houston Rockets and a third with the Boston Celtics. Now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, he wasn't going to miss an opportunity to return home to reunite with Dunbar alum.
"Oh man, it's where it all started for me," he said. "Once you put on [the Dunbar uniform] you know you belonged and it was an elite group of guys that went there. It was awesome."
His first impression came when he would go watch Dunbar alumni games as a youth.
"That gym used to be jumping on a Saturday when that alumni game was going on. Reggie Williams, Reggie Lewis, Muggsy Bogues -- anybody who was a part of the Dunbar tradition was there. I wasn't even high school yet and seeing that was overwhelming. I knew it was the place I needed to be."
That was the consensus among the group, reinforced by Brown in his opening remarks during the discussion.
"I went to Cardinal Gibbons first, but always wanted to go to Dunbar," he said. "It meant a lot to me to play with the guys I played with and be a part of something that was more than basketball. Coach Wade was a hard-core disciplinarian, but it helped us become the players we became. I was proud that I went there and I'm still proud."
Wade was quick to mention legendary coach William "Sugar" Cain, whom he played for and credited for laying the foundation which he added to.
In 11 seasons starting in 1975, Wade guided the Poets to a 272-24 record with four undefeated seasons and a mythical national championship in 1982-83.
"Dunbar became the focal point of the community, especially the East Baltimore. At that time the Bullets had just left Baltimore to go over to the D.C. area [in 1973] and it seemed like the folks just gravitated to Dunbar," Wade said. "Even before I was fortunate enough to go to Dunbar, my predecessor, Mr. William "Sugar' Cain, he set the ground work and really inspired the community to rally around Dunbar. He had tremendous teams, great talent and all I did was pick up the baton and continue on with his coaching philosophy."
After starting his high school career at Calvert Hall, Lee, who grew up in East Baltimore, made the most of his senior year after transferring to Dunbar. The 1985 grad went on to play at Towson and made it to the NBA.
"We used to try to sneak into Dunbar games, it was such a big tradition here in Baltimore and everybody wanted to go there. So being able to spend my senior season there, it was a great honor just to be on the floor, to be at Dunbar and being able to play for Coach Wade, it was so amazing," Lee said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 1981-1982 Dunbar team won the mythical national championship. That team was undefeated, however. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.