After decades of roller coaster twists and turns as the face of Dunbar athletics, and Poets basketball in particular, coach William ‘Sugar’ Cain was being asked to take one last ride by his kids. And, what a ride it would be. That last ride would not only leave a lasting impact on his players, for such a memorable season, but it would lay the foundation for what would become one of the most legendary high school basketball programs in the country, and cemented the status of Baltimore City basketball as a national power, a decade before the Poets would win the mythical national championship.
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It was 1972, and coach ‘Sugar Cain’ had spent 30 years of blood, sweat and tears at the East Baltimore school, and was wrangling with walking away, after a season in which his team went undefeated for the third time in his storied career, and astoundingly, winning all of their 16 games on the road. Though the legendary coach had found much success on the hardwood, spanning three different decades, ‘Sugar’ was tired.
The native of Washington DC wore the battle scars of the challenges that the coach of the Poets had faced over thirty years on Orleans Street. Cain had guided the Poets through segregation, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, race riots, a notable melee on his campus that shook the scholastic basketball landscape to its core, and enough death and destruction around him, that the lines on the face of the distinguished teacher, coach and gentleman, were evident.
The ‘72-73 season looked to be promising, with 6’3 senior All-Met Billy Snowden returning, along with 6’3 junior Skip Wise, and 6’8 sophomore Larry Gibson, among others, from their undefeated squad a year earlier. But the months following the 16-0 season would prove to be ones of heartache and heartbreak for the Poets and their longtime coach.
Just weeks after being named to the 1972 All-State team, and just weeks before announcing where he’d play college ball, Poets star Tony Brown was murdered, stabbed to death, the fourth Poets student killed in the school year. Baltimore, like many American cities in the early 70s, was suffering from neglect, drugs, deindustrialization, and urban flight. Brown’s killing was just one of the then record 323 murders recorded in Baltimore in 1972. Brown was effectively the first city league player to be recruited by colleges across the country, even earning a postcard from John Wooden and the defending national champion UCLA Bruins.
Brown had just led Cain’s charges to the most improbable of seasons, a year after a melee following the Poets final game of the ‘71 season versus Mt St Joe, one that would decide the division title. That ruckus that resulted in nearly two dozen being arrested, more than a dozen injured, and led the Catholic schools to flee the MSA Conference, and establish their own Baltimore Catholic League. Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe, the Bullets star who had became a loyal Poets fan, was one of the 23 arrested. The MSA, which was established in 1957 during desegregation, was never the same again. Cain, who at one time could wave a hand to calm the Poets faithful’s fury, couldn’t do anything to stem the frustration of the fans following the 69-67 overtime loss. “Of course I’m upset about losing the game”, Cain said following the game, “But the trouble is even more perplexing for me. I did every possible thing I could do to ensure safety. I don’t know what else I could do.” Regardless, despite the coach’s good intentions, the Catholic schools were gone, and Gaels coach Gene Nieberlein vowed to never play in the Dunbar gymnasium again.
The exodus was similar to the ‘white flight’ that occurred at a steady pace in Baltimore from World War II to the race riots that took place in urban centers across the country in 1968, following the assignation of Dr Martin Luther King. Over a week’s span in early April of ‘68, more than 11,000 troops of active Army and National Guard were called in to Baltimore, and when it was all said and done, six would die, more than 700 were injured, and more than 5,500 were arrested. More than 1,000 small businesses were damaged or robbed, and more than 1,200 fires burned around the city.
Political equality was pathetically distant, reasonable economic opportunity for Blacks in the early 70s was all but absent, and racial discrimination still persisted in Baltimore and throughout the country during the time. Robberies had increased thirty-fold from 1950 to 1970 in Baltimore, and the school system was in disarray. To add, Governor Spiro Agnew, who had blamed Black leaders for the civil unrest during the riots, was chosen by Richard Nixon to be his running mate in the presidential election shortly thereafter, exasperating the political divide between Washington and Baltimore, and doubling down on the racial divide in the area and the nation as a whole.
Brown was going to be the one. While Washington had been seen as a basketball hotbed for more than twenty years at the time, Baltimore was non-existent on the maps of college recruiters that hailed outside of the area in 1972. A couple of white players, Gene Shue and Lee Dedmond, had gone from Towson to Maryland, and City College to North Carolina, in the 60s, but the talented Black players from Baltimore area were overlooked. Some had stayed home, such as Marvin Webster of Edmondson, who would lead Morgan State to a Division II national championship in 1974, but many others fell by the wayside, for a myriad of reasons – finances, grades, or ‘the streets’.
After the punishment handed down from the MSA following the brawl on Orleans Street, one taking away all of the Poets home games for the ‘71-72 season, Coach Cain and his team faced a rough road ahead. He’d stick around another year he figured, to guide his Poets during these unprecedented times. And Cain and the Poets responded, led by Brown, the area’s Player of the Year, after averaging 20.3 points and 17.6 rebounds per game. ‘Box’ Owens, the Poets 5’5 floor general, was named to the All-State Third Team, and junior Billy Snowden joined Brown and Owens on the All-Met First Team. The Poets beat the best of Baltimore’s best – Loyola, City College twice, Carver twice, Northwestern twice, and Northern, all on the road. After cutting down the nets after the Poets had secured their sixth MSA title, Brown shouted, “Congratulations, Mr Cain. And, thank you!”
Brown was going to be the one that went somewhere. Three years earlier, the Poets ‘Petey’ Harris traveled to McNeese State to play his college ball, but that recruitment came about when a local reporter contacted his alma mater about the East Baltimore star, not the other way around. Brown was the first to attract the attention of the ‘Wizard of Westwood’, UCLA’s John Wooden, and the Lefty Driesell’s of the world. Build it, and they will come. Coach Cain had built it, and Brown was going to be that guy that made it to the ‘big time’. Until. On the day of Brown’s death, Cain recalled seeing him in the gym just hours earlier, “He wanted to play college ball so much, you know.” Owens and Snowden, two of Brown’s best friends walked in when Owens asked, “Is it true Mr Cain? Is Tony really dead?” Cain nodded, and the point guard put his head against a file cabinet and sobbed.
Less than three months after Brown’s killing, Owens was arrested on narcotics charges, while attending summer school to earn his diploma, and was served with a four year sentence. The median income level in the Dunbar community was just over $2,000, and poverty was taking a large toll. Shortly after being sent to Hagerstown Correctional Facility, Owens spoke to Phil Hersh of the Baltimore Sun about his circumstances, his regard for Coach Cain, and what got him there. “Maybe it was the area – East Baltimore. Maybe I was hard-headed, didn’t listen. I knew what I was getting into, but I needed the money.” Of his coach, the diminutive guard said, “He lectured us every day. Whatever he said, you’d do it. Everyone, used to like ‘Sug’, respect him.”
Maybe not everyone, with skeptics wondering publicly why Poets players weren’t finding offers like DC’s Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing were getting a decade earlier, just thirty minutes south. Those critical ranged from some of his former stars, to local sportswriters, such as Hersh. To add to the drama, the ‘71 Mt St Joe debacle still lingered, while Cain himself may have contributed to the pressures he felt in ‘72 by having the success he had. The Poets had just won their seventh division title and sixth prestigious MSA Conference title, and the bar of expectations for Dunbar basketball had risen to a level in scholastic sports only seen by a few of the best football programs in the area, such as City College and Poly. While both City and Poly had the ears of their alumnae downtown at city headquarters, Cain was not only trying to meet those expectations, but trying his best to keep his kids in school, off the streets, and frankly, for some, alive.
‘Bill’ Cain was a three-sport athlete in the late 30s at Armstrong High in the District of Columbia, before playing football, basketball and baseball at Morgan State University. But basketball was his thing, and the 6’3 1/2 college center spent several seasons with the upstart Harlem Globetrotters, while starting his storied career at Dunbar in the early 40s, in the high school’s infancy. Dunbar and the other predominately Black public high school basketball programs remained in relative obscurity through the early 40s and through the mid-50s, due to segregation, and limiting Dunbar, Carver, and Douglass, to play themselves, and anyone else that would play them from ‘DC’ or Virginia. One of the three teams Cain could find in ‘DC’ was his alma mater, Armstrong High.
Then, in 1956, following desegregation instructions, the MSA Conference was formed, which merged Dunbar, Carver and Douglass, alongside the white public and private schools in the area. Cain and his Poets thrived, winning three of the first four conference championships. Charley Leach, an All-State guard, led the Bards to back-to-back conference titles in ‘59 and ‘60, and was one of Cain’s first few bonafide stars, following Joe Pulliam and Charley Moore. Cain then led the Poets to back-to-back conference titles in ‘64 and ‘65, the latter led by seniors Jimmy Files and Nat England, and junior Dickie Kelly. The ‘65 Poets finished undefeated, the second unbeaten season under Cain, and had already developed a strong following. In Game 2 of the best-of-three MSA championship series, Cain’s Dunbar Poets name adorned the top of the marquee at the Civic Center, in a game that drew 4,598 to the arena.
It would have been easy to walk away from the game in ‘71, after seeing thirty years of hard work and success get tarnished by outsiders upset by the Poets overtime loss to the Gaels that led to the fracas, and the unflattering above-the-fold headlines that followed. Not to mention, the questions being posed by the Poets faithful and beyond regarding the program’s MSA title drought, both directly and indirectly. The Poets had not only just completed the most tumultuous season Coach Cain had ever endured, but it had gone six seasons without having won a conference title, after having won five of the first nine available. To add, the Poets Club, representing a boisterous group of alumnae and community leaders, began to rival any ‘political machine’.
It was easier for Cain to walk away in ‘72, whether it was just after completing the unthinkable, winning all 16 games on the road, or months later, after dealing with the heartbreaking loss of Brown, or the heart tugging consequences that faced Owens. While both cases within months of each other left the legendary coach at an emotional low, basketball-wise, he’d be leaving on top, as a champion, and undefeated, just as his Poets team had in the first year of the MSA Conference, 15 years earlier. But, the following season looked just as promising, with the 6’3 All-Met First Team selection Snowden coming back, and two of the most promising youngsters Cain had ever coached, the ultra-talented Wise and the ever emerging Gibson, joining him. Cain decided to stay, buoyed by, as Dunbar’s Principal Raymond Carpenter put it, ‘the boys wanted him to.”
The Poets ‘72-73 season would be a magical one, one that would lay the red carpet of legacy that lives on nearly 50 years later. Ten years before the Poets won their first of their three mythical national championships on the hardwoods, featuring Reggie Williams and ‘Muggsy’ Bogues, and nineteen years before they won their third, with Donte Bright, Mike Lloyd, and Keith Booth, Coach ‘Sugar’ Cain’s ‘73 Poets laid the foundation for those national champions, and firmly planted a flag across the national scholastic cagers landscape, one that served notice of a new national high school basketball superpower, and in turn, represented a basketball mecca that could no longer be overlooked.
The Poets picked up where they left off in ‘72, and carried that momentum through the new year, opening up their league slate with a 101-40 rout of Lake Clifton, and followed that up with a 96-78 victory over Southern, with Wise scoring 29 points and dishing out 14 assists. The Poets put away their top contender, City College, 89-77, in their first of two meetings, and knocked off top 5 Edmondson twice, by 27 and 17 points, respectively. The Poets put away the top private school in the area, their old MSA rival, Loyola, with ease. Despite the Catholic schools exodus from the MSA following the Dunbar-Mt St Joe game, Cain’s relationship with the Dons Athletic Director Ed Hargaden kept the rivalry alive, albeit without any conference implications riding on the game.
In mid-January, a local promoter was proposing the unthinkable, a post-season matchup between the Poets and the nationally renowned DeMatha Stags, coached by the legendary Morgan Wootten. It would be an unprecedented matchup, featuring two teams that were currently riding winning streaks that spanned two years, the #1 team in Baltimore area versus the #1 team in the Washington area, and arguably, the #1 team in the nation, featuring one of the best three players in the country, Adrian Dantley. Despite 30 years of success for Cain and the Poets, it would be the first showcase for the East Baltimore school that would garner a national spotlight. But, obstacles stood in the way.
The MSA had a longtime rule limiting its members to 18 games, excluding any playoff games. Since the MSA playoffs were scrapped following the ‘71 season, with the departure of the Catholic schools from the MSA, the Poets 18th and final game was scheduled for February 20th, with City College, in a game that would decide the MSA champion. Still, promoter Dan Snyder, a City College graduate who got a taste Cain’s talented Poets teams in the late 50s, had a dream, one that would give Cain and his Poets the exposure they deserved, and put them on equal footing with the likes of the Stags, and the best of New York and Philadelphia, who had competed against each other for almost a decade. It was the Stags win over New York City’s Power Memorial and Lee Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) that vaulted Wooten’s Stags into national prominence in 1965. It was the only loss suffered by Alcindor in his prep career.
Snyder had the blessing of Wootten, who quipped, “We’ll play anyone, anywhere, at any time.” But Snyder had to convince the downtown powers that be to overturn the 18 game rule, something far easier said than done. There would be risk for all involved. For Snyder, who had proposed Cole Field House or the Civic Center hosting the event, he not only wanted to finally showcase Baltimore’s best ballers, but wanted to turn a profit. How many patrons would pay $2.50 (about $20 today) to see what many outside of East Baltimore would be a one-sided contest. For Wootten and the Stags, their 40-some game win streak would likely be at stake, with a hungry, yet relatively unproven Poets squad waiting in the wings. For Cain, the Poets would likely be putting their unbeaten streak on the line, and he’d risk losing the perfection the Poets had saw on the hardwoods ever since the Mt St Joe debacle, and losing the final game of a illustrious career that produced so much success. But Cain felt the risk was worth the reward, and that his program could get the recognition it rightly deserved. His 30 year ride at Dunbar could culminate with what was unthinkable just 24 months before, as he dealt with the aftermath that took place at his beloved gym.
Twelve days before the Poets scheduled season finale with City College, the power brokers downtown relented, and allowed the game to be played, with the downtown Civic Center playing host. It would be a busy day in the state of Maryland for basketball fans on February 24th, with Maryland hosting Duke in College Park, Morgan State and Marvin Webster hosting Maryland Eastern Shore and Joe Pace in a small college blockbuster, and the Baltimore Bullets hosting the Portland Trail Blazers later that night at the Civic Center.
Then, five days before the MSA showdown with the Black Knights, and nine days before the DeMatha matchup, the Baltimore Sun’s Hersh wrote a scathing article on Cain and the Poets, titled ‘Failure Follows Dunbar Basketball Success’, delving into the lack of success of many of the former Poets stars in the post-graduate (and non-graduate) world. Hersh spoke to more than a handful of former Poets stars, some of who had the highest praise for ‘Sugar’ Cain, and some who intentionally or unintentionally tarnished the image of the most successful basketball coach ‘Charm City’ had ever seen, who devoted thirty years of his life to Dunbar, and was a father figure to so many. Just two weeks before Cain would complete such a notable career at Dunbar, the coach was again confronted with heartbreak, as the final ride was coming to a close.
Hersh regurgitated some of the criticism levied at Cain, of the Poets star players not finding success at the next level, some succumbing to ‘the streets’, and the life of drugs and crime it offers, and others never even playing college ball despite their stardom, and settling for the struggle of living week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck. Of course, it seemed disingenuous to place the blame at Cain’s doorstep, as he said at his retirement ceremony, “As a coach, you take what you can and do the best you can with it. If a boy graduates, and goes on to college and becomes a great 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.” For thirty years at Dunbar, Cain felt he did the best he could, political correctness be damned.
Charley Leach, the star guard of the Poets ‘59 and ‘60 championship teams, leveled this at Hersh, when asked about the help he received from Cain in pursuing his dreams of playing college ball, “I don’t think ‘Sugar’ gave me as much help as I wanted in trying to get a scholarship somewhere. Maybe he just didn’t have the real interest the other coaches would have concerning seniors. He’s not any kind of father figure. A person could only look up to him until they got to know him. Once they see him out, they lose respect.” Far more said otherwise, but Leach’s words jumped out from the scathing piece. Nat England, the leading scorer on the ‘65 championship team, agreed with Leach, “We made a name for Dunbar, but no one ever cared about us once we got out (of Dunbar). As I see it now, ‘Sugar’ didn’t do as much for me off the court. To my knowledge, he’s never gone out of the way for anyone.” Ralph Lee, England’s teammate and fellow star on the ‘64 championship team, and a good part of the ‘65 team before he was arrested for grand larceny a day after the Poets beat Loyola, blamed his environment, “Its a struggle for survival in the ghetto”, before going on, “I needed money to transport back and forth to school. I thought I’d play in college, and ‘Sugar’ was enthusiastic about seeing me get something on the ball.” Instead of Lee getting on the ball, he received a six month sentence in the House of Corrections.
Robert Diggs, who served as Principal at Dunbar from 1956 to 1969, and was a curriculum supervisor for the city in 1973, opined on the subject facing the student-athlete at the time, “Most of the problem comes from the environment, from the lack of educational background and motivation in the homes. The families provide little support, economic or otherwise for the boys. The males are not visible in the community, and you’d rarely see one of the parents at the game”, the former Principal told Hersh. Diggs went on, “It is true money was sometimes thrown in a particular direction. When a big emphasis was being put on language labs, for instance, only Dunbar and Southern didn’t get them. If one school has all it needs and another has only one-fourth, you never catch up. But, if there was anything we didn’t try to do to help these boys, I’d like to know it.” As for the basketball side of it, Diggs said, “I think the lack of exposure has hurt us. We were never able to get into tournaments like the Catholic schools. Some people thought we were the kingpin in a little area.” Joe Buckson, a 1954 graduate of Dunbar, and a physical education teacher at Douglass in 1973 quipped, “Long before they get to Dunbar, in elementary school, they (the students) weren’t given the proper tools or interest. I got some help from ‘Sugar’ at Dunbar. But I’m amazed why more haven’t gone at least to junior college, since many junior colleges will accept any outstanding athlete without much regard to academic considerations.”
Bob Wade, who was the valedictorian of his class and would become the Poets coach two years after Cain stepped down said, “I thought I was together, but the Dunbar curriculum was so weak in English and Math that I flunked them the first semester at Morgan. Many other Dunbar guys left college for the same reason.” As for Cain, his former mentor, Wade said, “He demanded respect and discipline, and was not only a father figure to me, but to many kids from single parent families.” Jimmy Files, another All-Met on the ‘65 championship team, countered his teammate England’s opinion of the man that led them, “To me, he was a father figure. I loved him. I think most of the guys love him.” Wade, later recounted in 1985, just before leading the Poets to their second mythical national championship added, “I don’t think some of those opportunities were open then. You have to remember, it was right on the threshold of racial unrest. Those opportunities weren’t open like they are now. I remember those so-called innuendos being levied against him, but it was an insult to a man who for 32 years had put his heart and soul into this school. I’m very fortunate I was to pass this way (Dunbar), because he was very instrumental in my life.”
Most wasn’t good enough anymore for the man that once coached three different sports, while serving as the Athletic Director for the Poets. He was tired. He had suffered enough heartache. “It’s time to let a ‘young buck’ pick it up. I’ve been preaching to these boys for years, and what happens to them after they graduate is a constant source of irritation to me, because I preach so hard. I’m not a magician, just a teacher and a coach.” Following Hersh’s expose, Cain proclaimed, “If I had any doubts (about retiring), that pushed me over the top. After devoting all these years, I don’t think I deserve it.”
The last ride was coming to an end. One week remained in a thirty year career of coaching. And while most coaches would savior the moment, on the cusp of a fourth undefeated season, the deep creased lines on Cain’s face told another story, lines that would reveal the trials and tribulations that the most successful coach in Baltimore high school basketball had endured since he first took the reigns in the early 1940s.
Still, at 17-0, the Poets needed to top 16-1 City College in the regular season finale to clinch the MSA title. The Black Knights were a formidable squad, and handed the Poets their toughest test in the finale, before the defending champions overturned a five point fourth quarter deficit by scoring 36 points in the final stanza and escaping the a 81-76 win. The Black Knights were down two, 70-68, with just over three minutes remaining, when Wise made two acrobatic shots to put the Poets up six, and deem the result academic. Wise scored 24 points, while Gibson added 16 points and 20 rebounds, and Snowden scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, to clinch the Poets 34th straight victory.
Coach Cain and the Poets had one game left, the biggest game in the program’s history. The top team in Baltimore versus the top team in the ‘DC’ area. The Poets were carrying their 34 game win streak, while the Stags were riding a 43 game win streak. This was the one to put the Poets on the map. Eight years earlier, the Stags beat Alcindor’s Power Memorial, to entrench themselves as one of the top program’s in the country, now it was the Poets opportunity to do the same, this time at the Stags expense. Not that many gave the Poets a fighting chance. A Washington Post reporter had the Stags as 32 point favorites. A week after his blistering article in the Sun, Hersh gave the hometown team a better chance, listing them as 12 point underdogs.
There was good reason to think the Stags were the favorites, they had been there and done that. By the early 70s, the Stags were traveling up and down the eastern seaboard like it was old hat. While the Poets were finishing up with City College the week before their showdown with the juggernaut just to their south, the Stags were playing three games in New York, winning all three. The Stags were led by Dantley, a 6’4 ‘man-child’, who was averaging 26 points and 18 rebounds per game, and who would be named the nationally acclaimed ‘Mr Basketball’, weeks later. Though star junior Kenny Carr was out due to an injury, the Stags boasted guard Billy Langloh and forward Kenny Roy. Langloh would go on to score more than 1,200 points at the University of Virginia, and Roy, a three-sport star, would go on to the NFL. For the Poets, Wise, the talented junior, had established himself as the best in the Baltimore area, and the 6’8 Gibson had established himself as one of the best big men in the country in his class. Joe Boylan, a college recruiter at the time remarked, “I think every recruiter in the country knows who Larry Gibson is.” Times were changing, people were beginning to take notice of Cain and the Poets. But, there was the one missing piece, that signature win. And while few gave the Poets a chance, their coach did, and presented them the opportunity they had sought for years.
The stage was set, and the arena was packed with 8,500 spectators. The Poets had played in the arena before, but it was nothing like this. East Baltimore showed up, as did many other avid basketball fans, to see what the Poets could do against the national powerhouse. For Cain, it was the culmination of a Hall of Fame career. As they announced his name, Coach William ‘Sugar’ Cain received a 76 second standing ovation from the crowd, validating the admiration and respect for the man that had been building his program for thirty years to get to this stage.
The game began as a defensive tussle, as the Poets held tight and matched the former national champions, shot for shot, stop for stop, and went into intermission with a 25-25 tie with the Stags. Cain had a special defense designed to stop Dantley, with the 6’3 Snowden fronting the All-American, and the 6’8 Gibson behind him. The strategy worked, and frustrated Dantley to no end. ‘Duke’ Richardson, the Poets 5’10 ‘off guard’, hit six straight shots in the third stanza to help propel the hometown heroes to a 49-44 lead after three quarters. After a Langloh bucket cut the lead to three, 53-50, Wise took over, and put on a show that’s still talked about nearly a half of century later. Wise scored 22 points in the quarter, shooting 8 for 9 from the field, and finished the biggest game of his career, scoring 39 points in a 85-71 resounding win over the nationally acclaimed Stags.
Wootten would later say, “It was one of the greatest shooting exhibitions I have ever seen. If we had a three-point line back then, that 39 would have been 50.” Gibson scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but most importantly, helped limit Dantley to two field goals and 12 points. Richardson added 16 points, including 12 on the six straight shots he made in the third quarter. Snowden, who also did a great job on Dantley, finished with 10 points, and Tim Greene came off the bench to supply 10 rebounds. Coach Wade, who coached Edmondson at the time, and played football, basketball and baseball for Cain, would later say, “I think that game really sent a message throughout the nation that Dunbar could play basketball. Dunbar defeated DeMatha! It went out on all the news wires and kind of told people – hey, we can play basketball in Baltimore.” Of Wise’s performance, a solemn Dantley remarked, “Skip was definitely the man. I said to myself, he’s going to play pro ball, if he does the right thing.”
[Langloh finished with 25 points, Roy, 20. Dantley, however, was held 14 points below his season average, which turned out to be the final point margin of the game. Later that night, only 4,800 came to see the first place Bullets beat the Trail Blazers, 3,700 less than those who had come to see the Dunbar-DeMatha game. Months later, the Bullets would move to Landover. Dan Snyder, the young promoter, was an All-American lacrosse player at the University of Maryland, and was depicted in Barry Levinson’s 1982 film ‘Diner’, recollecting the days of Levinson, Snyder, ‘Boogie’ Weinglass, and other friends, coming of age (and beyond), in Baltimore in the late 50s. ‘The Pearl’, the two-time All-Star for the Bullets, and who had led the Bullets to the NBA Finals months after being arrested at Dunbar, led the Knicks to the NBA title in ‘73, scoring a team-high 23 points in the Knicks Game 5 clinching win over the Lakers, who featured Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.]
Wise and Gibson would return in ‘74, with the former playing his senior season, and the latter having two years remaining. Both would have to deal with adversity that season, as Wise lost a major portion of a big toe due to an accident with a lift-truck in the summer, while Gibson was stabbed after going after someone who had stole his coat at a church dance. Despite all of the drama, the Poets won their first 13 games, extending their unbeaten streak to 48, and won their third straight MSA title, before losing two games at the prestigious Knights of Columbus tournament to St Johns (DC) and Malvern Prep (PA). Two years after Tony Brown’s hopes of playing ‘big time’ ball were extinguished with his demise, Wise announced his decision to play for Clemson in the ACC. One of ‘Sugar’s’ kids made it, albeit for one fleeting season. Wise electrified the ACC conference, becoming the first freshman in the history of the conference to be named to the All-ACC First Team, after averaging 18.5 points per game, and scoring 30 points versus the eventual national champions, the NC State Wolfpack.
“He’s going to play ball, if he does the right thing.” Wise failed to do the right thing. He decided to go pro, and the decision was fatal to his basketball career. Wise signed with the ABA’s Baltimore Claws, who folded after three exhibition games. He then signed with the Golden State Warriors, who cut him three days later, reportedly for drug use. The following season, Wise played two games with the San Antonio Spurs, scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds in ten minutes over the pair of games in the big league, before his career would come to an end. Wise would be charged with distributing heroin in 1978, and served two years of his 12 year sentence. That would be just one of Wise’s brushes with the law. “I got down on my hands and knees and begged Skip to stay in school. I told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life.”
Still, the Poets win over DeMatha wasn’t done in vein. The Poets would become a household name in the national basketball community, and Cain’s former player Bob Wade would lead Dunbar to the first of three national championships, 10 years after the historic game at the Civic Center. Gibson would be named as a Parade All-American as a senior in ‘75, before moving on to Maryland, but unlike Wise, played four years in the ACC, earning All-Conference honors in his senior year. Gibson averaged more than 10 points and 8 rebounds per game in each of his four seasons with the Terrapins, before playing professionally for 10 years in Europe. Ernie Graham would graduate from Dunbar two years later, and join Gibson in College Park. The Poets ‘73 win over DeMatha opened the recruiting floodgates in the Baltimore area. Wise went to Clemson in ‘74, Gibson went to Maryland, and Edgewood’s Dudley Bradley went to Chapel Hill in ‘75. Pete Budko of Loyola joined Bradley in Chapel Hill in ‘77, while his former Dons teammate Tony Guy went to play for the Kansas Jayhawks in ‘78. Quintin Dailey of Cardinal Gibbons became the most highly recruited player in the city’s history in ‘79, when he garnered more than 200 offers, before heading to the University of San Francisco. Baltimore was no longer being overlooked by recruiters, but instead was a sure stop on any respectable college basketball recruiter’s itinerary.
As for ‘Sugar’, Coach Cain finished his coaching career as the winningest coach in Baltimore City’s history, finishing with a record of 465-105, winning eight division titles, winning seven MSA conference titles, completing four undefeated seasons, Coach Cain won the Sun’s Coach of the Year honors in the first two years the award was given, in ‘72 and ‘73, the final two seasons of his career. At his post-game press conference following the win over DeMatha, Cain commented on Wise’s performance, talked about the impact the victory would have, and left with, “Viva Victory.” For the coach that had guided his team through segregation, led his team to five conference titles in the first nine years of the league, consoled his team after the tragic loss of Tony Brown, see his players such as Lee, Owens, Wise and others turn jersey numbers into inmate numbers, and close out his tenure winning back-to-back conference titles, including a season where his teams had won all 16 of its games on the road, and the other putting the icing on the cake with a win over such a heavy hitter such as DeMatha, it had been one hell of a ride.
HS Sports Analyst
Willie, a native of Chicago, and now a resident of Columbia for 40 years, is an educator at Homewood Center in Howard County, after spending 12 years as a real estate agent, following 10 years of running a small men’s retail company. Willie has contributed to Max Preps, Digital Sports, and Varsity Sports Network. Willie has produced MPSSAA top 25 rankings for both football and basketball for 15 years, across various platforms. From a large ‘sports family’, Willie’s brother Mike led Reservoir High to the 3A basketball state title game in 2018, while his nephew Anthony serves as the Indianapolis Colts College Scouting Coordinator.