The Greatest High School Basketball Team Ever

The 1982–1983 Paul Laurence Dunbar High School basketball team included Reggie Lewis (#31), Reggie Williams (center rear), and Tyrone Bogues (#14), all of whom had impressive college and NBA careers.
Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.

The Greatest High School Basketball Team Ever
The Dunbar Poets, 1981–1982 and 1982–1983
Chad Carlson

Their accomplishments seemed impossible and unattainable even as they
occurred. However, the legacy of the 1981–1982 and 1982–1983 Paul
Laurence Dunbar High School boy’s basketball teams continued to grow
after their incredible seasons. The 1981–1982 team finished its season undefeated.

The 1982–1983 team followed with a 31–0 campaign and a number-
one national ranking. This group of young men became widely known
as the best high school basketball team of all time, and many of them went
on to even greater basketball fame. Nineteen eighty-two Dunbar graduate
Gary Graham played college basketball at the University of Nevada, Las
Vegas (UNLV), which was then a powerhouse. David Wingate, another 1982
grad, won an NCAA championship with Georgetown University before
embarking on a productive thirteen-year NBA career. Nineteen eighty-three
graduates Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Reggie Lewis, and Reggie Williams —
the latter teamed with Wingate on Georgetown’s 1984 national championship team — enjoyed lengthy and notable NBA careers. Tim Dawson, Keith James, and Mike Brown went on to star at the University of Miami, UNLV, and Syracuse University, respectively. The 1982–1983 team was so talented that Reggie Lewis, who became Northeastern University’s fourth all-time leading scorer, a two-time conference player of the year, a first-round NBA draft pick, a NBA All-Star, and the captain of the Boston Celtics, could not even crack the Dunbar starting lineup.

Despite all of its accolades, awards, and honors, the undefeated 1982
Dunbar team may not have been Baltimore’s best. The undefeated Calvert
Hall Catholic School garnered that distinction, holding its number-one national ranking just out of Dunbar’s reach in an environment that offers rich perspectives on Baltimore high school basketball, public education, race, and city politics. Dunbar, with a traditionally black student body, resides amid five housing projects in Baltimore’s poor east side and remains central to the Baltimore City Public School system. Calvert Hall, an overwhelmingly white Catholic school located just outside of Baltimore’s eastern city limits, represents the results of the “white flight” that affected Baltimore’s demographics, which was true of many American cities in the middle of the twentieth century. Dunbar’s incredible basketball success in the early 1980s — matched in Charm City perhaps only by Calvert Hall’s success — and the juxtaposition of these two schools illustrates the complex social, athletic, educational, and political contexts in which Baltimore high school basketball at the time was embedded.

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School has a history that parallels the
African American experience in Baltimore since the school opened its doors
in 1918. The school’s namesake, who led a brief but illustrious career as
a poet and writer, garnered great fame among the African American and
literary communities. The poet’s legacy includes schools, parks, hotels, and
libraries across the country named in his honor. Baltimore’s Dunbar High
School — nicknamed the Poets — started a basketball program not long after
the school evolved into full K–12 service in 1940. Coach William “Sugar”
Cain led early Poet teams to great success. Throughout the 1950s, Cain’s
teams were perennially among the best local high school basketball squads.

In 1956, Dunbar joined the Maryland Scholastic Association (MSA)
with three other historically black schools, integrating the organization.
One year later, the Poets won their first MSA championship by defeating
Loyola High School, a team that — like Calvert Hall — presented a number
of contrasts from Dunbar. A Catholic school, Loyola and most of its student
body migrated from inner-city Baltimore to neighboring Towson in
1941, taking its predominantly white student body away from the perils
of the city. Dunbar, still a young and black school located in a troubled
Baltimore neighborhood, faced Loyola in March of 1957 in an integrated
game with an integrated crowd of spectators. The game was played without
incident.

The climate for this championship game marked progress from the tension
that drove racially charged public policies in Charm City. Baltimore has a history of tension regarding race. Its geographic centrality along the Eastern
seaboard led to a general lack of cohesiveness between the Northeast and
Deep South cultures that it dually — and often uncomfortably — embodied.
Baltimore experienced heavy industrialization during the middle of the
nineteenth century, like many northeastern conurbations. Its industrial
basis made slaveholding inefficient, but the practice remained. Locals often
had to contract their enslaved women and men out to work at hotels and
shipyards to prevent financial losses. Outside of the small number of those
enslaved, Baltimore was home to an extensive population of free African
Americans, more than any other city in the antebellum period. The large
and increasingly free black community in Baltimore created vast social networks in the post–Civil War years. Churches, schools, the print media, and civic associations became a source of pride for the black community, despite its second-class social status.

A number of segregated, large-scale housing projects cropped up three
decades later to accommodate the influx of African Americans to Baltimore
after World War II. While some of them joined the well-known black neighborhoods of west Baltimore, others fortified the black migration into east Baltimore. These communities fell into economic and social disrepair as the economy dwindled throughout the civil rights era and many African
Americans lost the relatively well-paying industrial jobs that left the city. Five of these economically ravaged housing projects — Lafayette Courts, Somerset, Latrobe Courts, Lester Morton, and Douglas Holmes — surrounded Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, which naturally felt the effects, too, as
drugs and violence became more commonplace along with the economic
and social blight.

To read more, see Baltimore Sports: Stories from Charm City, edited by Daniel A. Nathan. Order online with the code YOUOFA and receive 25% off.

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