This was after the Dunbar Poets had blown out Northwestern by 42 the other day up on Park Heights Avenue; the junior varsities were out on the court warming up now. Pete Pompey, the Poets' coach, was standing on the side wearing a gray suit with a bright red handkerchief in the breast pocket.
"I know back in the beginning that there were people who wondered if I was up to this," he was saying. "They had the common courtesy not to mention it to my face, but I know there was talk on the street corners and around town, people saying, 'Is he the one to replace Bob Wade?' "
The victory over Northwestern raised the Poets' record to 6-1 and offered evidence to another collection of fans that the word passing around town is correct, that the Poets are loaded again, as loaded as they have been since Williams and Wingate and Muggsy left.
No one is saying these players are that talented, but they're quick, jump high and play with that calm elegance that separates the yeas from the nays in the frantic high school game. Their names are Terrance Alexander and Donta Bright and Michael Lloyd and Keith Booth, among others.
"We have a lot of talent on this team," Pompey was saying. "From one to 10 on the roster, it's the most talented team in my five years here. The level of talent [at Dunbar] is coming back. It dropped off a little, but I think now it's pretty much back to where Bob had it."
The point is irrefutable. The Poets not only are one of the best teams in any city, with a top 20 ranking in the national polls, but also will return four of five starters next year. "We're hoping we'll be even better then," assistant coach Paul Holmes said.
Pompey is the one who put all the pieces together. He is a slender, understated 51-year-old who spent two decades coaching "all over the place" in the city school system before getting the most public job in town after Wade left for Maryland in 1986. It hasn't been easy.
"I get reminded of Bob Wade every single day," he said. "Every time I go in the gym and look at those [championship] banners. The man won a national title. People are looking for the same things from me. I understand that. I knew what the challenge was when I took the job."
Wade made a mess of his chance at Maryland, but he was, and remains, almost a mythic figure at Dunbar, an East Baltimore kid who played a couple of years of pro football, came home and put together a peerless basketball program, putting on the floor a series of championship teams and future pros.
Replacing him was Baltimore's version of replacing Dean Smith or Bobby Knight. Even tougher, in a way. "Pete not only replaced a legend, but a home-grown legend," said Ray Short, leader of the Poet Followers, the Dunbar fan club. The Poets were East Baltimore under Wade; any new coach coming in from the outside faced a skeptical constituency.
There was, predictably, some fallout in the beginning. A couple of talented kids transferred when Wade left. Nothing was said, but the implications were obvious. The kids doubted that Pompey could maintain Dunbar's high profile. "Maybe they didn't know me well enough," Pompey said.
The Poets finished out of the money that first year, but returned to win the Maryland Scholastic Association championship each of the next two seasons, then finished second to Southern last year. "We've done pretty well, I think," Pompey said. It made life easier that kids such as Sam Cassell and Kevin Green stayed home.
Still, it was different. The Poets no longer were alone at the top, the team with the magic name that froze opponents in their high-tops. They didn't graduate any name recruits in 1989 or 1990. Southern and Lake Clifton were equals.
The other two teams are strong again this year; the Poets, who have beaten Washington's best team and lost by one to the nation's third-ranked team, will have plenty of challenges at home. But they are the ones with four players mentioned in Street & Smith's, a top basketball publication.
There is Alexander, a senior shooting guard with three-point range. There are two juniors: Lloyd, a point guard who can score, always pushing the pace, and Bright, a forward playing center, a shot-blocker who can lead a fast break. Then there is Booth, the most promising of all, a 6-4 sophomore.
"The jury is still out on whether they can come together into a team," Pompey said in classic coach-ese, "but there is a lot of talent. No question about it."
There was a time, back in the Poets' halcyon days, when they would go into another team's gym and the fans wouldn't boo, but just sit and stare in silence, aware of the imminent beating. It has been awhile since the Poets commanded such respect. But the gym was awfully quiet at Northwestern the other day.
"This is the year we'll get back to that," said Short, the head of the fan club. "It's our best team since the mid-'80s. There's no question that Pete's settled in now. For a while there was the memory of Bob Wade. But Pete has established himself."