Twilight falls over Orleans Street in East Baltimore, and the sidewalks that weave through the low-rise housing projects are empty. A chain-link fence surrounds one building. Bedsheets hung on a clothesline in a courtyard whip in a chilling, late-autumn wind. From up the hill, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, comes the sound of a siren.
In the middle of the neighborhood stands a brick and steel high school built to withstand an invasion. Inside, there is the unmistakable sound of sneakers squeaking on a wooden floor.
Banners marking past successes and championships hang on metal beams above the polished floor. The 12 players sprint and sweat, as the coach, who watches in silence, occasionally blows a whistle. There is no need to talk. Each whistle signals the start of a neatly choreographed drill, from jump shots to layups to three-on-three passing exercises.
This is a place of hope, and this is a team with a dream.
Dunbar High School, the country's preseason No. 1 high school team, is practicing to win a national championship in basketball. The players are preparing for a fall and winter filled with promise and pressure. They are local heroes who can float through the air.
"There's not a lot around here," senior guard Mike Lloyd said. "But what there is, people are proud of. Dunbar is the heart of East Baltimore."
For five decades, this predominantly black school has been at the center of high school basketball in Baltimore. Twice during the 1980s, Dunbar won national championships, emerging as mythical titlists from among more than 10,000 schools. Dozens of Dunbar players have gone on to star in college. Six have made it to the NBA.
Some might say basketball is just a game that means nothing. But in a school surrounded by a half-dozen housing projects, in a neighborhood where crime, drug abuse and teen-age pregnancy are everyday problems, the game is often everything.
In national preseason polls, Dunbar -- which opens its season tonight in Johnstown, Pa. -- is ranked No. 1 by USA Today, Street & Smith and The Associated Press. The team, 27-1 last season, is led by three players with extraordinary gifts burnished on asphalt playgrounds and in neighborhood recreation centers. There is Donta Bright, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound senior forward whose slim build masks a powerful playing style. There is Lloyd, the 6-2 guard as traffic cop, waving his arms to unclog human gridlock and set up fast breaks. And there is Keith Booth, 6-6, 205, a junior whose effortless grace sets him apart in the often ragged flow of a high school basketball game.
The man responsible for these players and their teammates is Pete Pompey, ex-college football quarterback, ex-journeyman pro, lifelong Baltimorean. He is 52 years old, with a gravel voice that can echo through a gym. Around Dunbar, he is known simply as "Coach."
Five years ago, he replaced a local legend named Bob Wade, becoming Dunbar's fourth basketball coach since World War II. Pompey has seen great teams and great players come and go, first at Edmondson High School and then at Dunbar. This could be the best of all seasons. But, for now, there is only practice. The coach pacing. The players running. The season approaching.
A team of role models
This is what it is like to play basketball for Dunbar:
"You go to a playground, and you hear the little kids, that they want to be like you," Bright said. "I used to be the same. When I grew up, I wanted to be like a Dunbar player."
Teachers know you on sight, even if you're not in their classes. They know your grade-point average, your study habits, your reading level. And, if you miss a class, they surely know that, too.
L "We're role models," Lloyd said. "We can never forget that."
Game night is the time to see Dunbar. Get there two hours before the opening tip. The doors are about to close. More than 1,600 people are crammed into the gymnasium. Coats come off. Music screeches over a loudspeaker. The crowd sways. Cheerleaders stomp at center court, their voices forming a chorus. There is a junior varsity game.
And, then, the varsity takes over.
The Dunbar players, dressed in white, maroon and gold, rush on to the floor, and the crowd shrieks. During the game, there is a constant buzz, the crowd responding to each dunk with a wave of high fives and a serenade of cheers. Inevitably, another victory is recorded.
This is a place of history. It's up there in the rafters of the gym, pennants representing 19 Maryland Scholastic Association titles, the first one won in the 1956-57 season, when the citywide league became integrated. And there is that clutter of flags from the 1980s -- undefeated teams and national championships won in 1982-83 and 1984-85.