Travel puts Dunbar out of class by itself

JOHN EISENBERG

January 18, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Dunbar Poets again demonstrated last night at the Towson Center why they are the nation's top-ranked high school basketball team, but is it right that there is such a thing?

Their 93-82 dismissal of St. Raymond's of New York in the Charm City Classic meant that eight of their 15 wins have come against opponents ranked in the national top 25, but should we be keeping track of such matters?

Do we need a high school top 25? A national champion?

Do we need a high school team traveling to tournaments in Hawaii, South Carolina, Missouri and Pennsylvania, as the Poets have this season? (In the process missing a dozen school days.)

To all of these questions there is a one-word answer:

No.

The world doesn't need such professionalism in high school sports. It's too much, too soon.

The Dunbar kids should be worried about math class, not a No. 1 ranking no one can prove. Winning city or state titles is enough. A national championship is not only subjective to the point of meaninglessness, but also puts too much pressure on kids before their senior prom.

It also leads to this: Once the season started in December, the Poets missed 12 of 16 school days before Christmas break, off chasing their Holy Grail. They deserve a chance to show their splendid stuff beyond Baltimore's borders, but there is such a thing as going too far.

They did bring a tutor and turn in homework when they got home, but they belonged in class, not off on some NBA schedule. Traveling is fine, and worthwhile for the culture and experience, but it should be done on weekends and breaks. What Dunbar did sends the wrong messages.

Message No. 1: Basketball is more important than school.

Wrong.

Message No. 2: The players are privileged because of basketball.

Wrong.

Maybe they're privileged now, but here is the hard truth: They will be lucky if even one of them makes the NBA, and if along the way they're told too often that they're so privileged they get to skip class, they're going to lose big in the end.

Poets coach Pete Pompey objects to the criticism. "We tend to our business: We've got six kids on the honor roll," he said. "We're trying to get these kids scholarships. We're trying to expose them to as many faces as possible."

But consider second-ranked St. Anthony's of Jersey City, N.J., which plays Dunbar tonight. "We've spent two nights out of town, both during Christmas break," coach Bob Hurley said. "We won't spend a night away during school. Travel teaches kids a lot, but there is no greater teacher than a classroom.

"Being in the inner city, the message we have to send out is you have to prioritize, that sports does have a place, but there's nothing more important than an education. No matter what kind of player you are, you need to be in class."

If that makes Pompey look bad, he is not entirely to blame. It's also the current of the ranking-driven system, which is taking the kid out of high school basketball. Pompey is guilty mostly just of that modern American tradition: taking what is there.

The Poets didn't use a nickel of their money traveling around the country. Sponsors and tournament organizers paid for their travel and expenses. The players lived like kings. Why do it? Because it was there. There wouldn't be losers if only class time weren't missed.

But it was, and it's just another debit against a system that began spinning out of control when USA Today began listing national rankings in 1983. Until then teams were happy playing around home, striving for city or state titles and maybe taking one trip to a neighboring state. It was plenty. Good teams still played good teams, and the right players still got scholarships.

Now, because of the rankings, there's this relentless urgency to leave town, to go far, to maximize exposure, to get a national name. As if the college scouts don't already know about every player who can hit a 15-footer.

Granted, the Poets need to play elsewhere because there isn't much competition for them here other than Southern. But did they need to go to St. Louis for one day? Hawaii? Why not just play the best teams in Washington, Philly, New York? They haven't played DeMatha in years. That wouldn't require lost class time.

The Charm City Classic makes more sense because all the teams are no more than a bus ride away. There's nothing wrong, per se, with a team playing the best from elsewhere. The problem is the sacrifices too often made in search of that end. It's wrong. These kids belong in class. They need to understand that. If they don't, bad things are going to happen.

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