A Poet's lament

September 02, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

MANY RESIDENTS of East Baltimore are in a collective funk, worried about what the coming basketball season will bring. As a long-time Dunbar Poets fan, who briefly was an East Baltimore vTC resident some years ago, count me among them. I'm a Poet at heart.

The only local sports phenomenon I can equate it with is when Robert Irsay skulked away with the Colts in the middle of the night. The city as a whole was crushed. Feelings for the Poets run much deeper and are more personal.

The Poets are more than just a basketball team. It's about racial loyalty. It's about community. That's why so many people demonstrated in front of the city schools' headquarters on North Avenue, insisting that Pete Pompey be reinstated at Dunbar. They were sending a message that not just anyone can fill the gargantuan shoes left by Pete Pompey and the two other legendary Dunbar basketball coaches: William Sugar Cain and Bob Wade.

And probably no where other than East Baltimore is there more suspicion surrounding the circumstances of Pete Pompey's removal from Dunbar.

They understand that Pete Pompey put $51,000 of student activities funds in a secret, unauthorized bank account but the state's attorney decided that there wasn't enough evidence of wrongdoing to prosecute. That Pete Pompey escaped prosecution does not satisfy. Many think Pete Pompey should be reinstated at Dunbar, not shuffled off to Edmondson High School as Superintendent Walter Amprey has done. After all, a dynasty is at stake.

While I don't agree with such conclusions, I understand them. To understand why loyalty runs so deep among Poets fans, consider the history:

* William Sugar Cain's teams won five Maryland Scholastic Association championships from the time the league begrudgingly admitted Baltimore's only three black high schools 1955 until he retired in 1973.

* Bob Wade won nine MSA titles in his 11-year stint coaching the Poets. His 1983 and 1985 teams were ranked number one in the country. His 1982 team -- better than both the 1983 and 1985 teams -- should have been. Observers desperately in need of cataract surgery picked Towson's Calvert Hall as the number one team in 1982, although Dunbar's second team -- led by a lanky fellow named Reggie Lewis who would eventually captain the Boston Celtics -- could have beaten Calvert Hall.

* Pete Pompey continued the tradition, winning a national title in 1992 and being named national coach of the year. The Dunbar poets won 57 games in a row -- over two years -- before losing a game in December 1992. A Pompey team was the first city squad to win a state championship.

The Poets, even when they didn't win titles, were always in contention. The road to any title in high school basketball went through the gym of the school on Orleans Street.

With such success there naturally comes envy. There is a strong anti-Dunbar sentiment in the city and surrounding suburbs, mostly from whites. It was expressed on radio talk shows and letters to the editors of The Evening Sun long before Pete Pompey's troubles were revealed. Dunbar was even ridiculed by a white newspaper columnist for traveling to Hawaii to play a couple of years ago. Other schools do the same thing and there's no negative feedback.

While those of the anti-Dunbar sentiment may have access to material things, many of East Baltimore's poor, black residents for years have had pride in knowing they had something money couldn't buy -- an unbelievably successful team.

The same type of division along racial lines exists concerning Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson. For years I've noticed the almost fanatical hatred some whites have for Mr. Thompson and his team. I've seen some virtually ready to declare a Great Caucasian Holiday whenever his teams lost. Mr. Thompson draws this kind of hatred and he hasn't been investigated for any alleged wrongdoing.

Dunbar and Georgetown basketball teams both are coached by strong black men, comprised of black youngsters and are successful. It just shows that there are some left in America who have a problem with the combination of being black, male and successful.

Whoever coaches basketball at Dunbar in the post-Pompey era will have that hurdle to overcome.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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