THE MYSTIQUE is gone.
It faded with those long lines of fans that used to run from Dunbar High's gym out onto Orleans Street. Those were the days when the Poets basketball team was a source of East Baltimore pride, when the Poets had more people in their entourage than Muhammad Ali, when parents wore more Dunbar athletic gear than the students.
The stream of talent in the 1970s through the early 1990s was endless: Skip Wise. Larry Gibson. Ernie Graham. Muggsy Bogues. David Wingate. Pick a Reggie, either Lewis or Williams; both were great players. Keith Booth. Michael Lloyd, Keith James. If you were late for the game, you didn't get a ticket to the show.
But Wednesday during a home game against Douglass, the same gym that coaches such as Georgetown's John Thompson and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim used to visit was half-filled. There are no seniors who are Division I prospects, a clear sign of how far the program has fallen. Some Dunbar fans didn't even know that Eric Lee is the Poets' new head coach.
Once one of the most dominant programs in all of high school sports, Dunbar has turned into just another city basketball program. Once a regular atop The Sun's rankings, now the Poets (3-0) are No. 13, their lowest ranking in a decade. Last year, two of their players transferred to Southern-Baltimore.
"We're in the middle of the pack. We're not the marquee program anymore," said Lee, a captain on Dunbar's 1984-85 national championship team. "But we still have a lot of Dunbar pride because there were so many great players who paved the way for us. I'm not going to listen to the critics about the program. I'm just going to work and pray as hard as I can to return it to where it once was."
That may never happen because the landscape has changed since the Poets won two national championships in the 1980s and another during the 1991-92 season. Dunbar was a member of the Maryland Scholastic Association then. It joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association along with other city schools in 1992, which eventually hurt its exposure.
But maybe most of all, the east-side community doesn't have another Bob Wade.
The Dunbar program hasn't had the same unity, spirit and enthusiasm since Wade resigned to take the job at the University of Maryland on Oct. 31, 1986. Wade, who became Poets head coach in 1975, had critics throughout Baltimore, but a lot of coaches emulated his Dunbar program.
He ruled Dunbar and the east side of the city because his work was endorsed by a number of local politicians. Wade was always at the front door before games, screening out any problem kids. His teams were just as disciplined on the court - there was no garbage time for Dunbar.
The Poets were relentless and overpowering. Year after year, Dunbar was the complete team, with an abundance of talent - inside strength, outside shooting, superb ball-handling. It was a team so deep that Reggie Lewis was a sixth man on the 1982-83 national champions.
Mix in a solid coach who could intimidate officials and opponents, and combine that with tradition, and it added up to possibly the premier program in the country.
The Poets played the role, too. They were the first city team to arrive at away games in matching warm-ups, tennis shoes and traveling bags. The school even had a Nike contract, one of the few high school programs to land such a deal back then.
But the dynasty started to fall apart when Wade left.
It didn't happen overnight. Dunbar hired Edmondson High's Pete Pompey to replace Wade, and Pompey won a third national championship in the early '90s. When Pompey was reassigned after seven seasons, Dunbar brought in McDonogh's Paul Smith, who won three state titles, but gained no national prominence.
Neither Pompey nor Smith was supported by alumni, politicians and former players such as Wade. You see, Wade is an East Baltimore home boy. Pompey came from the west side of the city and Smith came from a private school in Owings Mills. They were outsiders.
Not even Lynn Badham, a former assistant under Wade who coached Dunbar the past three seasons, could escape the shadow of Wade. Now, there is a lot of speculation that Wade's son, Daryl, may move from the head basketball position at Mervo to Dunbar.
However, all of Dunbar's problems can't be traced to Wade, now supervisor of athletics for Baltimore City Schools. Despite protests from Dunbar, city public schools joined the state association in the winter of 1992. State rules prohibited participating schools from traveling more than 600 miles per round trip. That meant Dunbar could no longer play in national tournaments in Hawaii, St. Louis and California.
State rules allow only 22 regular-season games per year. In 1991, Dunbar played 29. Some private schools play as many as 35. Instead of drawing players from Howard County such as Perry and Terry Dozier in the 1980s, the Poets began losing such city players as Mark Karcher to St. Frances, Calvert Hall, Towson Catholic and other private schools.