LET'S SEE now: Do we call this guy "Pickles," Eugene, William, "Bighead," Wells or Bill?
Friends, relatives, well-wishers, former players and a wealth of others called William E. Wells all those and more Friday night at a ballroom of La Fontaine Bleu in Glen Burnie. It was an eclectic gathering. Attorney and former state Del. Curt Anderson was chatting with Wells just before his retirement dinner -- in celebration of 32 years working in the city's Recreation and Parks Department. Marvin Billups, the head of recreation and parks, joined them.
Barry Powell, former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, came to pay respects, as did Loyola High School basketball coach and athletic director Jerry Savage and 2nd District City Council representatives Bernard "Jack" Young and Pamela Carter. Staffers at St. Frances Academy and former mayoral candidate Carl Stokes were on hand.
For years, Wells was director of the Madison Square Recreation Center located in East Baltimore's heart at 1401 E. Biddle St. It was on Madison Square's courts that Wells coached the fabled Buccaneers. It was from this rec center that James "Pop" Tubman, Marc Wilson, Duane Ferrell and others went on to make Calvert Hall College into a national high school power.
Even players from other rec centers have played on Madison Square's court, nicknamed the Dome. Most of the name basketball players hooped in Wells' gym at one time or another: Sam Cassell, Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Reggie Lewis, Keith Booth and the guy who might be the best of all: Skip Wise. The list could go on.
"Juan [Dixon] played at the center," Wells said of the University of Maryland star who just led his team to a national title. "But his brother Phil played for me [on an organized squad]. I had big-brother talks with Phil and Juan when they were in high school."
Just before the eats began at La Fontaine Bleu, Wells was discussing the brothers Dixon with Anderson and Billups. Which one, Anderson wanted to know, was better?
Wells paused briefly and pondered the question before answering.
"To be honest," he concluded, "Phil." Anderson added that in some parts of East Baltimore, Phil Dixon, Juan's older brother, is still considered the better player. Hoops fans will probably never know for certain. These days, Officer Phil Dixon of the Baltimore Police Department spends his time patrolling the streets of the Northwestern District, where his investigative skills are more sorely needed than his jump shot.
Wells is no stranger to basketball. He graduated from Dunbar High School, where he was a teammate of Bob Wade, the current director of city athletics who coached football and basketball at his alma mater. Wells was coached first by Archie Lewis on Dunbar's junior varsity before moving up to the varsity, where he received tutelage from the legendary Bill "Sugar" Cain.
After leaving Dunbar in 1963, Wells went to Baltimore Junior College, the name of which has since been changed to the less linguistically efficient Baltimore City Community College. He went to Towson State after that and finally landed a job with the city's recreation and parks department. The past few years, Wells has been head coach of the boys' basketball team at St. Frances.
Wells has been around, even with all the budget cuts throughout the years. When Wells started working at Madison Square, there were 14 staffers.
"Now, there are only two full-time people," Wells said. "So you see the difference."
But how was a guy like Wells able to get his center to survive the budget cuts, to make a way out of no way, the past several years?
"You've got to have community involvement," Wells said. "You hope people can volunteer and give you some kind of involvement."
Wells mentioned several people in attendance who had come through in the clutch for the community. More than 200 people had filled the room, a group of predominantly black East Baltimoreans who had proved that when government can't get the job done, common folks can roll up their sleeves, get busy and do it themselves. You had to leave this gathering wondering why many of these people weren't Republicans.
As for Wells, he'll spend his retirement painting the portraits he loves -- several were on display -- and finishing school on a scholarship former City Councilman Tony Ambridge provided for him at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He didn't seem partial to some of the several names folks called him, but he probably won't object to one other: