'73 classic is where city's game took off

Basketball: More than Skip Wise vs. Adrian Dantley, the Dunbar-DeMatha game put Baltimore on the map to stay.


February 23, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The first collegian to be selected by the NBA next summer might be Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony, who is from Baltimore. So is the player who dominated last season's NCAA tournament, Washington Wizards rookie Juan Dixon.

Few Baltimoreans, however, had left a substantial mark in basketball until a coach working his last game and a gang of talented but star-crossed teens from Dunbar High School conquered DeMatha and two figures headed to the Hall of Fame, Morgan Wootten and Adrian Dantley.

Their landmark meeting occurred 30 years ago tomorrow. The Inner Harbor was a series of run-down steamship piers, 1st Mariner Arena was the Civic Center, and local hoops had an identity crisis.

After its pro team, Baltimore basketball had little credibility, street or otherwise.

"The best thing that Dunbar-DeMatha game did was bring publicity to Baltimore, and finally influence recruiters to come here," said Allen "Skip" Wise, considered by many to be the city's best player ever. "There had always been exceptionally good players here, but they weren't pushed."

Near the end of a giddy Saturday afternoon, when Wise had crammed 22 of his 39 points into the fourth quarter and Dantley was frustrated by Larry Gibson and a defensive wrinkle installed by coach William "Sugar" Cain, the largest crowd ever to watch a high school game in Baltimore began the cheer that was Dunbar custom:

"Get your hat, your coat and LEAVE!"

Abe Pollin took the advice. The NBA owner prepared to relocate his Bullets to the other end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but the city game was finally enmeshed in the local fabric. After Dunbar beat DeMatha, coaches from the Atlantic Coast Conference and throughout the nation added Baltimore to their recruiting itinerary.

The game's angles included the Diner Guy who arranged it and the origins of the Baltimore Catholic League, but the central figures were inner city kids who weren't prepared for the fame and opportunity thrust upon them. It's a Black History Month memory touched with melancholy. Wise spent more time in prison than he did pro basketball, as the player who put Baltimore on the basketball map got lost before he found himself in middle age.

Breaking the barrier

While the nation's capital turned out players like Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing in the 1950s and early 1960s, Baltimore went more than two decades between local products being taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Gene Shue went in 1954 and Marvin Webster in 1975.

Minus a high-profile college program in the region until Lefty Driesell landed in College Park in 1969, the game was played in a recruiting vacuum. An exception was Lee Dedmon, who went from City College to North Carolina and was co-MVP in the ACC tournament in 1971.

"I can't think of anyone else from Baltimore who played in the ACC back then," said Dedmon, a high school principal in Gaston, N.C. "It befuddles me why more players weren't recruited."

Shue and Dedmon are white, and racism posed roadblocks to many African-American players.

JoJo Parker was among the Bullets' last cuts one season late in the 1960s, when the NBA had just 10 teams. He had graduated from Carver High in 1958, went to historically black North Carolina Central and then played with the Harlem Magicians.

"No one was recruiting in the city in the late 1950s," Parker said. "I got a directory from the guidance counselor, wrote to 20 colleges, sent them my clippings. Montana State said that they would give me a scholarship. When they asked for film, I said, `Uh-oh.' "

The color barrier in the ACC wasn't breached until 1965, when Towson High's Billy Jones traveled south with Maryland teammate Gary Williams.

"We had some great players in town then," Jones recalled in an interview in 1999. "I'm the only [black] one who attended a major school."

Baltimore's Catholic high schools were also just starting to integrate their teams in the mid-'60s, long after Jesuit high schools and colleges in other regions. DeMatha integrated in the late 1950s, strengthening a brand of basketball that was already superior.

"My first year at DeMatha was 1956," Wootten said. "I think that was the last year that we had an informal league among the Catholic schools in the two cities. The arrangement dissolved, because we [Washington] dominated for the most part. We were bigger, stronger. I suspect that our kids started attending summer camps earlier than Baltimoreans."

Racial strife and some considerable role models turned Baltimore into a player. The Bullets had a cult following at the Civic Center that barely kept pace with the Clippers, the city's minor-league hockey franchise. What the Bullets lacked in attendance, they made up for in charisma.

Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld were ready-made heroes for young blacks, but the boys at the recreation center just south of Dunbar were immersed in other sports.

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