Baltimore Boys: Their basketball dreams kept them alive long enough to enjoy an NBA life
30 for 30 film about legendary Dunbar High School teams shows how four future NBA ballers survived the streets while others didn’t
Tuesday night, the ESPN 30 for 30 Film Baltimore Boys debuts.
It’s the untold story of one of the greatest high school basketball teams ever, Dunbar High School in Baltimore, and the tumultuous times that city went through in the 1970s and ’80s. The life experiences of the film’s co-directors, Marquis Daisy and Sheldon Candis, play into the film’s context and meaning. Here are their perspectives on the telling of their extraordinary story.
When I was first approached by ESPN Films to co-direct a film on the 1981-82 and 1982-83 Dunbar High School basketball program, instantly I knew that this would be a thrilling and unique opportunity.
To me, even at the very core, the stories of Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Reggie Lewis, David Wingate, Reggie Williams and coach Bob Wade embodied something far greater than excellence on the basketball court. It represented a story filled with pain, struggle, adversity and, ultimately, tragedy. As I began researching more and more, I realized that, in a lot of ways, I would have the opportunity to tell my very own story through the lens of these four boys.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1982, to a 23-year-old single mother who was already raising two other boys on her own. For years, we all crowded into my late grandmother’s two-bedroom apartment in the notorious Louis H. Pink housing projects in the East New York section of Brooklyn. For those who might be aware of what that neighborhood was like back then, you’d understand that drugs and violence were just a normal part of the everyday struggle for many of the residents.
So it wasn’t surprising, even to me as a young boy, that when we moved from Brooklyn to the east side of Harlem years later, the closest victim of the rampant drug problem that took over that neighborhood was my very own mother. I witnessed for years her struggle trying to raise three boys and a new baby girl while battling the forces that came along with addiction. Those days were dark and confusing but, in a weird way, also normal and comforting. It was all I knew and the only thing that seemed to make any sense.
But my story, sadly enough, wasn’t unique and limited to my household. Like most boys in Harlem, as I became older and started to see the world though my own set of eyes, I used sports as a diversion and safety tool to escape the daily sightings of drugs and violence — I developed a love for the game of basketball, and it ultimately changed the course of my future.
At 13 years old, I attended Cardigan Mountain School, a pre-preparatory school in rural Canaan, New Hampshire, before completing high school in North Andover, Massachusetts, at Brooks School. I played basketball with a select team in Havana and even graduated from Williams College, a small prestigious liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I often reflect on my journey with a deep appreciation, with the understanding that I was no more special than any of my close friends growing up — no more special than my best friend, Gregory Wright, who was killed at the fragile age of 13, his bullet-riddled body left on a Brooklyn project roof. I think about how that could have easily been me or any of my other friends, but instead, my decision to choose basketball over the streets probably saved my life.
Fast-forward a little more than a decade later — while researching for Baltimore Boys, I stumbled upon a thrilling read, The Boys of Dunbar, a raw and unapologetic retelling of the dominant Dunbar basketball teams of the early 1980s, and instantly realized this story was much more than a basketball tale. Rather, it was a study of race, socioeconomics and poverty, and ultimately it begged the question of whether we ever really leave where we come from. Baltimore in the early 1980s was hit just as hard as Harlem, if not harder, by the crack epidemic. On the heels of the 1968 assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the Baltimore riots were born, changing a once-thriving city forever — and destroying the fabric of what perseverance is built upon.
Industry moved out of the city, drugs took over, and instead of familiar jobs at Bethlehem Steel, where even people without high school diplomas could earn a middle-class living, the new industry that moved into Baltimore was drug trafficking … and role models in the black community and parks that used to be vibrant with all types of athletic activity were replaced by drug dealers who used the old playgrounds as a home base for their operations.
But similar to my journey into adulthood, Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis, David Wingate and Reggie Williams all found their own love for the game of basketball, and they found a father figure in their old coach, Bob Wade. Over the course of two seasons, the team went 59-0 and sent an astonishing 11 players to NCAA Division I schools. The four aforementioned went on to storied NBA careers, with Williams, Bogues and Lewis all picked in the first round of the 1987 NBA draft, a feat that has never been duplicated by any high school program. These boys thrived and used sports as a ticket out of what David Wingate described as “all bad.”
To me, Baltimore Boys is an important film for our youths to watch and internalize because it is the tale of four boys who probably should have never made it out of the environments they were born into. Life tends to be cyclical — that is, kids often grow up and mirror the very same mistakes that their parents work hard to shield them from, and in this tale, it was the rampant dangers that permeated the streets of East Baltimore.
Muggsy Bogues was shot at 5 years old. He should have never even made it to Dunbar. David Wingate watched his older brother struggle with a heroin addiction, forcing him to become an adult way before his time, as he was tasked with caring for his paralyzed mother daily. He should have never even made it to Dunbar.
Reggie Lewis watched his older brother Irvin get in too deep with the drug dealers who controlled summer basketball in Baltimore, and he ultimately fell victim to the drug trade himself. Reggie should have never made it to Dunbar. And Reggie Williams grew up in the very same housing project that almost claimed the life of Muggsy. He should have never made it to Dunbar. Perhaps none of them should have.
The responsibilities that come along with telling someone’s story are enormous. It is important to care for each detail with care and compassion. However, it is also the responsibility of a filmmaker to document history in its most accurate form. That is the approach that I wanted to take with Baltimore Boys. The details of how boys grew up in East Baltimore in the early 1970s and 1980s on the heels of the riots of ’68 are crushing and uninspiring. But, as a learning tool, the discussion needs to continue. It’s my opinion that if we chose to ignore Baltimore’s history, we would have been choosing to do the story of Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis, David Wingate and Reggie Williams an unfortunate disservice — and that I was not willing to do.
Baltimore Boys is an honest and often sad reminder of reality, and it is my hope that it will ultimately serve as a cautionary tale for boys and girls in East Baltimore and beyond. It certainly resonated with a boy who grew up hundreds of miles away in Brooklyn.
— Marquis Daisy
Baltimore. Charm City. Home of the greatest high school basketball team ever. The Dunbar Poets.
Growing up in Baltimore as a kid, you dreamed of being a Dunbar Poet and wearing that maroon and gold satin varsity jacket with DUNBAR in bold font. Easier said than done, though. Good wasn’t good enough. A true desire for greatness was the prerequisite.
You had to be one of the city’s best ballplayers to get a spot on the bench, man! Even the great Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis was the sixth man, coming off the bench for the Poets.
But how is greatness achieved?
Without the basketball knowledge of Coach Bob “Flakey” Wade and rec center guru Mr. Leon Howard before him, we very well may have never known the likes of Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis.
At its core, Baltimore Boys is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours personified onto film. My greatest hope is to communicate to viewers, in particular the younger generations of America, that it takes true grit to achieve your dream in spite of the odds stacked against you.
It’s Coach Wade’s NFL career cut short by injury, young Muggsy Bogues being shot at the age of 5 and high school senior David Wingate having to be the primary caretaker for his paralyzed mother. It is this grit that people from Baltimore embody to our core.
It’s the ingenuity of Bob Wade bringing bricks into the gym and his players training with them so that in the fourth quarter, there wasn’t a single team better-conditioned than the Poets.
I hope Baltimore Boys leaves you inspired. I hope it motivates you to keep your own dream alive.
I hope this true Baltimore story of a special group of boys and their relentless coach tells you most importantly, “If you put the work in your dreams can come true, and with less you can truly become more.”
— From a Baltimore kid named Sheldon Candis