When James (Pop) Tubman, the 5'8" point guard for the Calvert Hall College high school Cardinals, isn't moving the ball upcourt with his powerful, rhythmic dribble, he's often flagging down wild passes and shoveling them off behind him to fast-breaking teammates for easy layups. Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues, a 5'3" playmaker, scoots, skates and skitters for the Dunbar High Poets, picking off passes from hulking opponents like a sparrow stealing seeds from lazy pigeons.
Pop and Muggsy live not far from each other in predominantly black East Baltimore. There, a lot of basketball fans think Dunbar, which at week's end had a 19-0 record, is the best high school team in the country. However, Basketball Weekly and just about every other publication that keeps track of such things rank Calvert Hall (21-0) No. 1. Basketball Weekly had Dunbar No. 5 in its latest (Jan. 28) poll.
If Calvert Hall, an exclusive, mainly white Catholic boys school in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, hadn't offered Pop, who's black, an athletic scholarship three years ago, he probably would be playing for Dunbar. The same goes for most of his five black teammates. Conversely, if Dunbar, a public school in East Baltimore, didn't offer health-care courses, Muggsy would still be playing for Southern High's second-rate team.
Muggsy, like two other Poet starters, allegedly aspires to be a dental technician, and Dunbar is the only school in the city that provides training in that vocation. Like many cities with large public school systems, Baltimore allows a student to transfer out of his neighborhood school if that school does not offer the curriculum the kid wants. Instead, he can find another city school that does. That stipulation, coupled with the availability of athletic grants at most of the city's parochial schools, means that many Baltimore coaches scout for prospects like impresarios scouring the hills of Calabria for the next Pavarotti. Some coaches have intermediaries solicit for them, and nearly all are in some way dependent on summer recreation directors to funnel players to them. Rec hoop coaches who supply white suburban prep schools with inner-city talent are about as welcome in Baltimore's black community as Magic Johnson would be at a Westhead family reunion.
Recruiting kids to play high school ball isn't unique to Baltimore, but it attains special notoriety when the top players in a large metropolis are concentrated on what are arguably the two best teams in the country. "If we were 0-20, nobody would care what we did," says Dunbar Coach Bob Wade. "But since we're winning, everybody is taking potshots at us." Says his Calvert Hall counterpart, Mark Amatucci, "People say I buy players, but that's not true. I hustle. Our program sells itself."
Both teams have their selling points. For Dunbar, it's Wade's 132-10 record and five Maryland Scholastic Association titles in the last six seasons. For Calvert Hall, it's the school's fine academic reputation and two consecutive Baltimore Catholic League titles.
The Cardinals have been a power only since 1979-80. Before that season Tubman and his best friend. Marc Wilson, both of whom were entering their sophomore year, chose Calvert Hall over Dunbar because Amatucci told them they would make the varsity right away and possibly even start. They did, and ever since they've formed a brilliant back-court tandem. Wilson is scoring 19 points a game and was one of three Cardinals picked in the preseason for one All-America team or another. Dunbar has four such selectees. The best prospect at either school may well be 6'5" Calvert Hall Forward Duane Ferrell, who's only a sophomore. An exceptional leaper with a splendid shot from the corners, Ferrell also has a 19-point average.
The polls rate Calvert Hall higher than Dunbar on the basis of a sensational 94-91 triple-overtime defeat of the Poets last March and an ambitious schedule this season. Over the Christmas holidays, the Cardinals won the Nike tournament in Las Vegas. In five days they beat four teams, including St. Bernard's of Playa del Rey, Calif., ranked 20th in the nation at the time. The school's alumni association raised more than $7,000 to pay for the trip. Earlier in the year, Calvert Hall had defeated the three best clubs in talent-rich D.C., and last month it won the Pepsi Challenge in Philadelphia. In the finals of that tournament, the Cardinals beat Camden (N.J.) High, which had lost only one of its previous 52 games and was ranked second nationally. As usual, Calvert Hall's balanced attack was like a slightly reluctant F-16, taxiing on the runway for three periods before suddenly taking off. While the Cardinals don't have Dunbar's quickness or strong inside game, they are more patient and selfless, and they always seem to perform best in tight games. In that triple-overtime victory over Dunbar, Calvert Hall trailed by nine with 1:52 to go in regulation play. This season the Cardinals got a tip-in with three seconds remaining to defeat St. Bernard's 65-64, and against Camden they made up a five-point deficit with less than five minutes to play and won 67-62.
Dunbar is named after Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), a black American short-story writer and poet. Regrettably, the school lacks the beauty of its namesake's best verse. Cramped amid drab housing projects, Dunbar has all the charm of a government warehouse. Calvert Hall, on the other hand, sits on the greensward atop a tree-clad hill. The school has the immaculate cheeriness of a merry monastery, and students in well-pressed blazers and ties give the place a look of impeccable rectitude.
Calvert Hall has never had much of a black enrollment. The Christian Brothers who run the school claim they've always sought out poor kids, but they certainly haven't found many takers in the black community. Though Calvert Hall was founded in 1845, the first black wasn't admitted until 1961. Today only 3½% of the student body of 1,270 is black, but four of the basketball team's starters are black. The lone white transferred there this year as a senior.
For many years Calvert Hall competed with Dunbar in the MSA. But in 1969, the year after the streets of Baltimore exploded in rioting following Martin Luther King's assassination, a black Dunbar fan slugged a white Catholic-school player at a game. The Catholic teams pulled out of the MSA and formed their own league. That's when Calvert Hall and other parochial schools began offering athletic grants to help players cover the cost of tuition, which today at Calvert Hall comes to $1,350 a year. The Catholic schools that didn't offer athletic rides stayed out of the league because they couldn't compete.
Still, Baltimore was hardly a hotbed of high school basketball until 1973, when Dunbar, led by Skip Wise, who would go on to star at Clemson, and Larry Gibson (Maryland), upset DeMatha, the perennial D.C. powerhouse, which had Adrian Dantley (Notre Dame) and Kenny Carr (North Carolina State). The game was the last for William (Sugar) Cain, the former Harlem Globetrotter whose reign as Dunbar coach spanned 32 years. Wade took over two seasons later, retaining Cain's vaunted running game and zone defense. Wade is a smart, cagey and excitable sort who badgers officials and slashes the sideline air in a Kung Fu frenzy. He tries to instill in his players the same discipline he learned from Vince Lombardi as a defensive halfback for the Washington Redskins in 1969.
His team executes as if it were giving a clinic on how the sport is meant to be played. Two weeks ago Carver High, which had the second-best record in Dunbar's division, "held" the Poets to 16 first-period points. Unfortunately for Carver, it could come up with only three. Early in the fourth, with Dunbar ahead by 35, Wade sent in his scrubs. When they increased the lead to 45, it became apparent that the third-best team in the city may be riding the Poets' bench. Final score: 74-29.
This supremacy and the fact that three of Dunbar's starters are transfers have earned the Poets the not-so-lyrical nickname "The City All-Stars." Recruiting is against MSA rules, and Wade claims he refrains from it. But other Baltimore coaches are complaining and asking for sanctions against athletes who change schools. For example, David Wingate, one of the Poets' All-America candidates, came from Northern High, a basketball lightweight. He is in the dental technology program at Dunbar and reportedly had his transfer application co-signed by an "uncle" who turned out to be the coach of his summer rec team, a squad laden with Dunbar starters. The Northern coach protested that Wingate had been enticed, but no collusion could be proved. When Bogues wanted to leave Southern to attend Dunbar in the fall of 1981, his coach, Meredith Smith, just shrugged. "When a kid is set on going to Dunbar that's the end of it," he says. "To try to stop him would be an exercise in futility."
Which is about how Amatucci must have regarded the job of coaching basketball at Calvert Hall when he took over in 1976. The Cardinals had gone 9-16 the previous two seasons. Amatucci, 29, is an amiable psychology teacher who seems convinced that he can sway players to his point of view by rational discussion, by facts, by the self-evident. He doesn't rant or shout. He built the Cardinals by hanging out at the summer rec leagues and by befriending the two black coaches of the most successful team, the Buccaneers, who happened to play only a few blocks from Dunbar. Pretty soon a steady stream of Buccaneers began to flow to Calvert Hall. Some blacks have all but accused the Buccaneer coaches of treachery for leading the exodus of black athletes out of the inner city. Wade has been one of the most vocal critics, charging that the private schools string the inner-city recruits along academically just to enhance the school's athletic prestige.
"I think Bob Wade believes the blacks on our team have been stolen from him," says Brother René Sterner, principal of Calvert Hall. "That implies that the black inner-city schools own them, that they're betraying their race if they go to honky schools." But the criticism may have had an effect. Calvert Hall has stopped giving athletic scholarships as of this year. All future awards will be based solely on need.
As for now, it looks as if two of the best high school teams in the country are best at ducking each other. They aren't scheduled to meet and a rematch seems unlikely. "We have nothing to prove," says Amatucci. The season may well end with the two powers bound in a tacit nonaggression pact, so both can claim to be No. 1—in Baltimore and everywhere else.