By Keith Mills
One by one they entered the room, their hair a little grayer, their strides a little slower: Billy Snowden, Charles "Duke" Richardson, Timmy Greene, Petey Butler, Larry Gibson and Leonard Hamm. The next name as impressive as the last: Leon Love, Ralph Lee, Larry "Sook" Johnson, James "Box" Owens, Cleveland Rudisill, Skip Wise. One month later, the group includes Dickie Kelly and DeWayne Wallace; the next month it's Barry Scroggins and Calvin Maddox. It is as imposing a collection of local basketball players in one room at one time as anyone could remember.
"I had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening," said Johnson, Dunbar Class of 1970 and one of the organizers of a monthly gathering of legendary players and former coaches now known as "One Baltimore."
"I look forward to this every month," said Greene, a 1973 Dunbar graduate. "We grew up together, fought together, partied together, did a lot of things together. Now we're like brothers, and any time we can get together is a blessing."
Greene was a 6-foot-4 forward on a Dunbar team that many believe is the best high school team ever in Baltimore. He also played in a game that even more consider to be the most important high school game ever played in this city, the Poets’ 85-71 win over DeMatha.
It was played 35 years ago this month -- Feb. 24, 1973 -- and its memories are just as vivid now to the men who played and watched the game as they were then, on that cold Saturday afternoon when Baltimore basketball joined the big time.
But that game is just one of many memories this who's who of Baltimore basketball share. These monthly gatherings are aimed at getting the old gang back together and honoring the players who paved the way for them -- guys like JoJo Parker, Charlie Leach and the late Charlie Moore.
Through One Baltimore, they're doing more now than just turning back the clock.
"We're challenging everyone to get involved with the kids today," Greene said. "Go out to games, talk to kids, let them know what we went through, what to look out for. Let's try and connect the eras and just try and make a difference and give something back."
"My mother passed away in 2006," said Jimmy Conyers, "and I hear a knock on the door and here they come ... Donnie Joy, Timmy Greene, Mr. [Leon] Howard. Man, I cried. They stayed with me all day."
Conyers is a graduate of City College. He grew up in the housing project in East Baltimore called Lafayette Courts, which has produced more big-time basketball players per square inch than any neighborhood in the city: Wise, Joy, Snowden, Richardson, Gibson, Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, Reggie Williams, Kurk Lee -- the list goes on and on.
In 1967, Howard was hired by the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Department to run Lafayette's recreation center, and the entire landscape of Baltimore basketball changed.
"The kids down there at that time weren't playing a whole lot of basketball," Howard said. "Matter of fact, we only had one goal in the center. They were playing baseball and softball but not much basketball."
Howard changed all that, and the result was one of the city's great playground dynasties. But on that day in 2006, when Conyers’ mother passed away, it wasn't basketball the old neighborhood came out to support, but an old friend.
"When your back's against the wall, good friends always seem to be there," Conyers said. "My back was against the wall that day, and they were there. They're my boys. It's something you can't buy. You can't put a price tag on it."
Not long after Conyers' mother passed, Joy, a member of Dunbar's vaunted Poets team of the early 1970s who followed Wise to Clemson in 1977, lost his son. This time it was Conyers who came to the aid of his longtime friend.
"We got together after that and said, 'We've got to stop meeting like this,'” Conyers said. "We decided to try and get together more often."
"We got tired of only seeing each other at funerals," Greene said. "There was nothing positive about any of it. So we decided to get together on a continuous basis. Jimmy Conyers started it, and I'm glad he did."
Conyers, Greene, former City College and University of Baltimore standout George Pinchback and his son Kevin formed the first gathering in what has become a monthly breakfast or dinner meeting at a buffet restaurant in East Baltimore. Most of the group are Dunbar graduates, though City College, Carver, Mount St. Joseph and Towson High are represented with more ex-players from more schools showing up each month.
"All of us came from good families," said Conyers, who now coaches youth and Amateur Athletic Union basketball in West Baltimore. "And we competed against one another. One of the guys from the Poets club asked me, 'Are you a Poet?' I said, 'No, I went to City. Black and orange all the way.' But don't mistake that. We're friends. We grew up together. After ball games we went home together. They were some great times."
"This is a great thing," said Wise. "We competed on the court and we tried to do the best we could for the teams we were playing for at that time. But at the same time we were friends. It was rare that you had any problems with fights because we were like brothers."
Sam Cassell and Keith Booth have won NBA championships in Houston and Chicago, and Marvin Webster nearly won a title with Seattle in 1978. Williams and David Wingate won national championships at Georgetown, Juan Dixon did the same at Maryland, Melvin Scott at North Carolina, Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse and Barry Scott at University of Nevada Las Vegas. But despite the array of talent produced in the city, it has been 34 years since Wise last donned a Poets' uniform, and he is still considered the best of the best, the top player to come out of Baltimore.
"He always stepped up to the challenge," Conyers said. "Mr. Howard used to have all-star games down at Lafayette -- the old guys versus the young guys. I mean it was big time. Muggsy, Reggie Williams. There was some talent. Skip used to show up in street clothes and play in his dress shoes, and he would kill. Muggsy had a hard time staying with him.
"When I take my AAU teams around the country, and people hear we're from Baltimore, they'll ask if we know Skip Wise. I smile and say, 'Yes, I do. I know Skip Wise.' "
Now, 37 years after he played his first game for coach William "Sugar" Cain's Poets, there is still a hushed "there he is" reaction when Wise walks in the room at the One Baltimore gatherings.
But he is not alone in this room of legendary Baltimore basketball players.
Love was a ferocious rebounder and scorer at Carver who graduated in 1971 and went on to the University of Tennessee before returning to play locally at Bay College. He is now an assistant basketball coach at Cardinal Gibbons.
Lee went to Towson High and played on Baltimore County's first state championship team, the 1963 Towson Generals coached by the late Randy Walker.
Lee's son Eric played on Bob Wade's 1985 Dunbar team that won the national championship while his other son Kurk was an honorable mention All-American at Towson University in 1990, scoring more than 1,500 points in three seasons.
Pat McKinley also went to Towson and may be the greatest overall player in Tigers history. A graduate of City College, he was a four-year starter for coach Vince Angotti and is the school's second all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
Hamm is also a regular at One Baltimore. The former Baltimore City police commissioner was a starting forward and captain for City's unbeaten 1965 MSA champs. Rudisill left City for the University of Baltimore in the mid-'70s, where he joined George Pinchback and Edmondson's Kenny Sullivan as starters for coach Frank Szymanski's Bees.
Maddox, a three-sport star at Dunbar and the 1978 Baltimore Sun Athlete of the Year, has stopped by the One Baltimore gatherings, as have former Raven Tommy Polley, former Dunbar All-Metro guard Wallace, St. Frances coach Will Wells, Scroggins and Baltimore City councilman Bernard "Jack" Young and Maryland Sen. Nate McFadden, both Dunbar grads.
Scroggins was a marvelous player at Mount St. Joe. He was a member of the Baltimore Sun's 1971 All-Metro team along with Love, Webster and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical’s Nate Barnett. In 1971, Scroggins and Milt Walker led Mount St. Joe to an upset of Dunbar in one of the most famous games ever played in the city. The game ended in a near riot with the Gaels needing a police escort out of East Baltimore.
Yet here was Scroggins, on a cold January night in East Baltimore, breaking bread with some of the Dunbar Poets who played in that game.
"That's what this is all about," Greene said. "Bringing people together. Guys we played with, played against."
"I left town for a while and came back, and I haven't seen some of these guys in 35 years," Snowden said. "I get to re-touch what I had. It's a bond. A lifetime bond.”
Dunbar 85, DeMatha 71
Because of the fight at Dunbar in 1970, Mount St. Joe, Loyola Blakeland, Calvert Hall and Cardinal Gibbons left the Maryland Scholastic Association to form the Catholic League while Dunbar was forced to play every one of its games in 1971-72 away from its Orleans Street school, at rival gymnasiums.
The Poets finished 18-0 that year, led by seniors Tony Brown and Owens. Snowden was a junior, Wise a sophomore and Gibson a freshman.
One year later that trio, Richardson, Butler, Greene, Joy and the Poets played a game at the then-Civic Center that would change area basketball forever -- a 15-point win over the mighty DeMatha Stags, Morgan Wootten's national power from Hyattsville.
"Before that game, no one really knew anything about Baltimore basketball," Conyers said. "It was Philly and D.C. I didn't even go to Dunbar, but I was a Poet that day."
On the night of Feb. 24, 1973, a crowd of 5,000 filed into the Civic Center to watch Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld and the Baltimore Bullets beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 128-110. Hours earlier, a crowd of more than 8,000 poured in to watch Wise, Gibson and the Poets outplay the Stags, winners of 43 straight games.
"I will never forget that game," Wootten said several years ago. "We had played St. John's [D.C.] the night before, and we came up to Baltimore the next day and just got outplayed. The place was packed, and Sugar's guys came to play. Skip Wise was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable."
Wise scored 39 points (22 in one of the most dominating fourth quarters ever) on an array of long jump shots and slashing drives that left the crowd in an absolute frenzy.
"DeMatha had Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr, Billy Langloh, Ron Satterthwaite," Conyers said. "Every one of those guys went to major Division I schools."
Dunbar became the first Baltimore team ever to notch a win against a national power.
Gibson, then a dominating 6-foot-8 sophomore, scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while Greene grabbed 10 rebounds. Snowden scored 10 points, and Richardson, a 5-foot-8 lefty, helped snap a 25-25 halftime tie by knocking down six straight third-quarter jump shots.
"What I remember about that game was the crowd," Richardson said. "Unbelievable."
"There was no doubt we thought we could beat them," said Snowden, also a starter on the 1972 Poets team. "No doubt about it."
And it's that '72 team that the men who played in the '73 game actually believed was better.
"We played every game that year on the road and went undefeated," Snowden said.
"Think about it," Johnson said. "Every game on the road against Carver, Edmondson and City. To go unbeaten, that's pretty impressive."
629 Barlett Street
If Brown, Owens, Wise and Gibson were the stars of the '72 and '73 Poets, Snowden was the backbone of the team, with a mother who fed, clothed and sometimes housed many of his Dunbar teammates.
"They were all my boys," said Phyllis Waters, Snowden's mother and a regular at the One Baltimore monthly gatherings. "629 Bartlett Street. That's where we lived and every day Billy would bring all the boys home for lunch or dinner."
Waters grew up down the street from Cain.
"I would babysit his kids," Waters said. "When I had my own and Billy got older, Sugar was always telling me, 'Make sure Billy comes to Dunbar, make sure he comes to Dunbar.'"
Cain was 54 years old when Dunbar beat DeMatha. It was the last game he coached. He was replaced by Archie Lewis for two years and then Wade, who took the Dunbar tradition to another level in the late 1970s and early '80s.
Cain died in 1999 at age 80 and is still revered by the now middle-aged men who played for him.
"Coach never recruited you," Richardson said. "You just wanted to play for him."
"He didn't say much," Snowden said. "He'd just give you this look, and you knew what had to be done."
"Sugar cared about the boys," Waters said. "I told him, 'If I'm going to give you my Billy, you better take care of him.' "
Cain did and so did Waters, one of several women who are also regulars at the One Baltimore gatherings. Another is Denice Woods Jones, the mother of current Edmondson High football coach Dante Jones.
"How could I not come to this?" said Denice Woods Jones, now a research coordinator for the Johns Hopkins Medical Center. "Now we have to take it the next level. We need to get these guys involved in the community and make a difference with the kids today. There's so many ways for them to help. It's really exciting."
Howard has been involved in the community since he arrived in Baltimore 41 years ago and began working at Lafayette Courts. Like Cain, he is still revered by the men he coached as kids. And he is still called "Mr. Howard."
"Everybody here is 50 years old or older and you cannot call him anything else but 'Mr. Howard,'” Conyers said. “Forty years later, I still love that man."
"Mr. Howard is a great man," Wise said. "When he came to Lafayette he changed the whole dynamic of that community. He was a father, uncle, brother, mother to all of us. If we needed shoes, he gave us shoes. If we needed clothes, he gave us clothes. He was always there for us. He taught us all how to play basketball because before he got down there, none of us were playing a lot of basketball."
"Mr. Howard came down and started organizing things," Conyers said. "Everybody back then was playing baseball, not basketball. Skip Wise wasn't even playing basketball. He began teaching everybody how to play. Once that bug hits you, look out."
Howard deflects such glowing praise.
"All I did was give the kids a chance to play," he said. "They became my own kids. My reward came when they came back to the center to say hi or say thanks. I'll always love these guys."
"I always looked at him like my second father," Greene said. "I wanted to play at Madison but was told I wasn't good enough. Mr. Howard told Duke to have me come down and play with his team. I figured if I couldn't beat them, might as well join them."
The Price Tag
"I get very emotional when I see these guys because I know how far we've all come,” Greene said. “We've had a lot of ups and downs. Some of us got into some trouble, some of us died. Some of us are still struggling. But we're still here, supporting each other. It takes a real strong person to be there when someone's in trouble."
Most of the former players from One Baltimore are battle-scarred and street-tough. They survived racial unrest in the '60s, the riots of 1968 caused by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the explosion of drugs in the city.
And trouble did follow some. Wise, who was the first freshman to make the All-ACC team while at Clemson, and Owens both served significant prison time for the possession and distribution of drugs. They actually played in a correctional institution state-wide basketball tournament together in 1988.
Brown was knifed to death in a domestic dispute in Southeast Baltimore in 1972, while Gibson was wounded in a stabbing incident during his senior year at Dunbar in '75. Gibson became a major inside force for Lefty Driesell's Maryland Terrapins in the late 1970s, finally earning his degree in 1987. Now he's living in Harford County and battling the effects of a serious accident and illness that have zapped him of strength and coordination.
"I've known LG for almost 37 years," Greene said. "We will always be there for him. He came to one of our dinners a couple of months ago. It's sad to see an athletic person like that go through what he's going through. But he didn't ask for his injury or illness so each day I pray for him."
Greene battled his own demons (drugs and alcohol) during a basketball career in which he earned All-American honors at Catonsville Community College. Along with Conyers and Johnson, he is now the glue that keeps the gang together, the anchor of One Baltimore, whose members are determined to make a mark now in area high school athletics just as they did more than 30 years ago.
They already are making an impression.
When Dunbar football coach Ben Eaton died last summer, Greene, Johnson and a variety of other former Dunbar Poets counseled Poets players and were regulars at their games to help get them through the trauma.
"We have a thing about being Dunbar Poets," Greene said. "If somebody is down, we have to be able to pick them up and carry them until they get back on their feet. At some point they're going to carry somebody else. … That's what this is all about. The rivalries we had ran deep, real deep. But now we're all family."
Issue 3.6: February 7, 2008