Like many of us, during the first three months of The Great Quarantine I turned to my books to help maintain some semblance of mental stability.
Growing up outside of Baltimore my mother made sure from an early age that books would be an integral part of life. I had my first library card at four years old. To this day, my home library may be one of the few remaining still organized by Dewey Decimal classification.
So one rainy afternoon in April I rummaged through my shelves looking for something I had yet to read (I often have a habit of buying books quicker than I read them). I settled on The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball by Alejandro Danois.
The Dunbar Poets of the seventies and eighties were regarded as the greatest schoolboy basketball teams on the planet. In fact, the 32 ½ mile stretch known as the BW Parkway, running southwest from Baltimore to Washington DC, has produced some of the most electrifying basketball players the world has ever known. There is said to be something in the water. Literally.
This spring Showtime put out a documentary titled In the Water featuring Kevin Durant and others examining the culture and community in this talent enriched area.
The Boys of Dunbar tells the story of the ‘81-’82 Poets, the single greatest HS team of all time, featuring FOUR players who would eventually go onto to play in the NBA, including former Boston Celtics captain Reggie Lewis.
This summer, July 27th marked the 27th anniversary of Lewis’ tragic passing, where he succumbed to sudden cardiac death while practicing at the Celtics facility in Waltham. The city and franchise were still numb from the death of Len Bias –the greatest player to ever come out of the Washington DC/Baltimore region- just seven summers earlier when Lewis unexpectedly passed. He was only 27.
The Boys of Dunbar illustrates the challenges Lewis and his teammates faced living in inner-city Baltimore in the early 80’s often up against the scourges of crime and poverty.
Much more than a book “about basketball” The Boys of Dunbar explores the relationships, bonds, and comradery the Poets developed in brotherhood as well as the father type figures like Coach Bob Wade and other community leaders that helped shape them.
Following undefeated seasons during both his Junior (29-0) and Senior (31-0) years at Dunbar, Lewis enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston to play collegiately. There, he would amass 2,708 career points -still a school record- and lead the Huskies to conference championships all four years he was there.
In the 1987 NBA Draft the Celtics selected Lewis with the 22ndoverall pick, and by his 2ndyear in the League he was already a star.
It was around this time that my father and I ran into Lewis at an old lumberyard in Maine (of all places). I was wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap, which Lewis naturally recognized immediately, and greeted us with a warm smile. We chatted about “Bawlmer,” his rising status in the League, the prospects of a Lewis-led Celtics team stealing one more banner alongside an aging Big Three (Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale), and of course the great undefeated Dunbar Poets teams Lewis starred on.
A couple years later, Bird’s aching body would give out on him for a final time leading to his retirement, and with that, in 1992 Reggie Lewis of Baltimore was named Captain of the Boston Celtics, most storied franchise in the NBA.
By the time I got to Boston in the fall of 2000, Lewis had been laid to rest for seven years. His spirit still lives on at the beautiful Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center located in Roxbury which was built as a testament to the Hall of Fame status he achieved in both the communities of Boston and Baltimore.
Each time I go to the Garden to root on the C’s, I always pause to look up at the rafters and honor Lewis’ retired number 35 in my own little way.
This spring, as I devoured the pages of The Boys of Dunbar, I couldn’t help but feel the most connected to Reggie that I ever have. Good books, and reading have a way of doing that to you.
As does being a couple of kids from Baltimore who ended up in Boston.
Matt Ribaudo is the Owner and Publisher of BostonMan Magazine. Before settling to Boston in 2000, Matt spent his formative years outside Baltimore, MD where his love for all things basketball was ingrained. As a boy, when his family moved from Maryland to Connecticut, Matt was crushed to not have a chance to play HS ball for the legendary Dunbar Poets. His father’s reply at the time: “We’re doing you a favor. You’ll never get off the bench at Dunbar!” Touche. Follow Matt on Instagram @matt_ribaudo_33 and on Facebook @Matt Ribaudo.