Poet Pride documents nearly 50 years of Dunbar basketball excellence
Sometimes it's the little things that leave a big impression. Over the course of the nearly two hours that make up the fascinating new documentary Poet Pride, which documents nearly 50 years of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School's men's basketball program, the archival footage that director David Manigault obtained recalls some of the most legendary moments in this storied basketball program's history: a 1973 game versus suburban Washington basketball powerhouse DeMatha High School in which Skip Wise scored 39 points--22 in the fourth quarter--en route to a 85-71 victory. Then there's the 1982 Dunbar trip New Jersey to play top-ranked Camden High on its home court, and the extraordinary Dunbar team--which included Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams, and a 5' 3" point guard by the name of Tyrone Curtis "Muggsy" Bogues--routed the top team in the country by 29 points. Manigault includes news clippings from legendary games, such as the 1971 match against Mount Saint Joseph's high school that contributed to the formation of the Baltimore Catholic League, or old photos of early Dunbar superstars who played during segregation. And then there's some footage from Dunbar practices, where coach Bob Wade made players run through drills with bricks in each hand so that come fourth quarter they have the arm strength to play tough defense and not lose any wrist action on their jump shots.
But the scenes that cling to the brain are much more ordinary, interviews that Manigault shot on the streets of Baltimore, around Dunbar High School, and in people's homes that feature alumni talking about their team and the players who came up through East Baltimore, players that fed one of the more impressive sporting legacies in the region. Whether it's Dunbar alumnus, former Boston Celtic, and recently appointed Washington Wizards Assistant Coach Sam Cassell sitting in front of Dunbar or the late Reggie Lewis' mother talking about her son's teams, Poet Pride becomes something more than a sports doc. It becomes a collective memory.
"The thing about this project is we're kids from the neighborhood," Manigault says on a weekday afternoon. The low-key 29-year-old grew up in East Baltimore and went to Dunbar--and played basketball--for two years before transferring to St. Frances Academy. Two of his longtime friends also went to Dunbar, producer Robert Foster and executive producer Tommy Polley, the former NFL linebacker who spent time in a St. Louis Rams and a Baltimore Ravens jersey.
Together, the three young men pooled their connections and skills together to start tracking down Dunbar alumni and former players to start piecing together a basketball story that they mostly heard about as fans and young players themselves. "We're all just kids from the neighborhood who connected and admired some of these people that are on this documentary," Manigault says, "just growing up and playing basketball together. We played at Oliver recreation center. And I think that's the driving force in me, Tommy, and Robert doing this project--the legacy and the people, us being able to connect with the people because we were Dunbar [class of] '95."
The project started in 2005 when Manigault was visiting with Foster and Polley. Manigault had moved to Los Angeles that year to pursue a career in film and television, on both sides of the camera--he's appeared in music videos such as Jay-Z's "Roc Boys" and worked as a production assistant on a number of video and commercial projects--when Foster suggested he use his filmmaking skills to do something closer to home. "He was like, 'Yo, David, you need to do the documentary on Dunbar basketball,'" Manigault says. "'I think it'd be dope. Nobody ever done it and we might can do it.'"
The three each started to contact people, tracking down alumni and coaches who could help them tell this story. Polley got in touch with Bob Wade, the Dunbar alumnus who played a few seasons of NFL football before returning to Baltimore to coach Dunbar from 1975-86 en route to becoming the first African-American head basketball coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference when he replaced Charles "Lefty" Driesell at the University of Maryland in 1986. They got in touch with Pete Pompey, who coached Dunbar in the late 1980s and early '90s. And they tracked players who remembered the legendary Bill "Sugar" Cain, the Dunbar coach of the 1950s and '60s who passed in 2000.
"A lot of times when you go into a documentary, you don't know what to expect," Manigault says. "And you know what a lot of the alumni did do? Pinpoint certain dates for us to go back and do research [at the Maryland Historical Society]. Every interview gave us some significant date that we could go back and find publication of and that made it fit altogether. So after we interviewed the alumni and the players, then we kind of dug deeper into what they were saying if we felt that we didn't have the information."
They eventually interviewed more then 20 former players, former coaches, former opposing coaches, and local sports journalists such as Keith Mills to talk about Dunbar's rise from local powerhouse to multiple state championships and national No. 1 rankings, becoming a hotbed for college recruiters and earning a formidable reputation. En route, Poet Pride covers both the success stories--such as Muggsy Bouges and Sam Cassell--and the cautionary tales of players falling prey to drugs, violence, and other facts of life that come with growing up in East Baltimore.
"Just the fact that Bob Wade, Pete Pompey, Sugar Cain, a lot of these guys set a foundation of discipline that some people made it, some didn't, but all had dreams of going to the next level," Manigault says. "That's what this [movie] is about. You have a player like Charlie Hurt, who will tell you the glamorous things about playing basketball and then just living in the city and dealing with drugs. Like he said [in Poet Pride], back in the day, people gravitated to different things. Girls didn't pay attention to him in the street and then they saw him on the court and he's a celebrity. So imagine the adrenaline rush in that--you're a teenager getting attention on the court but also money in the streets. We tap into that."
It's a fact Manigault knows all too well. He went to Frostburg State University to play basketball. But during his freshman year he saw the HBO movie Rebound: The Legend of Earl "The Goat" Manigault, starring Don Cheadle as the late, legendary street basketball player whose involvement with street life and drugs led to prison stints and addiction before his eventual recovery. Earl Manigault was David Manigault's uncle.
"It was like seeing my life flash in front of me if I didn't go the right route," Manigault says. "His story was, like, a legend and he became a convicted drug addict. Growing up in Baltimore City I walked in the same situations as him and could've made the same wrong decisions. It was so scary that I went to the coach after my sophomore season and said I couldn't play basketball anymore. I didn't quit, I'm done. I couldn't do this anymore. I didn't see this taking me to where I need to be. And that was probably the most realistic that I've ever been with myself to know that I'm not NBA-bound, to know that growing up, at a certain age, I was very good, but not anymore."
He turned to his other love growing up, the dramatic arts--a sharp veer away from life on the court. "After my sophomore year I started hanging with the media department and getting into film and TV and acting," he says. "And it was difficult because, you know, a lot of athletes don't hang with the theater department. It happens, but it's rare. So I to go to them after two years of being an athlete and be, like, 'You know, I'd like to start getting back into the theater thing.' And they gave me the opportunity."
Manigault eventually started working with their local news station, providing color commentary for Frostburg's home football and basketball games, before graduating in 2003 with a degree in mass communications and business management. He returned to Baltimore and taught as a substitute teacher for year at Hamilton Middle School before realizing he wanted to try the movie/television thing for real, moving to L.A. in 2004. Since he and Polley and Foster started Poet Pride in 2005, Manigault has split time between L.A. and Baltimore, working on the documentary between West Coast gigs. He returned to Baltimore about a year ago to devote himself to Poet Pride full-time, and also started work on another documentary project, Why Murder?, in which he interviews young people on Baltimore's street about the city's still-insane homicide rate.
But it's Poet Pride that Manigault seems most excited about in conversation, if only because it puts together a story that many people his age and older heard about, but might be lost on newer generations coming up. It's a reminder of what people just like them can achieve.
"Poet Pride is long overdue," Manigault says. "I know what it's like growing up here and I just think the community youth need success stories so that they can know that success is not far away. If you work toward it, it can happen. But you have to work for it. You have to chase it down."
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