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 3�% 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.