May 26, 2006

The Greatest High School Team of All-Time?

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With its 45-game winning streak, 2005-06 FAB 50 National Champion Lawrence North (Indianapolis, IN) is already being compared to some of the greatest public school teams of all-time. The Wildcats went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 ranked FAB 50 team and stamped themselves as one of the best squads from the basketball-rich Hoosier State. Lawrence North became only the third Indiana team to win three consecutive state crowns by capturing the Class 4A title with an 80-56 finals' romp over eight-time champion Muncie Central. The other two teams were Marion from 1985-87 and Franklin from 1920-22.

So how does Lawrence North compare to other all-time best public teams from other states?

Two qualifiers Lawrence North has in its favor is strength of schedule and the presence of a dominating player or an excellent starting five. The Wildcats, of course, were led by EA SPORTS National Player of the Year Greg Oden, the best prep center in many years. Oden averaged 22 points, 10.5 rebounds and shot 74 percent from the floor. Lawrence North also had a great lead guard in Mike Conley, who averaged 16.5 points. So the Wildcats definitely had the players, but did they have the resume?

It would seem like they did because North is the first Indiana mythical national champion since Washington of East Chicago captured the 1971 crown. They ended the season on a 45-game win streak that ties the state mark set by the Oscar Robertson-led Indianapolis teams of 1955-56 at Crispus Attucks. That team obviously had a great player in the "Big O", but didn't play the schedule Lawrence North did in compiling an average winning margin of 20.3 points. Most teams of the 1950's and 1960's didn't play in many big intersectional match ups and most of the legendary teams in those years didn't venture far from home with many lofty won-lost records compiled with limited, if any, tests in intersectional games.

Although Lawrence North's victims this past season included such talented squads as Ohio Division II champion Dayton Dunbar, 19th in the FAB 50, and defending Illinois Class AA champion Glenbrook North, No. 30 in the FAB 50, they too were restricted against playing in some big match ups because of an Indiana rule restricting travel. A match up - and - victory over perennial power Oak Hill Academy would have went a long-way in strengthening Lawrence North's case as one of the best of all-time, but the game was not able to be played because Mouth of Wilson, Virginia is too far away from Indianapolis.

One team that did have the luxury of meeting, and defeating, Oak Hill in an undefeated championship season was St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio in 2003. That club handed the famed boarding school one of its worst defeats ever, 65-45, while emptying its bench in the final minutes. The Irish, of course, were led by two-time national player of the year LeBron James, who in only three short years is already one of the five best players in the NBA.

The Irish's strength of schedule has to give the Ohio powerhouse a solid debate point in any comparisons involving teams that compete in state association championships. They beat quality teams from seven states (California, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Illinois), including a dominating 78-52 win over California Division I state champ Westchester of Los Angeles. James scored a career-high 52 points in that televised match up at the Primetime Shootout in New Jersey and he also led St. Vincent-St. Mary to a 64-58 win at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion over Mater Dei of Santa Ana, California's Division II champs and top-ranked overall team.

Although St. Vincent-St. Mary's competes in a state association, it's a parochial school and we're debating public schools here. Big cities with great basketball reputations such as Chicago (ML King '90), Los Angeles (Inglewood '80), New York (DeWitt Clinton '66) and Philadelphia (Overbrook '58; Simon Gratz '93) have produced teams that compare favorably to the best public school teams of all-time. But in 1982-1983, there was a squad out of "Charm City" that not only rivals the best public school teams of all-time but also compares favorably with James' squad at St. Vincent-St. Mary's and even the best prep school teams produced by schools such as Oak Hill Academy.

Although that team didn't have a dynamic talent quite like James or Oden, the team did have a national player of the year on its roster. But he wasn't the team's MVP in most people's eyes and wasn't the only one who eventually played in the NBA. The team, in fact, eventually produced four NBA players, including three of the top 22 picks in the 1987 NBA Draft.

The 1983 Paul Lawrence Dunbar team of Baltimore went 31-0 and captured the mythical national title as determined by the National Sports News Service. They were also the first national No. 1 crowned by USA Today. The school's nickname is the Poets and that is a fitting name because that team was simply poetry in motion for those that saw them on the hardwood.

"The 1982-1983 team was like a machine; everyone knew their role," remarked Sam Davis, who regularly covered the team for the Baltimore Sun. "They had a real team concept."

Davis also recalled how that team just had a different make-up in comparison to other teams with overwhelming talent. "They possessed a different attitude than teams of today. (Head coach) Bob Wade ran the team and molded it to fit his personality."

Wade was a no-nonsense type who took over as head coach in 1975 and continued the rich tradition first instilled by his old coach, Bill "Sugar" Cain. Wade had strict rules such as no headphones on the team bus and mandatory team study halls. If a single player broke the rules, the team would do penalty drills together while holding heavy bricks.

The team's most highly decorated player was 6-foot-7 senior forward Reggie Williams, the 1983 Student Sports National Player of the Year. Williams was a deadly shooter who averaged a team-high 25.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting from the field. The team didn't have a true center by today's standards and really didn't need one, but 6-foot-5 Tim Dawson was a leaper known for his great shot-blocking ability. Manning the other forward slot opposite Williams was 6-foot-4 junior Mike Brown, a 1984 McDonald's All-American who went on to play at Clemson. 6-foot-5 shooting guard Keith James, also a junior, was a fine talent who went on to play for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV.

Although Williams received most of the acclaim and helped Georgetown win the NCAA title one year after helping the Poets win their national crown, the teams' MVP and catalyst was 5-foot-3 Tyrone "Muggsy" Bouges. Mesh all that talent with Wade's dominant coaching style and you have probably the greatest high school team ever assembled with the on-court results to back up that claim.

"That's one thing about a Bob Wade coached team," Ray Short, a lone-time follower of Poet basketball, told SLAM Magazine in 1994. "They didn't play down to the level of competition."

Although they didn't play in nearly as many showcase tournaments as St. Vincent-St. Mary did in 2003 or as Oak Hill does on a regular basis, they did play in enough big games against opponents outside the area to give prep basketball followers an accurate gauge of their dominance. Their closest game in a two-year period including 1981-1982 was a five-point win over Martin Luther King of New York (previously known as Ben Franklin High of Harlem), a basketball factory at the time that included 1983 All-American Kenny Hutchinson.

The Poets also won the Seagull Classic in New Jersey and captured the tournament crown at the King of the Bluegrass Tourney in Fairdale, Kentucky with a 65-48 championship game win over Carlisle County of Bardwell, Kentucky. Williams, the tourney MVP, scored 102 points in four games (a 25.5 avg.) with Brown and Dawson also making the all-tourney team.

Stu Vetter, who now coaches at national power Montrose Christian in Rockville, Maryland with a previous stint at Harker Prep in Potomac, Maryland, also got a first-hand glimpse of just how dominant this Dunbar team was when his nationally-ranked Flint Hill Prep team of Oakton, Virginia was matched up with the Poets and got creamed in front of an overflow crowd at Morgan State University.

"We would have had to play a miraculous game to have won, but it was a great experience," Vetter told SLAM. "Even looking back, I can't think of a better team that I have seen or played against."

Vetter was not alone in vouching for just how special that team was.

"That Dunbar team was probably the most talented team I've ever seen," nationally-known recruiting guru Bob Gibbons told us at the 2006 Roundball Classic. "They were so deep and played good team basketball as well."

So just how deep was this team?

Dunbar's senior captain, Darryl Wood, came off the bench but went on to play at Virginia State. 6-foot-7 junior Herman Harried also came off the bench but as a senior was a Parade All-American who went on to play at Syracuse. Another player who didn't see much P.T. at times was the late Reggie Lewis, who scored 2,709 points in his career at Northeastern University in Boston. The 6-foot-7 Lewis backed up Williams. In all, the team had nine players who eventually signed with Division I programs and at least 12 with that kind of ability.

"How the hell the coach of Northeastern knew Reggie Lewis had the talent he did is beyond me," remarked Dawson. "Because Reggie Lewis never really played."

A high school team is ultimately judged not just by how good the team was at the time, but how its players progress on the next levels on the game. James' Fightin' Irish team will become more revered as his potential Hall of Fame career unfolds just as Oden's Lawrence North squad will. When it comes to NBA pedigrees, Dunbar's team is unmatched.

After an All-American senior season at Georgetown, Williams was the No. 4 pick of the 1987 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Bouges, Dunbar's sparkplug, became the shortest player to get drafted and play in the league when the Washington Bullets selected him at No. 12. The capper was Lewis' selection at No. 22 in the first round by a Boston Celtics franchise that obviously got to see his tremendous talent (even if Dunbar's opponent's didn't) at nearby Northeastern. Lewis went on to become a perennial All-Star before his tragic death in the summer of 1993.

When you throw in David Wingate, who was drafted No. 20 in the second round of the 1986 NBA Draft and started along side Bouges at guard on the 1982 team, your talking about four players from the same high school team who all lasted longer than five years playing at the game's highest level.

Dunbar's 1982 team finished 29-0 with a signature 29-point win over national power Camden, New Jersey and its two All-Americans Billy Thompson and Kevin Walls. Dunbar's blowout win ended a 15-year home winning streak for the Panthers.

"To be honest…. with Wingate, the 1982 team might have been better," Davis recalled. "If you talk only about the 1983 team, you leave out Wingate. You can't talk about one without mentioning the other."

Although he is no longer closely following the high school basketball scene in the area, Davis doesn't see such a great mix of talent enrolling at the same public high school again because of the influence of AAU and street agents steering kids towards certain schools. Davis can recall how Dunbar's open enrollment policy at the time helped the Poets attract many great players while Baltimore's other public schools were zoned. He can also recall watching the 1982-1983 Dunbar Poets and realizing he was witnessing something special.

"There well could be a better team," Davis explains. "But the odds were astronomical then (of four players making the NBA) and even more astronomical now. Their success after high school does enhance the legend of that Dunbar team. I don't think they would be as remembered if they didn't go on to even greater success."


About Student Sports
Based in Torrance, Calif., Student Sports has been the leader in high school sports coverage since 1979 with divisions specializing in events, marketing, television and the Internet. In addition to providing content for SPARQ Magazine, the nation's No. 1 high school sports publication focusing on performance training, the company also provides editorial information for several major Web sites including StudentSports.com (www.studentsports.com) and StudentSportsFootball.com, part of the Rivals.com Network of sports team and affinity sites. The company also publishes an array of newsletters and record books including the "National High School Football Record Book" and "National High School Boys Basketball Record Book." Student Sports also created and implements such events as the Nike Football Training Camps, the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp and the Area Code Games. The company also earned four Emmy Awards for its "Inside Cal-Hi Sports" show and has developed TV programming airing on ESPN, CSTV, and ESPN2, including the "EA SPORTS Elite 11 Quarterback Show."


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