LOS ANGELES—For director Sheldon Candis the story behind Baltimore Boys had a deep, personal resonance. The feature-length documentary, which Candis co-directed with Marquis Daisy for ESPN Films, profiles the Dunbar Poets, the greatest boys high school basketball team of all time. From 1981 to 1983, the team, which included future NBA players David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and Reggie Lewis, went 59-0.
Candis knew all about the Poets and their back-to-back perfect seasons. “I grew up in Baltimore and recall hearing the legend of that great team,” he says. “So, it’s serendipitous that it took 30 years to tell the story and it’s awesome that I had the opportunity to direct it.”
Candis and Daisy relate the team’s heroics on the basketball court through interviews with surviving players and others associated with the team along with archival footage, much of it gleaned from the vaults of television stations up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. But, they also paint the larger portrait of the team’s impact on its long-suffering community. Impacted by the race riots of the 1960s and the economic downturn of the 1970s, Baltimore in the early 80s faced a new scourge in crack cocaine. The superlative performance of the team offered a rare counterpoint of civic pride.
The players themselves were not immune from the tumult of the times. Lewis, who along with Bogues and Williams, was selected in the first round of the NBA draft, went onto star for the Boston Celtics, but died tragically in 1993.
Candis says that he felt an obligation to explore both the positive and the negative aspects of the players’ stories. “It can be tough to make a film about people you look up to,” he explains, “but you try to hold onto the integrity and complexity of the story. These players achieved greatness with very little, but a lot happened in their lives. There’s a lot to being black in America and from Baltimore too. You can’t shy away from those things.”
The film has drawn wide praise for its gritty, but empathic portrait of the team and its city. “Bravo to (Candis and Daisy) for showing how hard, down and nasty life could be for some children born in this city in the 1960s,” wrote Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik. “And all praise for gracefully connecting the dots from the 1968 riots to the unrest in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray to make a subtle but strong point about how much some social conditions in Baltimore have not changed in 50 years.”
For Candis, the two years he devoted to the documentary were a labor of love. “When you make a documentary, you have to be in love with your subject,” he says. “I approach storytelling from the point of view of a boy filled with wonder. I am in complete awe of the Dunbar Poets and thankful for the chance to tell a story I feel passionate about.”