Every dog has his day; the Bulldogs’ came Wednesday.
Players and coaches of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’sbasketball team, which on Sunday won its first boys’ Sweet Sixteen, toured the trophy around Dunbar’s feeder schools in the morning. They stopped for lunch at the players’ favorite restaurant — McDonald’s — before rolling back to school for a pep rally inside S.T. Roach Gymnasium celebrating their accomplishments, and other athletic and academic feats the school achieved throughout the first eight months of the academic year.
It was a moment more than two decades in the making, coming almost 26 years after the school opened in 1990 and 22 years after Dunbar lost the second of back-to-back Sweet Sixteen championship games in 1994. The Bulldogs reached Rupp Arena only one other time, in 1997, when they fell in the first round.
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For Frank Watson, the Dunbar coach for the school’s first nine seasons who led the Bulldogs to their first three state tournaments, seeing the program he founded reach the pinnacle of Kentucky high school basketball was “the ultimate” feeling.
“It’s just a culmination of all the great emotions, losing those close championship games and now actually seeing it come through,” Watson said.
Watson credited the late S.T. Roach, who won 513 games as coach of the old Dunbar High School before it closed in 1967, for helping him learn the fundamentals of basketball and what to look for in coaching. He’s taken on a similar role with current Dunbar coach Scott Chalk.
Greg Jones, who played a couple of seasons at Norfolk State after graduating from Dunbar, was on the state runner-up teams. He said it was special to see a state basketball title at his alma mater. “Even though we fell short, it’s good to see that this team came and finished the job and represented the school,” Jones said. “I’m happy for what they accomplished.”
Cameron Mills, who also was on those teams and went on to play for the University of Kentucky, said his Dunbar squads were recognized in a similar fashion, but it was “bittersweet.” His Bulldogs had a hard time getting excited because they fell just short of their goal.
“This is so much better to be a part of,” said Mills, one of several speakers who addressed a packed gym right before the school day ended.
Mayor Jim Gray proclaimed March 2016 — “That’s the whole month of March,” he said — as “Dunbar State Champions Month” in Lexington. Principal Betsy Rains lauded the “Dog Pound” for its raucous showing at the state tournament. “Thank you for turning Rupp Arena into Pupp Arena,” Rains said.
Dave “Buzz” Baker of WKYT-TV, whose daughters Mallory, Maddie and Macy are part of the cheerleading team named best at the Sweet Sixteen, moderated the event. He gave out a Ric Flair “Wooooo!” before reeling off a list of the school’s other achievements throughout the year. Among them were the national champion dance team and Madison Winstead, who set a state record in the 100-yard breaststroke at the state swimming finals in February.
Winstead, who has signed with UK, had a blast rooting for her fellow Bulldogs at Rupp Arena. As a senior who accomplished her own state-title aspirations, it couldn’t have been a better way to go out. “Watching them win a state title just wrapped it up in a big present for me,” she said.
Of course, after the confetti’s swept up and the Big Macs are digested, the inevitable question is, “Can Dunbar make it back?” Two of the Bulldogs’ starting five will be back — Sweet Sixteen MVP Taveion Hollingsworth and Dontell Brown — and will have the largest of targets on their backs. “We’ll see what we’ve got,” Chalk said. “Obviously, it’s a pretty good starting place when you’ve got a Mr. Basketball candidate and state tournament MVP back.”
In the meantime, Dunbar will relish its first boys’ basketball championship. Chalk closed his address to the crowd with an emphatic message:
“As you get older, you’re gonna find yourselves in situations around other people. And people are gonna say to you, in college especially, ‘Oh I went to such-and-such school and when I was in high school we did blah-blah-blah,’” he said. “But everybody in this room’s going to be able to say, ‘When I was in high school, we were state champs. We won the Sweet Sixteen.’”