JEFF MURIEL TOOK THE INBOUNDS pass running and fired it to Dominique Williams, who dribbled across half-court with his right hand while he pulled up his sagging shorts with his left. He ran about fifteen feet before drilling a pass to the shirtless Jeremis Smith, the tallest kid on the court at six feet six inches, who took one step, rose from the hardwood floor, and slammed the ball down hard. Onto the back of the rim. The ball flew into the air, bouncing toward the bleachers. Nobody said a word, and play resumed; the only sounds were those of the meaty bouncing of the ball and the incessant squeaking of new sneakers on the floor, which, in the echoey gym, sounded like seabirds.
It was August 18, the first day of school, seventh-period basketball class at Dunbar High School, in Fort Worth, and on the sidelines stood the winningest coach in high school basketball history, a tall, gray-haired man, arms behind his back, a scowl on his face. Robert Hughes’s expression hadn’t changed in five minutes, though at the missed dunk the scowl seemed to bury deeper into his face. He was older than anyone on the court by five decades and taller than most of them too. He wandered back and forth toward the action under the rims, watching carefully as the boys ran up and down the court. And he remained silent—until someone did something that was, as he might say, knuckleheaded.
“Hold it!” he yelled. Coach Hughes doesn’t need a whistle. One of the boys had thrown a weak underhand alley-oop pass to the leaping Jeremis, and the ball had fallen short. Hughes walked over into the middle of the group of ten boys, who had stopped playing.
“In the first place,” he said loudly, “if you throw the ball underhand toward the basket, it’s going to fall short and flat. A five-foot guy could get to it.” His tone was exasperated, as if he had said this before. He demonstrated, tossing the ball underhand; sure enough, the parabola fell short. “What the hell is that? You don’t control the ball as well as when you throw it like you shoot it.” He demonstrated again. Same result. “Why would you throw a pass like that? ‘Cause you’re playing to the damn crowd! The hell with the crowd! They’re not even on the damn floor! Pass the ball the way you shoot the ball!”
The coach turned and strode back to the sideline, and the game resumed. For the next ten minutes Jeremis, the unquestioned leader of the team, who has a tattoo of a basketball in the center of a cross on his right shoulder and another of a wildcat on his left shoulder blade, shot graceful fifteen-foot jumpers, fired perfect passes, and made dunking look as simple as reaching up and turning a faucet. At one point he grabbed a pass near the basket, took a step, and went up in the air on the right side of the backboard but was met up there by an opponent, so he transferred the ball to his left hand and curled it in from the other side of the hoop. Again, nobody said a word.
With five minutes left in the period, Hughes stopped play, and the boys—his probable starting five and second team for the upcoming season—moved to the bleachers, where they sat with another group of kids, who had been watching the action. It was time for the old man to speak.
Hughes has the gravitas of an undertaker and the voice of a preacher. Though he is 75, he looks fifteen years younger, a trim and healthy six foot six, with white frosting on his eyebrows, hair, and mustache. It was still three months before the team’s first game, and the stakes were high in the upcoming season, he told the boys. “You better show me more than Tim Duncan,” he said, his voice booming in the otherwise silent gymnasium. “ ‘Cause if you don’t, your little boo-tay is gone.” The longer he spoke, the more ornery he sounded. “I’m a hard guy to be around if you don’t want to play. Can’t everybody play basketball. Can’t everybody play basketball for me. And I’ll be the first guy to admit that. It is tough to play here for four years. I’m a hard guy to get along with. ‘Cause I don’t say everything is okay. I don’t say it’s okay to miss free throws. I don’t say it’s okay to be out of shape. I don’t say it’s okay to play lousy defense. I don’t say it’s okay to miss practice. I don’t say it’s okay to blow off class. So if you’re looking for an okay guy, I’m sorry. I’m not an okay guy. I want your butt at practice. I want you working. I want you passing your classes. If you can’t do that, this is just not the place for you. ‘Cause I don’t want to be like every-damn-body else. I don’t want to be number five and number six. If you’re not here doing your best, you shouldn’t be here.”
IN WEST TEXAS, THEY TALK ABOUT the Odessa Permian mojo, the football mania of Friday Night Lights. In Dallas and Fort Worth, they talk about the Dunbar mystique, an aura that surrounds a basketball team that has dominated the game in the area for more than a quarter century. The Wildcats, a.k.a. the Flying Wildcats, intimidate most teams before they even step onto the court. They score more points per minute than the Dallas Mavericks—84 per 32-minute game last season, which would translate to 126 points in an NBA-length game—and they play defense like they’re angry. Dunbar’s games feel like roundball circuses, with nonstop fast breaks, brisk passes, alley-oops, and thundering dunks, and they bring out thousands of boisterous fans, more than any other high school basketball team in Texas.
Last February 11, Wildcats coach Robert Hughes did something no one in history had ever