2005: STREETBALL – The Patron Saint of Motown
June 23, 2008
June 2005 — As it is, as it was, and as it forever shall be: If you
want to prove yourself in Detroit, you run at St. Cecilia’s. Amen.
Some of the greatest streetball games in American history haven?t been
played on the street at all. Instead they’ve taken place inside an
unassuming, windowless, red-brick building on Detroit’s West Side. That
would be the parish gym for St. Cecilia?s Catholic Church, a
one-square-block oasis of imposing gray stone and neatly manicured
lawns amidst a faded urban scene of ramshackle barbeque joints,
decrepit drug spots and storefront churches with grandiose names
evoking the Holy Land.
The list of who’s balled at St. Cecilia?s since the late Sam Washington
founded the league as a refuge for area youth in 1969 reads like a
Michigan hoops Hall of Fame: Dave Bing, Jimmy Walker, George Gervin,
Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Derrick Coleman, Chris Webber, Steve
Smith, Jalen Rose, Maurice Taylor, John Long, Willie Green, Voshon
Lenard, Ralph Simpson, Doug Smith, Terry Mills, Sean Higgins, Derrick
Dial, Greg Kelser, Ira Newble, Howard Eisley and Terry Tyler.
"When you’re in town, you have to be at the Saint. The runs are always
great but going there is for more than just basketball. It’s giving
everyone a chance to see you up close, raw and uncut."
They’ve all lit up the floor of this tiny, sweaty gym, where the walls
and bleachers run within inches of the court and four huge wall fans
work overtime accomplishing little, leaving the room a stifling
sweatbox by late summer when the competition is fiercest.
"When you’re in town you have to be at the Saint," Jalen says. "You
talk about being a basketball player in the state of Michigan, and St.
Cecilia’s and the word "must" comes to mind. As in, you must play
there. The runs are always great, but going there is for more than just
the 48 minutes of basketball. It’s about going home feeling like you’re
home, knowing that you’re home. It’s playing free for your local fans,
signing autographs. It’s giving everyone who sees you on TV and roots
for you from afar a chance to see you up close, raw and uncut."
Rose is quick to add that his team, featuring Tractor Traylor Derrick
Dial and Ira Newble, won the title last summer defeating a squad led by
Mo Taylor and Willie Green. As much as anything, the ongoing presence
of these NBA stars-along with occasional appearances by current Pistons
like Lindsey Hunter and Chauncey Billups – keep the buzz alive and
guarantees no other run will surpass the Saint.
"There are always other leagues, but St. Cecilia’s is still where you
measure yourself," says Heat guard, MSU product and native Steve Smith.
"If you are from Romulus, Pontiac, East Side, West Side, wherever, and
you think you?re good, then come to St. Cecilia’s and let’s see what
The pull of St. Cecilia’s extends beyond metro Detroit. Flint stars
like Glen Rice, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson have trekked down
US-23 to play there, as did Saginaw’s Jason Richardson and Lansing’s
Magic Johnson, who won the 16-and under title at age 14 and the 18-and
under the following year. But it’s the Detroit guys who talk of St.
Cecilia’s with a religious reverence.
"I’ll always be there ‘cuz it’s my favorite foundation," says Rose. "I
actually went to school at St. Cecilia’s in sixth and seventh grade and
had the honor of playing football for the late, great Mr. Sam
Washington. I got kicked out in eighth grade for being a knucklehead
but kept playing here, and it did a lot for my game. It gave me
confidence and attitude. Now, it keeps me on my toes, because I know
I’m gonna be running with guys who don’t care what my name is. That’s
just how it is and how it’s got to be."
The success of St. Cecilia’s summer league, both in attracting NBA
players year after year and in serving as a community hub for nearly
four decades, was probably beyond the wildest dreams of Washington, who
was the gym teacher, athletic director and football and basketball
coach at St. Cecilia’s when he started the league.
"We had a football league here first, and then Sam said we needed
something in the summer as well," recalls Jocko Hughes, who was
Washington’s assistant AD at the time. "Sam and I both had sons who
were becoming teenagers and we wanted something safe and off the
streets for kids to do, because things were breaking down. Detroit
Parks and Recreation used to have regular activities and great runs at
Brewster Center, but that died and we needed somewhere for the kids to
go. That was our goal, not attracting NBA player."
Hughes passed for a second to reconsider. Now that Detroit Lions’
Executive Director of Team Relations and still a St. Cecilia’s Board
member, Hughes says his old friend may well have envisioned his
league’s success from the earliest days. "We used to call Sam "Mr. Big
Stuff," because he always dreamed big," Hughes says with a laugh. "At
the time, no one else around here thought that way."
When the basketball league was founded in ’69, George Gervin was
lighting up Pershing High and was and early Saint C’s player. He kept
coming while starring down the road at Eastern Michigan, after he
dropped out and started playing semi-pro ball in Pontiac, and never
stopped when he became a star in the ABA. Around the same time, Pistons
stars Dave Bing and Jimmy Walker (Rose’s father) also began making
regular appearances. Just like that, St. Cecilia’s was established as a
go-to spot for any serious baller living in Michigan, or just passing
through in the summer.
"We just opened the gym and soon the word got out that there were good
runs to be had, and people started coming," says Hughes. ?At that time,
NBA players went to camp to get into shape, rather than conditioning
year-round, and they wanted some good runs to get ready. Sam said,
"Look here, we got the gym open and it’s happening, so come on down."
Bing also supplied some much-needed seed money when he requested that
the NBA donate a fine he was levied to the fledgling summer league. But
while the stars get the attention, the focus of St. Cecilia’s has
always been much broader, and the gym actually runs four leagues:
5th-8th grade, high school, girls high school and college/pro. Most of
the college/pro players are graduates of the more junior leagues.
"Guys keep coming back because this is their home," says former league
director Dott Wilson. A longtime coach at Detroit Central HS, Dott is
still a regular at St. Cecilia’s. "We provide a good, wholesome
environment, from the parking lot on in, and there?s not too much of
that around here."
The St. Cecilia’s parking lot is a combination locker
room/clubhouse/all-purpose social area. The late Pershing High coach
Johnny Goston, whose teams were perennially in the national top 20,
once stood beside his car and explained why his insisted his players
ball at St. Cecilia’s.
"This is proving ground," he said. "The environment, the atmosphere,
the history and the tradition all make for something special. You get
your kids into that little gym and see what they"ve got. If you don"t
play here, you don"t play for me."
One reason the Saint is such a proving ground is that the runs are
real, played with regulations refs with a focus on winning instead of
theatrics. You’ll see plenty of summer sizzle at the Saint, but it’s
never the main event, unlike the better known Entertainer’s Classic at
Harlem’s Rucker Park. "We don’t do tricks- we play basketball," says
Rose. "Not saying I don’t love tricks, but we play with officials, and
you can’t bounce the ball off someone’s forehead at St. Cecilia’s. And
that’s the way we like it. You’re not going to see an MC or hear music
while a game is going on. Never!"
But of course, you will hear the fans. They’re practically on top of
the court and are predictably vocal and involved, and there’s a
constant stream of people coming and going. As Rose says, "Basketball
dominates, but you have the street element, too."
Still, the gym at St. Cecilia’s has largely been a refuge, with anyone
who sets foot in the door leaving his or her beef outside. Having it
inside- inside a church, no less- has definitely helped keep it that
way. But so did the presence of Washington, who sat in a folding chair
next to the front door virtually every day before he died in 1990,
since which time Dott Wilson has manned the spot. Both of them command-
and demand- respect.
"Sam had a way with people," recalls old friend Quinton Watkins,
another board member and old friend of Washington’s. "Everybody was
somebody to him, the guy off the street as well as the NBA star. He
spent a lot of time with kids and tried to bring the best out of
Adds Rose, "Sam knew every person who walked through the door, and Dott
is the same way. They both had credibility from the jump. They loved
the kids and they sat in the gym for hours coaching kids and making
sure we had a place to be. How can you not respect that?"
Wilson is totally dedicated to the gym, the leagues and sport he loves.
He is highly opinionated and happy to share those opinions. Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar is a punk-ass, Patrick Ewing is a dumb-ass, Magic Johnson
is the greatest on court leader ever and Dennis Rodman is the greatest
offensive rebounder he’s ever seen. With just a little prodding, Dott
will explain it all, most likely surrounded by a posse of yes-men,
egging him on and shooting you down pronto should you dare to disagree.
Dott isn’t passive during the games, either. He is particularly
protective of the refs, most of whom are certified high school
officials, with some college refs as well. If plays get chippy or a
player gives a ref a hard time, the short, squat Dott barrels out of
his chair and goes chest to chest with a wide-bodied 6-8 dude 40-plus
years his junior. "What’s the matter with you fools?" he bellows. "We
have a hard enough time getting the good refs down here. Shut your
mouth and play the game!"
And so the beat goes on at St. Cecilia’s, as old school as Motown and as fresh as D12.
"You know, the youngsters coming up behind us revere the Saint just
like we do," says Rose. "The only thing they need is for us to keep
coming and bridge the future. Just like the guys before me were bridges
to the future for me. Saint Cecilia’s goes on forever."