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2009, April 3: DetNews.com – Detroit area set standard for hoops excellence

April 3, 2009

There's Will Robinson, the first African-American coach to lead a team to a state championship, and later to coach a Division I college program.

And Ray Scott, the former Pistons coach, who was the first African-American NBA coach of the year.

We had a Judge — Detroit Southwestern legend Antoine "The Judge" Joubert. And a self-described revolutionary — Spencer Haywood, who took his challenge to NBA draft rules to the U.S. Supreme Court … and won.

We claim as ours America's favorite gadfly — ESPN basketball commentator Dick Vitale, who coached the University of Detroit during its mid-70s heyday.

You want names? How about Dave DeBusschere, Cazzie Russell, Isiah Thomas, George Gervin, Chris Webber, Ben Wallace and Mateen Cleaves? And that doesn't scratch the surface.

Innovators? There's Chuck Daly, coach of the 1980s Pistons who made defense fashionable in the NBA and whose "Jordan Rules" held the game's greatest player in check. Or Bill Davidson, the late owner of the Pistons, who built The Palace of Auburn Hills, which still serves as a blueprint for sports arena design.

Class acts? There are few finer than Dave Bing, Joe Dumars and Tom Izzo.

Great teams? How about the Bad Boys, the Fab Five or the Flintstones, each successful because of equal parts skill and force of personality.

The Pistons Bad Boys were all about tenacity and will. Point guard Thomas and center Bill Laimbeer set the tone, and the complementary cast of Dumars, Dennis "The Worm" Rodman, James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, Mark Aguirre and John Salley followed their lead to back-to-back NBA titles.

The University of Michigan's Fab Five, led by Detroiters Jalen Rose and Webber, set fashion statements with their long, baggy shorts and black ankle socks. There was substance behind their style, too. They were the first all-freshman and all-sophomore starting lineups to advance to the Final Four.

Michigan State's Flintstones — Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Antonio Smith and Charlie Bell — embodied camaraderie and the hard-knocks attitude of their Flint hometown. Izzo credits Smith with setting the standard. Cleaves, Peterson and Bell helped the Spartans to the 2000 NCAA championship.

In a word, it's all magic.

Or Magic — as in Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the product of Lansing Everett who propelled Michigan State to the '79 NCAA championship over Larry Bird's Indiana State and, in effect, helped turn the NCAA Tournament into what it is today.

At 6-foot-9, Johnson became the first big man to play point guard. He could run the floor like a small man and his passing was uncanny — he and Greg Kelser introduced the alley-oop dunk.

"It's been some serious ball played in Detroit, brother," said Haywood, who came to Detroit from the cotton fields of Mississippi and turned basketball on its ear.

Within a matter of months, Haywood led the United States to the 1968 Olympic gold medal, leading the team in scoring; became college basketball player of the year at the University of Detroit (32.1 points, 21.5 rebounds), and challenged the NBA draft rules that didn't allow underclassmen to apply, eventually winning in the Supreme Court.

Playground magic
Ford Field is the ultimate destination for college basketball teams this season, but long after this weekend's results are forgotten, memories of storied Michigan venues will be alive.

Michigan's Crisler Arena is known as "The house Cazzie built." Before Russell made Michigan hoops relevant, the Wolverines played at Yost Field House.

Michigan State's Breslin Center is state-of-the art, but Jenison Field House, home court during the Magic years, will forever be dear to Spartans fans.

And anybody who lived in Detroit in the '70s can recall scalpers lining the streets leading to Calihan Hall.

"Got two. Good seats."

Vitale and Terry Duerod were in the house. And so were 9,000 fans on game nights when U-D was a hotter ticket than the Pistons, who played at Cobo Arena.

The Pistons also played at Olympia Stadium and the Silverdome — and one memorable playoff game at Grosse Pointe High — before moving to The Palace.

Detroit is home to some of the most famous recreation courts in the country, too.

NBA and college players test their mettle every summer at St. Cecilia's on the West Side. Back in the day, the Harlem Globetrotters trained at Brewster recreation center. And many forget the Kronk outdoor courts were a basketball haven before the Kronk recreation center became synonymous with boxing.

It was at Kronk that Haywood played one of his first pick-up games after moving to Detroit — and got his nose broken by Piston Eddie Miles.

"And I got called for the foul," Haywood said. "That day I said I am a long way from Mississippi."

terry.foster@detnews.com (313) 222-1494