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ESPN RISE: St. Cecilia’s: Motown hoops cathedral

July 30, 2010

July 29, 2010 — St. Cecilia’s is as much a part of Detroit as the automobile. Every baller in Michigan must earn his stripes here to be considered great.

St. Cecilia’s Photo Gallery | Rucker to Venice Series Index

Each week through the end of August, ESPN RISE will take an inside look at some of the nation’s most well-known streetball courts leading up to the 2010 Boost Mobile Elite 24, to be played in Venice Beach, Calif., on Aug. 28. Next week, we visit the vast playgrounds of the Windy City on our westbound tour to the Venice Beach boardwalk.

Name: St. Cecilia’s, aka “The Saint”
Location: 6340 Stearns St., Detroit
League info: The high school league features the best players in the area. The college league is for top local standouts.
Court setup: Single, indoor court
Surface: Hardwood outlined in green and gold
Rim style: Nylon nets
Lights: Yes
Best time to play: When they’re not traveling for AAU, the best high school boys ball on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. College players take over after 6 p.m.
Pickup: No impromptu pickup games. Former and current Divsion I college players and NBA stars are allowed to show up announced on weekends and join a team.
Level of competition (pickup): 0 (league play only)
Level of competition (summer league): 7
Style of play: 5-on-5
Unwritten rules: If you’re the best player, you always walk in last. If you touch the wall, you’re out-of-bounds. Be prepared to sweat. If you can’t handle it, step. Former NBA power forward Chris Webber says St. Cecilia’s is the best place to go if you need to shed a few pounds. “It’s usually about 90 degrees in there,” Webber said. “People are passing out. A few years back they decided against putting air conditioning.”
NBA alumni: Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, George “Iceman” Gervin, Derrick Coleman, Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner, Julius Erving, Steve Smith, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Glen Rice.
Today’s top ballers: Keith Appling, Derrick Nix and Ray McCallum Jr.
Streetball legends: Willie “The Truth” Mitchell, Anderson Hunt, Jackie “January” Jones, Curtis “C.J.” Jones and Antoine “The Judge” Joubert.

Overtime: Years ago, St. Cecilia’s, aka “The Saint,” attracted not only the top ballers around Detroit, but streetball legends nationwide. Guys who thought they could hoop visited this historic gym to get their player cards punched.

Julius “Dr. J” Erving and former Cali legend Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner are just two of the notables who have put in work at Motown’s basketball mecca. The Saint remains a classic example of a basketball gym in its purest form where the community packs the house weekly.

Long before the days of sneaker company wars and massive summer basketball tournaments, the nation’s top college basketball coaches would flock to St. Cecilia’s.

Hall of Fame Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, former UNLV great Jerry Tarkanian and former Michigan State patriarch Jud Heathcote would recruit there on a regular basis. One could field a top college team simply by grabbing Michigan’s top talent.

The Saint is where Curtis “C.J.” Jones, Magic Johnson’s predecessor, earned his reputation. Jones, a Northwestern (Detroit, Mich.) product, averaged 40 points per game in high school and hit the game-winning shot in the 1967 city league title game against Pershing (Detroit, Mich.). The Doughboys, featuring Haywood and future ABA standout Ralph Simpson, rebounded from that loss to Jones’ team to win the Class A state title.

Former NBA guard Jalen Rose, a member of the Fab Five, once watched Magic, George “Iceman” Gervin and Isiah Thomas at the storied gym before he played there. He remembers watching Jones going the entire length of the court in three dribbles.

“The world hasn’t heard of him, but he was Magic Johnson before Magic,” Rose says. “He could dribble, pass and was incredible.”

The summer pro league where Rose, Webber, Steve Smith and others once held court ended two years ago. But whenever Rose and other former NBA players are in town, they still head to their beloved court to get a run.

In the future, Rose hopes that the summer pro league will return.

“We’re going to get it back running the way it’s supposed to be,” he says.

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By Victoria Sun

Inside of Jalen Rose’s Detroit home, there are no reminders of his 13-year NBA career.

There’s no shrine set up to reminisce about reaching back-to-back NCAA Tournament championship games (1992-93) while starring at the University of Michigan as part of the greatest freshman class in college basketball history known as the Fab Five.

You won’t find any trophies, plaques or awards from when he was a kid or leading Southwestern (Detroit) to a combined 53-1 mark and back-to-back Class A state crowns, either.

The only basketball memorabilia Rose has on display are the giant trophies he’s collected from winning the Summer Pro-Am league at St. Cecilia’s, aka, “The Saint”.

When asked if he’s won a ton of championships at the Saint, the 6-foot-8 point guard becomes momentarily indignant before bragging like he’s at the barbershop with his boys.

“Whaaaaaat?”, he said before switching up his tone. “My team done won the championships four of the last five years (it was held).

“The only signature things you will see in my place to even know that I played basketball are the trophies I got from St. Cecilia’s. That’s it. I didn’t want to have anything else.”

The fact that Rose only displays his trophies from the Saint and doesn’t have any mementos in sight from his successful college or NBA career tells you all you need to know about what the famed court has meant to Rose’s basketball career and personal life.

If you can make it at the Saint, you know you’ve arrived.

“You could go average 30 points in college, 30 in the pros, 30 in AAU, but you won’t really make a name for yourself until you play well at the Saint,” says Saint legend Steve Smith, a Pershing (Detroit) product who averaged 14.3 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists per game in 14 NBA seasons. “More talent has gone through there as anywhere in the country.”

In its prime the Saint was the basketball destination for the top players in Michigan. It attracted luminaries, including Rucker Park legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving, from all over the country.

Rose attended school at St. Cecilia’s in the 6th and 7th grade and played for one of the founding fathers of the legendary basketball institution, Sam Washington. He spent most of his childhood at the Saint marveling at the talent of Magic Johnson, Chicago legend Isiah Thomas and George “Iceman” Gervin before earning his keep on the court.

He remembers being one of the youngest ball-boys getting water for another Southwestern standout – former UNLV standout Anderson Hunt. Rose learned the ropes watching Hunt, Smith, Syracuse legend Derrick Coleman of Northern (Detroit), Missouri’s Doug Smith, who prepped at Mackenzie (Detroit) and many, many others.

Fellow Fab Five standout Chris Webber remembers playing in the Saint when he was 12 with Rose, Howard Eisley and Voshon Leonard. Webber was the ESPN RISE Mr. Basketball USA choice for that season at Detroit Country Day (Birmingham, Mich.). Amazingly, Rose, Eisley, and Leonard played together on Southwestern’s 89-90 unit that went undefeated and all made it to the NBA.

Had Webber, who was nationally-known in basketball circles as early as 7th grade and was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 1990-1991, had attended a public school it would have been with that Southwestern threesome. That should give you an idea of the talent-level that used to roll through the Saint every summer.

Then there were the streetball legends such as 1994 Michigan Mr. Basketball Willie Mitchell, who played for two years at Michigan before transferring to UAB. From the moment locals laid eyes on Mitchell when he was in middle school, they thought for sure he’d be a NBA All-Star, but the Pershing standout never made it.

Curtis “C.J.” Jones was another can’t miss prospect that people swear was Magic Johnson before his time. Rose witnessed Jones go from baseline to baseline in three dribbles, demonstrating his incredible speed and agility. After averaging 40 ppg in high school at Northwestern, academic woes prevented Jones from excelling in college and he never made it to the NBA.

Jones is considered by many as Detroit’s greatest playground legend and one of the best of all-time from any city.

The Saint was also home to Reggie “Spook” Harding, a 7-footer and 1961 prep All-American at Eastern (Detroit) with un-tapped potential.

“He was also like Magic,” says Saint program director Pierre Brooks of the first player taken in the NBA who did not play in college. “He could handle, post up, he had an all-around game, but he was 7-feet-1.

“The streets got the best of him.”

Of all the greats who played at the Saint, Brooks’ all-time favorite is Smith, who graduated from Pershing in 1987.

“He was the showman from my generation,” Brooks said. “That’s the player everybody tried to imitate.

“He had a famous move, the Smitty. He would head fake and do a half-spin then dunk on you baseline and to all his victims we’d say you got Smittied.”

The talent level at the Saint has dipped over the years, particularly after the Summer Pro-League ended in 2008. The tiny —by today’s standards – church gym that seats about 300, however, remains a special place for the community.

For thousands of kids growing up in the Detroit area, the Saint has been a safe refuge from the drugs and violence that pervaded the streets. Another founding father of the Saint, Doc Wilson, remains the commissioner of the joint and Webber said there are still referees who call games from when he was 12.

To preserve the building’s original state, the gym remains without air conditioning rendering it a sauna during the summer.

“In the city, everyone knows the Saint as the place where the best of the best plays,” says Brooks. “You’ve still got the faithful who come to watch in the hot gym with a towel around their neck.

“I don’t think there’s another place like it. It’s not the same as it was, but people still support it.”