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The Once and Future Saint

A visit to St. Cecilia’s, the Detroit gym where George Gervin, Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose, and many other basketball greats tested themselves against the city’s best

Few cities have as rich a cultural and sporting history as Detroit. From the ’80s Pistons to Bob Seger, Eminem to Miguel Cabrera, the Motor City is a rich tapestry of compelling figures, unbelievable moments, and uniquely American ingenuity.

On April 17, ESPN will premiere 30 for 30: Bad Boys, a documentary about those unforgettable Pistons teams. To celebrate, Grantland will devote an entire week, from April 11 through April 18, to the various stories of this wholly original place.

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In the predawn hours of July 23, 1967, Detroit police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar at the corner of 12th Street1 and Clairmount, sparking the worst riots in American history. The Sunday-morning raid in west Detroit wasn’t out of the ordinary — and that was precisely the problem. An overwhelmingly white police force cracking down on an African American establishment enflamed the racial tensions and sense of black disenfranchisement that characterized the era.

Two weeks earlier, in Newark, New Jersey, riots had broken out after two white policemen arrested and abused an African American cab driver who had passed them on the road. Twenty-six people died in the ensuing six days of violence, and hundreds more were injured. Detroit was much worse. Michigan Governor George Romney (Mitt’s father) sent in the National Guard, and President Lyndon Johnson deployed Army troops. Forty-three people died, and more than 1,000 were injured.

As the city exploded around him, Samuel Washington sought to ensure that his children and their friends were safe and remained off the streets. A curfew was in place, and police were brutal in their treatment of violators. Washington was the athletic director of the primary school at St. Cecilia’s, a Catholic parish two miles west of the site of the police raid. “My dad had the keys to the gym, so he figured the best thing to do was to open it up and let us play basketball all day,” said Samuel Washington Jr.

The gym was nothing to look at. It was cramped enough to be potentially dangerous. The court’s boundaries were defined less by painted lines than by encroaching walls, steel poles along the sidelines, and an elevated stage directly behind one baseline.

Yet somehow this modest gym became the most hallowed basketball locale not just in Detroit but in all of Michigan, a hoops mecca rivaling Harlem’s Rucker Park or any other court in the country. Nearly every player of distinction with Michigan ties — notables include Dave Bing, George Gervin, Magic Johnson, Chris Webber, and Jalen Rose — has passed through its doors.

“If you were a player in Michigan, you had to play at St. Cecilia,” said Earl “The Twirl” Cureton, a Detroit native who won two NBA championships with the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets in a professional career spanning from 1980 to 1997. But even after he’d made the NBA, Cureton returned each summer to St. Cecilia’s to play in the church gym’s pro-am league.

“It didn’t matter what you had done that season in the league,” he said. “You still had to prove yourself back at the Saint.”

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Last month, as a late snowfall prolonged Michigan’s brutal winter, I met Sam Washington Jr. for lunch in downtown Detroit. Washington’s father died of a stroke at 54 in 1988, and now his son, who played guard alongside Cureton at Robert Morris University, runs the gym while working full-time as a sales executive for a television station in nearby Southfield.

“Prior to the riots, the Saint was just the gym used by the St. Cecilia school teams that my dad coached,” Washington Jr. said. But after the riots, it became a neighborhood draw. “Then my dad had the idea to organize a summer basketball tournament for high school players. It was sort of like an AAU thing before the AAU was that big.”

“Summer basketball used to be outdoors,” said Perry Watson, who retired from coaching in 2008 after 15 seasons at the University of Detroit Mercy. Watson and his friends used to play at the Kronk, a recreation center best known as the training grounds for Tommy Hearns and other Detroit boxers, but the facility also had outdoor courts. “So I remember the first thing that struck me when I walked into the Saint was just the fact that I was playing inside.”

In the summer of 1974, the gym’s reputation swelled, thanks to the patronage of future Hall of Famer (and Detroit mayor) Dave Bing. The Pistons had selected Bing, a Washington, D.C., native, with the second pick of the 1966 draft. Eight years later, the point guard had a contract dispute with the organization and was barred from using team facilities. “Sam was a fixture of Detroit basketball even then, and he invited me to work out at St. Cecilia,” Bing said. Word spread quickly, especially after Washington Sr. asked if Bing would like to play in a tournament at the Saint. “I brought Jimmy Walker [Jalen Rose’s father], Ralph Simpson, and George Gervin,” Bing said. “After that, St. Cecilia became the place in the Midwest where you had to play.”

There were formal league games on the weekends. High school players would face off earliest in the day, followed by the college division games, and then pro-am contests in the evening. Weekday nights were for invitation-only pickup. “This was hard-core shirts-and-skins basketball,” said former University of Detroit coach Dick Vitale, one of many who scoured the gym for recruits.

Invariably, Washington Sr. sat just inside the gym entrance, where he’d collect a nominal entrance fee, typically a dollar or two, to help pay for uniforms and other operating costs. “It was a safe place to come play and relax,” said Mayce Webber, who came to Detroit the year before the riots and lived a few miles from the Saint. He began bringing his son, Chris, to play when Chris was a teenager. “I’ll never forget the first time I took Chris,” he said. “He came into the gym and had this look on his face like he was in heaven.”

“There wasn’t any stealing at the gym, and there wasn’t any real fighting,” said Robert Sims, a retired physician who played basketball alongside Washington Sr. at Western High School and Eastern Michigan University. (A mentor to George Gervin, a St. Cecilia’s regular, Sims steered the “Iceman” to his alma mater.) “Everyone respected what Sam was doing.”

Soon, prospects from all over the region began arriving at the Saint. Earvin Johnson came from Lansing. Isiah Thomas came during his college career at Indiana. Scott Skiles, a Michigan State product, also made the pilgrimage to the Saint. White kids from the burbs came to see how they stacked up. Mike Dietz, owner of a sports and entertainment management company, recalls coming to St. Cecilia’s in the late 1970s, when he played for Brother Rice High School in the affluent suburb of Bloomfield Hills. “During the summers, my dad would drop me off at St. Cecilia on his way to work and Sam Sr. would look after me,” said Dietz, who walked on at Western Michigan University.

Every player who came through the Saint has a moment he remembers as if it happened yesterday. For Anderson Hunt, it was after his freshman year at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; he’d been academically ineligible to play that year. “After that disappointing season, which I lost to Prop 48, I came back to the Saint and won the summer league, which was a real highlight for me,” Hunt said. “It was me, Roland Brooks, who played for Minnesota, Tyrone Fuller, who played at USC, and a bunch of street guys.”

Kevin Willis, who played 23 seasons in the NBA, remembers a game at the Saint in which he scored 26 points. “Sam [Sr.] came over after the game and told me that all of my baskets had been dunks,” Willis said.

For Cureton, it was the day he played Magic Johnson. “For some reason that summer, my team was all bigs, and Magic’s was all guards,” he said. “They ran us out of the gym.”2 Then there was the day Cureton brought his 76ers teammate Darryl Dawkins: “Sam took one look at him and said, ‘He can’t play today, Earl. I’m sorry, but I don’t have an extra backboard.’” (The concern was warranted.)

For others, the watching may have been more memorable than the playing. Fox Sports announcer Gus Johnson was an altar boy at St. Cecilia’s, and he remembers assisting the pastor, Thomas Finnigan, with Mass at the church and then walking across the street to the gym. “At the time,” Johnson said, “I had no idea what being a sportscaster meant or that’s what I’d end up doing, but St. Cecilia gave me my love for the game.

“It wasn’t show-you-up, no-defense Rucker ball,” he continues. “They’d press, trap, zone, and foul the shit out of you. It felt like Madison Square Garden every day, but without any air-conditioning. And it was eclectic. Some guy would come down from the Upper Peninsula and drop 40, and you’d say, ‘Who’s this white dude?’ Then a year later you’d see him starring for some major university.”

At the middle of it all was Washington Sr., known affectionately as “The Godfather.” The moniker suggests some sort of Machiavellian power broker, but Washington’s influence was benign and limited. While he mentored countless young men — Watson credits Washington for steering Jalen Rose to Southwestern High School while Watson coached there — his efforts to extend his basketball influence beyond the Saint were stymied.

In 1982, Washington and Watson decided to host a Christmas tournament. They invited the three best high school teams in the city to join Southwestern and rented out the University of Detroit’s gym. Southwestern had arguably the country’s top prospect, Antoine Joubert, a University of Michigan recruit who was called “The Judge.” In the finals, Watson’s squad met the deepest team in the field, Kettering High School, whose collective nickname, “The Supreme Court,” was a delicious taunt.

“The atmosphere was electric,” Watson recalls. “Detroit hadn’t seen anything like it.” Kettering won on a buzzer-beater, though Southwestern would avenge the loss in the city championship several months later. “But that was it for Sam’s involvement,” Watson said. “The public school powers wouldn’t again allow an event like that run by Sam because he wasn’t a public school coach.”

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After our lunch, Washington Jr. drove us to the Saint. From the parking lot entrance, we walked up a flight of stairs — the court sits atop a basement events room — onto the polished hardwood. “Since it’s an elevated court, you get a nice little bounce,” Washington said. “The Saint” is painted on the floor. Grantland contributor Jalen Rose, who attended St. Cecilia’s grade school, donated the scoreboard. There’s a picture of Washington Sr. on the wall, along with banners inscribed with the names of the gym’s most notable players. Among those I haven’t already mentioned: B.J. Armstrong, Trey Burke, Derrick Coleman, Jordan Crawford, Dave DeBusschere, Terry Duerod, Smokey Gaines, Spencer Haywood, Bob Lanier, Voshon “Vo” Lenard, Campy Russell, Steve Smith, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, and Rudy Tomjanovich.3

Take the best 12 players who passed through the Saint and you’d have a squad that would give any roster — even the Dream Team — a run for its money.

You’ll notice, however, that the list is short on current stars. Washington Sr.’s death was a turning point. Afterward, there were reports that along with the world-class basketball on display at the Saint, the gym also hosted less savory side hustles like high-stakes betting and drug dealing. “It was a dark time there for a little while,” Anderson Hunt said. “There was a lot of betting, a lot of money thrown around, and then there was the shooting.”

On August 5, 1989, a fight broke out between two college division teams. According to a Sports Illustrated report, one team’s coach, Steven Dale Goodwin, an ex-con, began arguing with another man in the parking lot over an alleged $37,000 bet. The other man, who was never identified as far as I’ve been able to determine, shot Goodwin twice, though not fatally.

“This program has done so much for so many people,” Pastor Finnigan told the Associated Press. “It’s going on 20 years now, and this is the first incident like this.”

Washington Jr. said that the incident, which occurred while his brother, Ron, was running the league, was an anomaly. Of course, his father’s passing was a blow to the gym, he said. But it’s not so much that the Saint has changed but that the world has changed around it.

Stepping out of the gym, Washington Jr. pointed to a dilapidated, abandoned row house across the street. Yellow paint was peeling off the sides and the roof had begun to fold in on itself. “That’s where I grew up,” said Washington, who now lives in Southfield. The surrounding neighborhood is dotted by vacant lots and boarded-up homes.

Detroit’s struggles have been well chronicled — a postindustrial collapse abetted by disinvestment from the urban core, financial mismanagement, and corruption.4 The exodus has been astonishing. “When I was born in 1963, Detroit was the fifth-largest city in the country, with 2 million people,” Perry said. “Now the city has 700,000.”

A large factor in the decline of Detroit basketball, and by extension the quality of play at the Saint, is just that the talent pool has become shallow. Southwestern High School was just one of dozens of public schools to shut down in the past decade as citywide enrollment plummeted.

Meanwhile, Catholic schools have also suffered. Since 2000, more than 25 parishes have closed in the Detroit area. When St. Cecilia’s opened in 1925, 530 students enrolled. But fewer than 45 signed up for the 2010-11 school year, and the Detroit archdiocese made the painful decision to shutter the school. The parish escaped the same fate only by merging last year with nearby St. Leo, taking a new name, St. Charles Lwanga, in honor of a Ugandan saint. The archdiocese’s struggles mirrored the city’s — a human exodus combined with financial mismanagement. (Like many archdioceses, Detroit also paid out settlement fees to victims of clerical pedophiles.)

“Catholic schools and parishes have played a very significant role in education in urban America,” said Patrick McCloskey, author of The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic School in Harlem. (The subject of his book was Rice High School, a basketball powerhouse, which shut down after the 2010-11 school year.) “Sports is a part of it, given the parochial emphasis on mind, spirit, and body. But sports is secondary to academics.”

Gus Johnson, who attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy after St. Cecilia’s, agreed. “The priests set an ethical standard that’s served me well to this day,” he said.5

As the city and the parish declined, so too did the Saint. It’s a parallel that’s not lost on Theodore Parker, the pastor of the newly merged St. Charles Lwanga, who arrived from Brooklyn several years ago. “The glory of St. Cecilia basketball is in the past,” he said.

♦♦♦

Unfortunately, there were no leagues ongoing at the Saint during my March visit. The action is during the summer, and the leagues no longer feature professional players. “I’m concentrating more on younger players to build the Saint back up,” Washington Jr. said. During the school year, the Saint is used for gym class by the Allen Academy, a nearby charter school.

So instead I took Washington to a Pistons game. On a Wednesday evening, I met him at his office in Southfield, and he drove us another 20 miles to the Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Pistons began playing in 1988. The venue has been kind to the Pistons — they won their first championship in the arena’s inaugural season — and two nights after our visit, when the Pistons were scheduled to host the Miami Heat, there would be a ceremony honoring the Bad Boys before a sellout crowd of 21,231. But on that Wednesday, the lowly Pistons were facing the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. Officially, the Palace was two-thirds full, but it didn’t look it.

Bing told me later that another reason for the decline of Detroit basketball is the physical remove of the city’s professional team from the actual city. There aren’t any shuttles or buses that ferry fans from Detroit to the Palace. “You have to have a car and drive 45 minutes, and that’s if you can afford the ticket,” he said.

Back at the game, I noticed that neither team featured a player born in Detroit. In fact, by my count there are only three Detroit natives playing in the NBA: Willie Green, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Jordan Crawford.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about what a power the city used to be,” Cureton said. “I came out of high school in 1975, and there were at least six guys from my year that made it to the NBA.

“I averaged more than 20 points a game in high school and then played in the NBA for more than 10 years,” Cureton continued. “But you know what? My senior year, I only made the All-City third team! That tells you something about how good Detroit basketball was.”

Washington and I had good seats and the game was close, but neither of us could feign much interest in the proceedings. Early in the fourth quarter, after Josh Smith swished two consecutive 20-foot jumpers, I asked Washington if any of the current Pistons come to play at the Saint.

“No,” he said. “It’s different now. The culture has changed. These guys have their own practice facilities and personal trainers.” Also, most don’t live in the city year-round, Bing would later tell me. “In my time, we all lived in the city we played in,” he said. “But now guys have so much money that they have second and third homes.”

With just over five minutes left in the game, Washington and I walked toward the exit. The Pistons held a comfortable 11-point lead, but Washington told me that “they’ve lost plenty of these games this season.” Sure enough, as we drove toward the city with the radio tuned in to the game, Detroit’s lead dwindled. Finally, Dion Waiters nailed a buzzer-beating baseline jumper to steal the game for the Cavaliers.

“I told you,” Washington chuckled. He said he had tickets for Friday’s Bad Boys celebration but probably wouldn’t go. The current Pistons didn’t seem to mean much to him.

For Washington and many others, the true heart of Detroit basketball isn’t in Auburn Hills, but in a small parish gym in west Detroit. “For a while there we were in a little rut, just like the city,” he said. “But the Saint is coming back.” 

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times MagazineNew York MagazineBloomberg BusinessweekHarper’sThe NationThe Atlantic, Grantland, and other publications. Illustration by Gluekit.

Filed Under: NBA, Detroit Week, Professional Basketball, Jalen Rose, Magic Johnson, Chris Webber, George Gervin

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