Sam Washington Jr. — St. Cecilia’s Gym, Detroit
One of the most revered basketball courts in the country is tucked behind a church, surrounded by a cracked parking lot, and entered through a nondescript gray metal door. Saint Cecilia’s gym is located on the West Side of Detroit, and although the city is very much on the mend in 2016, some streets around the gym still have more abandoned homes than occupied. Just steps from the gym’s entrance sits a dilapidated house with broken windows, graffiti, and scorched wood. It wasn’t always this way.
Sam Washington Jr., who has run the gym for 17 years, and whose father started the gym, remembers a time when he was young and the city was a beacon of opportunity. “There were schools everywhere, Motown was hot, there were no vacant lots, and there was energy everywhere…you could walk anywhere and feel safe.” We’re standing in the parking lot by the gym door, and behind him is that abandoned house, presiding over a neighborhood that still reflects the long degeneration of Detroit.
By most accounts, this decline can be traced back in part to one fateful week in the summer of 1967. At the time, Sam Jr. was only 10 years old, and living with his family in the same neighborhood as the gym. The Race Riots of ’67, which began just 3 miles from Sam’s front door, lasted only for a few days, but the effect on the city was immeasurable. Over 40 dead, and thousands upon thousands were either arrested, injured, or both.
Sam remembers those days well. “The city was up in flames. Snipers, curfews, riots, state police…kind of looked like Vietnam, man.” Stuck in the middle of all that violence and uncertainty were countless kids like Sam — with little in the way of distractions from the grim daily realities. That’s when Sam’s father stepped in. Saint Cecilia’s Gym, which he ran at the time, became a refuge for local kids. Seeing there was nowhere for them to go and have fun, he opened the doors and welcomed everyone in. At the time, there was still a curfew for the youth, but during the day it became a sanctuary. The balls bouncing inside the gym could be heard throughout the neighborhood, and local youth would gravitate towards the sounds of activity and laughter. So it was that in 1967, during Detroit’s darkest hours, a small gym did what it could to help the community around it. What few could predict at the time though, was how important the cramped hardwood court would eventually become to basketball. To this day, players like Magic Johnson still cite “The Saint” as an essential proving ground for them as players.
A drive through the neighborhood around The Saint today is a stark reminder that Detroit has still not recovered fully. The much-hyped media narrative of A Motor City Revitalized is true in some sections, but certainly not on Stoepel Street and the blocks around it. Walking down the street to the gym you hear crunched glass under your shoe. Around you are piles of trash in front of emptied houses, and lawns overgrown with grass. As you approach the gym, you find a dull gray metal door, caked with tape from event flyers posted along it. Opening it you step into a cool dark hallway with faded white and gray paint on the walls. The door slams solidly behind you, and you are left with only one light source, pouring in from the court through a narrow doorway ahead and up 5 or so stairs. It’s blindingly bright, amplified by the light reflecting off the hardwood.
Stepping up and through the door places you right at the edge of the court, which is pristine and gleaming ahead of you. Like someone standing at the edge of a freshly frozen lake, it takes real guts to be the first to sully the marble-smooth floor. That first step onto the court brings out creaks and groans, breaking the monastic silence of the empty gym. Some of the best players in the world have described this same hardwood in near-religious terms…Welcome to The Saint.
In it’s early years, the gym eventually grew to be more than just a haven for the youngest in the community. Sam Washington Sr. saw an opportunity to get older youth involved as well. At the time, summer for local high school athletes meant far less opportunities to compete. As soon as the schools closed their doors for the summer, high schoolers were left to play outdoors or at rec centers that were, for the most part, in disrepair. Sam Jr. remembers how hard his father worked to make The Saint a home for high schoolers during the summers, at one point going to court to get them to allow the teams to play during the summer. “My dad’s main reasoning for opening the gym to them, was to get kids off the streets during the summers.”
In 2016, many summers after those early days, I join Sam Jr., at The Saint, where he is opening its doors for High School seniors to play for a few hours. I meet Sam in the parking lot out back and he walks with me into the gym, explaining proudly that almost all of the seniors participating that night are on track to not only graduate, but continue playing at the next level. I settle down by the scores table where a couple of coaches are fiddling with the controller for the scoreboard. Looking out on the court, where several young men are warming up, there’s a line of text painted on the hardwood in neat italics — “Where Stars are Made, Not Born.”
The sound of hard dribbles and clanging metal rims reverberates off of the ceiling. The run was scheduled for 6pm-9pm. It’s 6:05pm and Sam, standing in front of the score table, booms his voice out in a businesslike tone. “y’all got teams figured out?!” Several of the players nod to him and he twirls his finger in the air to get the game started. With his other hand, he reaches behind him and deftly maneuvers the controls for the scoreboard to start the clock.
It’s only once the first dribble is made that he hands off scorekeeping and seems to relax. He sits down and immediately a smile hits his face as he surveys the young men crashing back and forth down his court. A running commentary strikes up between Sam and the local coaches. “Larry’s so skinny he has to roll his shorts up!” Sam chortled, watching a rail-thin young man run back and forth. “I wish I was still that skinny…” Sitting on the bleachers, bantering with everyone around him, Sam exuded a sense of ease that only comes with having seen your surroundings at its best and also its worst.
For The Saint, the best times came on the heels of the High School talent starting to pipeline into the gym early on. The next step came as a result of a local Pistons player fortuitously holding out of his contract. Dave Bing, who would go on to become the mayor of Detroit, needed somewhere to stay in shape while negotiations continued, and worked out time with Sam Sr. for him and his friends to workout and play at the gym. Through word of mouth, more and more professional and collegiate talent began showing up, eventually growing into top-flight summer leagues. This was all before professional and college teams had state-of-the-art practice facilities available to players 24/7, so the idea of a clean, well-attended summer gym packed with quality competition was appealing to players.
One such player was Earl “The Twirl” Cureton, who would go on to play professional basketball for 17 years, winning two NBA championships. On any given night in the league, he would play in arenas the size of villages, filled with every amenity imaginable. But, when asked about the venues that most shaped him as a player, he was quick to bring up a tiny gym in Detroit. “No matter what happened in the NBA, you had to prove yourself back at The Saint.”
Sam explained that not only was this beneficial for those on the court, it was also a way for local youth to get to see players that were otherwise inaccessible to them. Those games and even the workout sessions became welcome escapes for the locals. Kids that couldn’t afford to go to NBA games were able to get an up-close view of their idols from the bleachers of The Saint. “When I was growing up, my best memories were watching the open pro-am league. It was PACKED. There was no telling what pro player would walk through the door. Guys from the Pistons would play, other guys like George “The Iceman” Gervin would put on a show every time they walked in the gym. It was wall to wall with people packed in the gym, with 200–300 outside waiting to get in. If you got up you would lose your seat immediately…I never got up.”
Countless youths joined Sam Jr. on those bleachers, under the watchful eye of his father. “He was the type of Dad where kids that didn’t have fathers thought that HE was their father. He gave them open arms, regardless of creed or race.” It was that welcoming, supportive disposition that helped make The Saint a well-respected fixture in the community. After building the program from the Race Riots depths to the Summer Pro-Am highs, Sam Washington Sr.’s death in 1989 marked a turning point for the gym. Sam’s brother, Ron, led the gym for 10 years, and after passing through several other leadership changes, Sam Jr. saw that it was his time in 2000. “My dad put in blood, sweat, and tears to develop this program. When the last director stepped down, I felt like the program was slipping away along with the economy, so I had to step up.”
For 16 years, Sam has strode this sideline, cracking jokes and dispensing knowledge — but masked by his quick-draw smile is a daily struggle to keep the doors open, as well as protect the gyms legacy. He takes those tasks seriously, as the walls of the gym and its very aura are interwoven with the legacy of his late father. Six months ago, Sam was able to take another step forward when he secured non-profit status for the Sam Washington Sr. Foundation. For Sam, basketball alone isn’t enough. He wants to help fix the problems he still sees in the community around him.
Sam tells stories about local youths that have wound up on his bleachers. There was the 10th grader who had dropped out because, he confided to Sam, he had nothing to wear to school and was sick of being teased. There were the pair of kids who spent every day one summer in The Saint one summer watching the games. At first, Sam thought they were basketball junkies, but walking by them he was taken aback by how bad they smelled — realizing they hadn’t changed their clothes in weeks. In both of those cases, Sam did everything he could, he called around and set up clothing donations, he fed anyone who was hungry, and when all was said and done, the 10th grader went back to school with fresh clothes, and the pair of kids walked away with shirts, shoes, and backpacks.
It is this reality outside the lines of the court that has driven Sam to establish a non-profit that focuses on much more than just basketball. He talks in broad strokes about his goals of establishing an all-encompassing support system for local youths, covering education, mentorship, health & hygiene. In July of 2016, he plans to start the first of these efforts, a poetic 49 summers to the month after the Race Riots forever changed the trajectory of both the city and Sam Washington himself.
As much passion as he has for the gym, Sam has yet to be able to make it a full time commitment. Since professional and collegiate programs now have incredible practice facilities, top talents have less need for a tiny court without air conditioning. Gone are the days when hundreds would line up outside the gym hoping to catch a glimpse of top NBA talent slicing down the court.
Despite the challenges, Sam is still able to to put together hectic schedules of competition each summer, which is his busy season at the gym. All this while holding a full time job in Sales that ties him up for most of the day. “During the summer, I’m at the gym EVERY day. Saturdays and Sundays, I stay all day, and during the weeks, the games don’t start until the evening, so I finish work and go straight to the gym to get things ready.”
As he nears another brutal summer schedule, it’s clear that his goals for The Saint don’t just mirror his father’s work, but also build on it. Though he sees great things in the future for Detroit, he can’t wait for the recovery to reach the neighborhoods. A gym that was born during the city’s darkest hours, now fights to stay relevant, just as the city itself has finally found stability.When I ask Sam about his hopes for the gym itself, he returns to the legacy that his father built, which was entrusted to him. “I want the doors to always be open for the kids, and anyone else in the area to participate and be a part of history. It means so much to so many people…Everywhere I go I run into someone who had an experience there.”
In the parking lot behind the gym, I asked Sam if I could take his photograph. Thinking it would be symbolic, I asked that he stand with the abandoned house across the street at his back. That house, with its cracked windows, burnt wood, and sagging roof, is a daily reminder to anyone driving past that there is still much to do before the city is truly revitalized. It’s the first thing you see when you park at The Saint, and it’s the last thing you see as you depart. Standing with your back against the metal door into the gym, you are no more than 30 feet from the house. To your right is a stretch of concrete wall, and to your left is a long brick building — together they create a sort of tunnel vision, forcing these two oppositions, blight and gleaming gym, to face each-other — for as long as it takes. Sam is standing in front of the house, with a strong, stern look on his face, and after taking the picture, I realize I never asked where he grew up as a child. “My home? I grew up right there.” Pointing to the house behind him.