In the midst of his first NCAA tournament run as a member of the now-legendary Fab Five, Detroit native and University of Michigan freshman Jalen Rose was just beginning to make his lasting impact on the game of basketball. After one of the 1992 tournament games, a reporter asked him how he acquired his knack for “taking the right shot, making the right pass, getting the ball to the right player, after fewer than 40 games in college.”
Rose immediately responded with the place and the coach that played a formative role in his development as a basketball player and as a young man: “It started at St. Cecilia’s. We had a coach there, Sam Washington. He didn’t just send you out there to play. He worked on developing you, teaching the game.”
To fully understand the impact of St. Cecilia’s Gym on Detroit’s West Side, you have to go back more than 50 years to a period in the Motor City’s history that many would like to forget.
During the last days of July in 1967, Detroit looked like the ruins of an urban warzone. The shattered glass of storefront windows covered sidewalks, the remains of automobiles smoldered on Grand Boulevard and the National Guard patrolled Detroit’s neighborhoods.
In the wake of the Detroit Riots, Sam Washington, the athletic director at St. Cecilia’s Parish, was thinking first about the safety of his children and other kids in the neighborhood. Schools were out for summer break and these kids were used to playing ball in the parks and streets, often late into the night. Following the riots, however, a wave of violence gripped Detroit and a 9 p.m. citywide curfew was now being strictly enforced by law enforcement.
That’s when St. Cecilia’s parish leadership made a monumental decision that forever altered the course of basketball history in Detroit. With the full support of pastor Fr. Raymond Ellis and associate pastor Fr. Ed Olszewski, Washington led efforts to revamp the parish’s dilapidated gym. Volunteers from the neighborhood, including many teenagers known for their summertime “mischief,” pitched in. Some repainted the locker room, cafeteria and kitchen. Others focused on the condition of the gym’s hardwood floor, which needed to be stripped, sealed and re-varnished.
A few weeks later, Washington unlocked the doors of the renovated St. Cecilia’s gym and invited all the neighborhood kids, regardless of whether they or their parents attended the parish. For the remainder of that summer, Detroit’s kids found refuge in a Catholic school basketball gym they simply called “The Saint.”
Soon enough, St. Cecilia’s gym was attracting middle school and high school kids by the dozen, including some of the most promising basketball talent Detroit had to offer. “We’d have maybe 100 kids showing up each Monday, Wednesday and Friday to play,” Washington told the Free Press back in 1969. Washington organized springtime and summer basketball programs and leagues for hundreds of participants. Curiosity and fanfare grew; what started as a temporary haven for a neighborhood experiencing crisis started attracting big names and talent.
Just a few years after opening, Dave Bing — an all-star shooting guard and a future Mayor of Detroit — was going through a contentious contract dispute with the hometown Pistons. Prohibited from using the same court as his professional teammates, Bing was invited to hone his legendary skills on St. Cecilia’s hardwood. The future Hall of Famer practiced there for several weeks as neighborhood teens watched on with delight. Once the dispute was settled, Bing donated his $2,500 fine to Sam Washington’s basketball programs.
This cemented the Saint’s enduring legacy as a proverbial proving ground for the region’s most promising basketball talent. Top high school and college players from Detroit and beyond started making regular athletic pilgrimages to St. Cecilia’s. Among them was a lanky high school kid from Lansing named Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a University of Indiana guard named Isiah Thomas, George Gervin (a rising star at nearby Martin Luther King Jr. High School who went on to enjoy a lengthy Hall of Fame professional career), Jalen Rose, Steve Smith, Derrick Coleman, B.J. Armstrong and Chris Webber — all future NBA All-Stars.
“I’ll never forget the first time I took Chris,” stated Mayce Webber, the father of the collegiate and NBA superstar. “He came into the gym and had this look on his face like he was in heaven.”
Dick Vitale, now the beloved voice of college hoops, also referred to St. Cecilia’s gymnasium as “Hoops Heaven,” a place where basketball greats seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Division 1 coaches also flocked to the West Side gym in hopes of establishing a relationship with an under-the-radar recruit or a sure-fire blue-chipper.
Despite the amazing talent that stepped foot on the court almost daily, Sam Washington never lost sight of what was most important. He affectionately called the hundreds of teens who came through the Saint’s basketball programs “his kids” and they in turn called Washington their “Godfather.” Many of these Detroit teens grew up in single-parent homes, lacked consistent access to food, or struggled in school. Washington told the Free Pressthat it was not uncommon for neighborhood boys, some of which were Division 1 athletes, to “come to my office to cry and beg and wish they could read and write and spell.” Accordingly, St. Cecilia’s began to offer tutoring services in the 1980s.
Jalen Rose, a St. Cecilia’s student at the time, noted in an interview with Unleash the Gospel, that growing up in Detroit in the 1980s was tough. The city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods were being devastated by the crack cocaine epidemic, as law enforcement targeted addicts just as vigorously as drug dealers. Most of the families Jalen knew were “broken,” with fathers or other family members incarcerated for low level drug offenses. Jalen’s mom Jeanne Rose knew her son needed guidance and a place of refuge growing up in this environment.Rose explained, “My mother wanted to make sure I benefited from his [Washington’s] leadership.”
While a middle school student at St. Cecilia’s, Jalen spent much of his spare time at the Saint, performing “odd jobs” like sweeping the gym floor and running errands for Washington. He became a “mascot of sorts” for some of the older local high school players like Smith, Coleman and Armstrong. To this day, Rose still cherishes the work ethic and discipline he learned in St. Cecilia’s Gym. “To see other players constantly in the gym putting work in for the love of the game, not just what the game could reward you with, was truly a life lesson for all to witness.” Rose explains.
Rose also fondly remembered the spiritual leadership of Monsignor Thomas Finnegan, the longtime pastor at St. Cecilia. Finnegan, an athlete growing up, was known to be constantly involved around the Saint: doing yard work around the gym, climbing scaffolding to paint the walls of the basketball court. Vitale noted that “Father Finnegan was really an extension of what that program was all about, always giving, and giving and giving.” Monsignor James Robinson, the first Black rector at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, told the Free Press back in 2000 that he was thoroughly impressed at how Finnegan immersed himself fully in African American culture. “He thought Black and he felt Black,” shared Robinson.
The Saint was shaken to its core in the 1980s. On November 8, 1988 Washington suffered a stroke working at St. Cecilia’s and died a few weeks later. At his funeral, it seemed that all of Detroit’s neighborhoods and suburbs converged on St. Cecilia’s Church. Mitch Albom made note of the wide diversity of people filling the pews, “They came from all over, white, black, old, young, basketball players, kids in sneakers, little girls, mothers, fathers, coaches.” To Finnegan, this was no surprise. “Sam had the ability to mend and heal people…he was so well-known and well-loved by athletes, coaches, parishioners, people on the street,” he told the Free Press.
Since Washington’s death, the Saint has faced its share of difficulties. The 2008 economic recession and Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy in 2013 were powerful indicators of the financial turmoil gripping the Motor City. The population drain out of Detroit in the 1990s and 2000s had major effects on St. Cecilia’s. Many inner-city kids and teens who formerly sought refuge at the Saint relocated to the suburbs with their families. Simultaneously, the rise of travel AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball in the spring and summer months kept up-and-coming basketball players occupied elsewhere.
In 2011, St. Cecilia’s elementary school was closed due to slumping enrollment of students. A couple years later, St. Cecilia’s merged with neighboring St. Leo, forming the new parish of St. Charles Lwanga. And with the current COVID-19 outbreak prompting the cancellation of most recreational gatherings and events in southeast Michigan, St. Cecilia’s Gym will likely remain empty for the rest of this summer. Yet, the Saint — with its beautiful rose window, imposing brick facade and its storied history — continues to inspire hope for better days ahead. Plans to expand and renovate the gym are in the works, stated St. Charles Lwanga’s pastor Fr. Ted Parker, in a recent online Archdiocese of Detroit forum that discussed the Church’s teaching and response to racism.
St. Cecilia’s Gym was and still is more than just a basketball gym to those who played there. It embodies the enduring love and selfless dedication of the Washington family, the St. Cecilia parish community and many others who provided a sanctuary for neighborhood kids who not only desired athletic training but also guidance and help during their most troubling times.