Race, riots, and the 1967 Detroit Pershing basketball team

Branden Hunter, Senior writer
Michigan Preps
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Detroit was not a pleasant place to be during the last week of July in 1967. For four days, citizens of Detroit rioted, a civil unrest that infamously became known as the 12 street riot. The 1967 Detroit riot was one of the most violent, destructive, and deadliest riots in the nation's history. It set a thriving city back decades, both racially and economically. The aftermath of the event can still be felt today, scars in the form of abandoned homes, buildings, and businesses, representing the wounds from 50 years ago.

But contrary to belief, not everything was bad in Detroit that year. The riot was such an important part of Detroit's history, that it often overshadows the Pershing High School basketball team that year, which lost one time all season. The Doughboys - which might be the best nickname in sports - cruised to a 90-66 win over Flint Central to win the 1967 Class A state title. It was the first time in 37 years that a team from the Detroit Public School League had won a state championship, due to a self-imposed exile in 1930. Even more impressive, an almost all-black team had done it, coached by a black man, Will Robinson.

Prior to the 1967 Detroit riot, the city was predominately white. There were not any black teams from the city winning at the highest level, and there sure were not any black coaches. Robinson was a trailblazer. Before he ever stepped foot on East Seven Mile Road and Ryan, he was a staple in Detroit, and had already won multiple city championships at Miller High, in Detroit's historic Black Bottom neighborhood in the 1940s and 50s. Robinson arrived in Detroit in 1943 to turn things around at Miller, after the Detroit race riots that summer. He was in a class of his own - literally. He became the first black head coach in Detroit history, and it remained that way for the next 15 years.

Robinson wrote the book on how to turn racially-charged schools and basketball programs around, and jump-started the Pershing basketball program when he arrived there in 1960. He was a man who valued education, and responsibility, and was a maker of men, on and off the hardwood. Robinson continued to break color barriers, when he became the first black head coach at a Division I school in 1970, Illinois State University, and a long-time scout in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons. Without his life and basketball contributions to Detroit, there is no telling where Pershing, and even city basketball would be today.

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Detroit high school basketball was so good in 1967, that Pershing did not even win its own league championship. That honor went to the Northwestern Colts, led by arguably the best ever to walk the mean streets of Detroit, Curtis Jones, future Major League Baseball player John Mayberry, and Lamont King. The Colts edged the Doughboys by two that February at Osborn High, on a last second shot by Jones. The game was also aired on television in Detroit, for the first time ever. But, do not get it twisted. That Pershing team was great, led by legends Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson, who were almost unstoppable in the paint, and on the perimeter.

Still, the '67 Doughboys were not a just a two-man team. John Conally was a 6-7 forward who contributed largely, would play in college at Bowling Green. Pair those three with Wiley Davis Jr., who played at the University of Detroit with Haywood, Granville Cook (Eastern Michigan), Lamarr Franklin, Eric Witzke, John Lockard, Marvin Lane, Paul Seal, and Glenn Doughty, and you had a super team of that era. Haywood, Simpson, Lane, Seal, and Doughty would all go on to play professionally, Haywood and Simpson in the NBA, Seal and Doughty in the NFL, and Lane in the MLB for the Detroit Tigers.

Haywood and Simpson were a dynamic duo in 1967. At 6-foot-8, Haywood was a man amongst boys. In the state title game against Central, her scored 24 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, a skill he did very well over his illustrious career. After his career at Pershing was over, he played one year of junior college ball at Trinidad State in Colorado, where he averaged an astonishing 28.2 points and 22.1 rebounds. That led to him earning a starting spot on the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team, which he led in scoring at 16.1 points per game, and the gold. Haywood returned to Detroit in 1968, a year after the riot, to play at the University of Detroit. He continued to dominate there, scoring 32.1 points and 21.5 rebounds a game. The college game obviously was not a challenge for Haywood, who sought out the NBA next.

Back in 1969, the NBA would not allow college sophomores to enter the draft. You had to finish all four years of college. But Haywood was ready now. He opted for the ABA instead, and led the Denver Rockets to a Western Conference crown in 1970, also winning MVP of the league as a rookie. Still, Haywood wanted more. The NBA still would not allow him to enter the draft, but he signed with the Seattle Supersonics anyways in 1970, much to the dislike of the NBA, who threatened to void his 6-year $1.5 million contract. Sonics owner Sam Schulman filed anti-trust lawsuit against in the NBA in 1971, which they eventually won, allowing Haywood to remain in the NBA. He was taken in the 1971 NBA Draft by the Buffalo Braves, but never played for them. All Haywood ever wanted to do was play basketball, and the same discriminatory practices he had seen in Mississippi, where he was born, and in Detroit where he was raised, continued to follow him in his professional career.

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While Haywood was balling out in college after the 1967 riot, his former coach and teammates at Pershing were preparing for another season of basketball. That could not have been an easy time in Detroit for some teenagers, who probably could not fathom what was happening to their city. The riot caused millions of dollars in damages to the city, wounded hundreds, and 16 people were killed. It also screened out what Pershing had just accomplished months prior to those days in July. How could the carry on? How could the city carry on?

The Doughboys still had Simpson on the team, a senior who scored a then-record 43 points in the state title game, which was broken by a fellow Doughboy in 2009, Keith Appling, who was also a junior. And just like Appling, Simpson played in college at Michigan State for a year in 1969, where he certainly left his mark, averaging 29 points and 10.3 for the Spartans. It was off to the pros after that for Simpson, who played in the ABA and the NBA for nine seasons.

Pershing also had Robinson still, who, in ten years at Pershing, left his mark. In 1970, they won another state title, defeating Campy Russell's Pontiac Central team. That was Robinson's final game coaching at Pershing. In over 20 years of service to the black community, Robinson helped hundreds of young black men achieve their goals, but academically and athletically, while breaking down color barriers, and healing hostile racial environments

Not only was that time a changing of the guard for Pershing basketball, but also Detroit as a whole. The 1967 riot changed the entire landscape of the city. There was mass exodus of white Detroiters to the surrounding suburbs, and in just a couple of years, the city was composed of predominately of black people. The schools were all black, the coaches were black, and within a few years, Coleman A. Young became the first black mayor of Detroit in 1974.

The riot may rule headlines from that year, but what Robinson, Haywood, Simpson and the rest of the squad did will never be forgotten. They overcame adversity on the court to become champions in 1967, and off the court that year to become champions in life. They were the pioneers of PSL basketball.

"All for One, One for All, together we stand, divided we fall. Only the strong survive, weak fall by the wayside. Pershing pride."

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