by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I have been to many funerals in my life. I have never been to one like they had for Sam Washington on Saturday. They came from all over, white, black, old, young, basketball players who looked like prisoners in a suit and tie, kids in sneakers, little girls, mothers, fathers, coaches.

They filled the pews at St. Cecilia’s Church, there, ostensibly, to say goodby to a man they loved. It was a sad moment, yet there seemed to be little sadness, and when they spoke of him, one by one, loved ones rising to tell “Sammy” stories, well, there were actually ripples of laughter, and tears mixed with smiles.

A funeral.

Just the way Sam would have wanted it.

He was that rarest of individuals, a man who became a hero by being kind. With his wit and energy, Sam Washington could have done anything. He devoted his life to kids. Not the well- scrubbed kids from TV-sitcoms, but street kids, the kids without alternatives, the kids for whom the choice was sometimes a basketball or a gun. Why did he do it? Why ask? He lived in Detroit and he saw a need and he went to work.

St. Cecilia’s was his office, a gymnasium just off Livernois, behind the Tuffy Muffler shop. Not a common place for miracles, but then, there was little common in the way Sam Washington did things. For years he ran the summer leagues at St. Cecilia’s, started them in 1968, an alternative to the racial strife that was ripping apart Detroit. They grew, became perhaps the best recreational basketball leagues in the country, because he nurtured them, he believed in them, and he swung his weight for them.

And Sam was pretty big.

“Hey, Dave,” he once said to Dave Bing, who was then playing with the mediocre Pistons teams of the 70’s, “I need some higher exposure. Why don’t you get your teammates to come down and play at St. Cecilia’s?”

“Why would they want to play there?” Bing asked.

“Because it’s the only full house they’ll ever get,” Sam said.

They came.

A few years later, when Bing was holding out on his Pistons contract, Sam approached him again. Said he needed money for a new gym floor. Bing shrugged.
“I’m getting fined $500 a day for holding out,” he said, “what can I do?”

A light went off in Sam’s head. He dragged Bing down to the Pistons’ offices.

“What are you guys doing with the $500 a day you’re taking from Dave?’ he demanded.

The Pistons people didn’t really have an answer.

“Well,’ said Washington, with a smile, “I have a very good suggestion . .

He got his floor.

That was Sam.

That was Sam. People uttered the sentence all day Saturday, people like Bing, and Terry Tyler, and Terry Duerod, former NBA players, who stood in the church and sang prayers for him, and people like Magic Johnson, Spencer Haywood, George Gervin, Campy Russell, famous men now scattered across the nation who owe a lot to Washington, because he gave them a place to play, a clean and well-lighted home, and he gave them his encouragement, his love. And his time. All of it.

“He used to take us to places like Boston and New York to play teams there,” recalled Duerod, “those were the best days of my childhood. I never would have seen those cities if not for him. He’d be there, up front of the bus. We stayed at YMCAs. He loved it, and so did we.”

Players gravitated to him. Black and white. Made no difference. He understood them. He was a big man, a fat man who didn’t mind fat jokes, a former professional football player who still could beat most of the future NBA stars in a pick-up game of H-O-R-S-E. Because of his efforts, and his lightning rod personality, the level of basketball at St. Cecilia’s grew to legendary proportions, until this was common knowledge; if it was talent, you found it there, in the gym behind the muffler shop.

“We call our place ‘Broadway,’ ” Washington used to say, “because when you play here, you play at the top.” Indeed. People still talk about the game when a group of high schoolers from New York came to town, featuring two guys named King, Bernard and Albert, and they played the Detroiters, and an unknown named Earvin Johnson ate them up.

King? Johnson?


The service for him Saturday was called “Celebrating The Life of Samuel Lee Washington” who was 54 when he left this earth Tuesday, the victim of a stroke. And celebration was the appropriate word. Bing told some funny stories, and fellow coaches told some funny stories, and then Sam’s son, David, rose to the altar and loved ones knew how grief-stricken he must be, and yet he, too, told the story of how his father was so busy at St. Cecilia’s and, later, as GM of the Detroit Spirits, that he often lacked the time other fathers spent with their own children.

“But we could never get in trouble, because everywhere we went, there were people who knew my father. They kept an eye on us. He had eyes everywhere!”

And hearts. He had plenty of hearts, all over Detroit. If there can be a man who deserves the phrase “of the city, by the city, for the city” then it was Sam Washington. He can be appreciated, remembered, cherished. He will never be replaced. “I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like this summer,” said Duerod, who still plays in the leagues when the hot weather comes. “It won’t be the same without Sam.”

It can’t be. And yet, if we are to serve his memory well, the leagues will go on, St. Cecilia’s and all that it stands for, because that is what he would have wanted, more than anything, kids playing ball, having fun, black and white, rich and poor, off the streets and safe within the loving grasp of the sweaty gymnasium.

As they were singing the final hymns Saturday, a few kids wiggled their way out the front door, tired of the long service. Off came the sports coats. Up went the sleeves. And one of them had a basketball. He began to dribble it on the concrete, a steady bounce to accompany the voices from the church. It sounded like a heartbeat.

And maybe it was. CUTLINE: Jean Smith, a cousin of Sam Washington, holds a bouquet in the shape of a basketball and hoop at Saturday’s funeral.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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