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

I have been to many funerals in my life. I had never been to one like they had for Sam Washington on Saturday. People came from all over — white, black, old, young, basketball players, kids in sneakers, mothers, fathers, coaches.

They filled the pews at St. Cecilia 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 stories about “Sammy,” well, there were actually ripples of laughter, and tears mixed with smiles.

A funeral.

The way he’d have wanted it.

He was that rarest of individuals, a hero of kindness. Given his wit and energy, Samuel Lee Washington could have done almost anything. Yet he devoted his life to kids. Not the well-scrubbed kids from TV sitcoms but street kids, kids without alternatives, 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 church gymnasium just off Livernois, behind the Tuffy Muffler shop. Not a common place for miracles, but, then, there was little common about Sam Washington. For years he ran those legendary summer leagues, started them in 1968, an alternative to the racial strife that was ripping apart Detroit. They grew into perhaps the best recreational basketball in the country, because he nurtured them, he believed in them, he swung his weight for them.

And Sam was pretty big.

“Hey, Dave,” he once said to Dave Bing, a star then with the mediocre Pistons of the ’70s, “I need some 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 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, Sam,” he said. “What can I do?”

A light went on 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 the big man, 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 such as Bing and Terry Tyler and Terry Duerod, former NBA players, who stood in the church and sang prayers for him. And people such as 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 place, and, more than that, 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.”

Players gravitated to him. Black or white — made no difference. He was a heavy-set man, the kind of guy whose collars were always stretched wide open, his second chin folding under his first, huge smile, cap on his head. If we’re being honest, he was fat, but that never bothered him, being honest.

“You’re doing the work of two men,” his co-workers would carp at him, when, in addition to his duties at St. Cecilia’s, he took the general manager job with the now-defunct Detroit Spirits of the Continental Basketball Association.

“I’m big enough to be two men,” he would answer.

And everybody would laugh.

Laughter. That’s what people remembered most on Saturday. The way he would listen to a joke, and begin to laugh before it was over, and take out a hanky and wipe his eyes, and bellyache, and finally, when the punch line was delivered, he would absolutely explode, and then, wheezing, he would say,
“That was a terrible joke, man. Terrible.”

How can you not love that? Sam Washington was gentle, yet no pushover. A former professional football player who could outshoot his future NBA stars in a game of H-O-R-S-E. He was the perfect recipe for the inner city — one part teacher, one part parent, one part Big Daddy. Because of his efforts, and his lightning-rod personality, the level of basketball at St. Cecilia’s grew to legendary proportions, until, among college recruiters and NBA front offices, this became common knowledge: If you wanted talent, you found it in the gym behind the muffler shop.

Go see Sam.

“We call our place ‘Broadway,’ ” he 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. “Best game I ever saw,” people whisper.

King? Johnson? Haywood? Russell?

Broadway. The service on Saturday was called “Celebrating the Life of Samuel Lee Washington.” He was 54 when he left this Earth Tuesday, the victim of a stroke suffered in his office at the gym (which was where he always said he wanted to go, if he had to go). “Celebration’ was an appropriate word. Bing told some funny stories, and fellow coaches told some funny stories, and then Sam’s son David climbed the altar. Loved ones knew how grief-stricken he was, and yet he, too, told the story of how his father was so busy at St. Cecilia’s and with the 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 him,” David said. “They kept an eye on us. He had eyes everywhere!”

And hearts. He had 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, kids playing ball, in the city, black and white, rich and poor, off the streets and safe within the loving grasp of a sweaty gymnasium.

Let us hope it happens. For Sam’s sake. As they were singing the final hymns Saturday, a few kids wiggled 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 that harmonized with the voices from the church. Bomp. Bomp. It sounded like a heartbeat.

In a certain way, maybe it was. CUTLINE

Washington Jean Smith, a cousin of Sam Washington, holds a bouquet in the shape of a basketball and hoop at Saturday’s funeral.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!