Tony Tolbert, basketball star at St. Martin DePorres, Detroit, dies at 50

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tony Tolbert, who had one of the state's most-prolific high-school basketball careers at Detroit St. Martin DePorres, began his college career at Michigan and then starred for two years at the University of Detroit, has died.

Tolbert died Monday, according to the university. He was 50. A cause of death wasn't announced, but he had battled health issues in recent years, and had recently contracted COVID-19.

Tolbert averaged 20.4 points his first season at Detroit, then 23.6 his second, twice earning first-team all-MCC honors, and leading the Titans to the 1994 MCC tournament championship.

Tony Tolbert, who played at St. Martin DePorres, Michigan and Detroit, has died at 50.

"He was such a great player and a guy that was full of energy and a joy to watch and coach," his coach at Detroit, Perry Watson, told the school's website Tuesday. "He was a funny guy, full of life and a joy to be around and we will all miss him."

Watson was an assistant coach at Michigan for Tolbert's two years there, when he averaged 6.2 points and shot 44.6% in a bit role in the shadows of the Fab Five.

Tolbert transferred to Detroit, and soon Watson was joining him at Calihan Hall, being named head coach to succeed Ricky Byrdsong.

"Every person wants to show what they can do," Tolbert told The Detroit News in 1992. "I want to be able to show my skills."

"You know I like the guys at Michigan. I have friends there. But it just wasn't for me."

For Detroit, Tolbert scored 1,235 points, 16th in program history when he graduated, and now 25th. He ranks third with a 22.1-point career scoring average, and fifth in field-goal percentage at 40.9%.

He also was a prolific free-throw shooter, once making 19 in a game in February 1994, a school record that has since been matched. He was a big dunker.

Twice, Tolbert scored 40 points, including in a win over Xavier his senior year. He scored 35 in his Detroit debut, a win over Wayne State.

At DePorres, Tolbert twice was all-state twice, and honorable-mention All-American once by USA Today. He averaged 26.9 points as a sophomore, 28.3 as a junior, then 40 as a senior before an ACL tear. The injury cost him Michigan's Mr. Basketball award.

"He was such a great high school player and signed with Michigan and then he transferred here a year before I came," Watson told the school website.

"When I got here, I challenged him to be a leader and he went on to have just an unbelievable senior season that ended with us winning a championship."

Tolbert was a regular visitor to Calihan Hall after his playing days, especially for the school's annual legends and traditions weekend. Several friends, teammates and others paid tribute to Tolbert on social media, including fellow Detroit alum and former Titans head coach Bacari Alexander, writing on Twitter, "Tony Tolbert might be gone, but he won’t be forgotten."

Detroit teammate Michael L. Jackson posted a tribute on Facebook, describing how Tolbert once washed his white polo shirt with his red Titans jersey, turning the polo pink. It didn't stop him from wearing the polo to practice, buttoning it right to the top.

"If there was anyone who would make you laugh no matter what it was Tone," Jackson wrote. "I would watch in amazement as a young buck.

"He made me better and definitely pushed everyone's competitive buttons. We lost a good man!"

Funeral arrangements were pending Tuesday afternoon.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984