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Niyo: ‘Perfect shot’ capped greatest prep game

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit basketball legend Curtis Jones scored the winning basket against Pershing in 1967.

A half-century later, the memories of arguably the greatest high school basketball game in Michigan history remain divided by school loyalties.

For fans on the losing side of Northwestern’s thrilling 63-61 triumph over Pershing for the 1967 Detroit Public School League championship — a milestone game played 50 years ago today — Curtis Jones’ winning basket, a buzzer-beating jump shot from the top of the key, was hardly a thing of beauty.

“They’ll tell you he stumbled, he fell, he threw the ball up the air and somehow it went in,” laughed Spencer Haywood, the star of that Pershing team and a recent inductee in to the Basketball Hall of Fame. “I tell people that was the luckiest shot I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But if you want to know the truth, Haywood admits, “It was a good lookin’ shot. It was a perfect shot.”

And that it was Jones’ only shot in the game, well, that’s maybe a perfect metaphor today as the golden anniversary of the first prep game ever televised in the state officially becomes a teaching moment with the release of the Curtis Jones Literacy Project.

It’s the brainchild of Buddy Moorehouse, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, who spent the last few years researching and producing a documentary film about Jones’ troubled life (“Fouled Out: The Incredible Story of Curtis Jones”) with plans to release it as part of an educational curriculum.

Moorehouse serves as vice president of communications for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, and today he’ll be speaking at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit to show the documentary and introduce the accompanying lesson plans, all designed to stress the importance of literacy and education.

“It really hit me that 50 years ago today, Curtis Jones was on top of the world,” said Moorehouse, whose works include a similar project profiling the relationship between Willis Ward — one of the first African-American football players at the University of Michigan — and former President Gerald Ford.

“He’d just had the greatest game of his life, he had all the promise, all the potential. And then, really, just for one reason, everything went downhill. Everything spiraled out control for him, simply because he didn’t have an education. He didn’t have the ability to read and write. And because of that, absolutely nothing that went right for him after that.”

It’s a tragic story that was chronicled by the late Shelby Strother in the Detroit News in 1990, nearly a decade before Jones died at the age of 49 in a psychiatric ward in Northville.

“He was Magic (Johnson) before Magic,” according to Perry Watson, the longtime coach and one-time rival on the court. Countless others — from Haywood to George Gervin to Dave Bing — insist Jones, the wiry ballhandling wizard and local playground legend, was one of the best players ever to come out of Detroit.

Basketball ability

But he’d been passed through school simply because of his basketball ability, graduating from Northwestern despite a second-grade reading aptitude, and then was shipped off to North Idaho Junior College with an understanding that he’d have a roster spot waiting at the University of Michigan in a couple years if he could gain eligibility. That’s where his high school coach, Fred Snowden, took a job as an assistant coach following the 1966-67 season.

But as Will Robinson, the trailblazing Pershing coach who died in 2008, told Strother back in 1990, that plan was doomed to fail.

“He got pushed through the system,” said Robinson, who’d tried in vain to find a home — and some guidance -- for Jones at Pershing. “All that’s doing is prolonging the eventual failure. Most kids, that happens and all they do is flunk out of school. Curtis had a nervous breakdown.”

Just what happened, no one truly knows, but Jones’ life fell apart once he left Detroit, and the talented point guard nicknamed “The Magician,” never got the chance to show what he could do on a bigger stage. He came home early from junior college, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and battled substance-abuse issues the rest of his life, unable to maintain a job or do much of anything, as Strother discovered, but relive that last shot to win the city league title, over and over.

Undefeated squads

Haywood, too, can recount every second of that final minute from a game that featured two undefeated squads, “like it was yesterday.” But only if you coax him a bit, and mostly because the sting of that loss didn’t last too long, since Pershing won the rematch in the regional playoffs and went on to win the state title — the first for a PSL school in nearly four decades — in dominant fashion.

Spencer Haywood

Northwestern, with Jones running the point and Lamont King and future Major League Baseball All-Star John Mayberry providing the scoring, entered the city championship as the No.1-ranked team in the state. Pershing, ranked No. 2 in Class A, was the true powerhouse, though, with a roster that included five players who’d go on to play professional sports.

The Doughboys were led by Haywood, who’d carry the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal only a year later in Mexico City, and Ralph Simpson, a scoring guard who’d go on to star at Michigan State and with the Denver Nuggets in the ABA. (Simpson also played two seasons with the Pistons in the NBA.)

Unable to move the showdown from Osborn High to Cobo Arena, district officials reached a compromise to get the game broadcast by WKBD-TV Channel 50, and both schools gathered up TV sets for the hundreds — if not thousands — of students who couldn’t get into the gym.

“It was an awesome scene,” Haywood said. “The whole city stopped and watched. That was a great time in the city for basketball in Detroit, a powerful time, and it was something we never thought would happen for the PSL.”

Yet as he runs through the final seconds in his head, Haywood can’t help shake a loss that was more important than the game. It was Jones, then in his junior season, who dribbled down the final 20 seconds of the clock, before taking that final shot. (He finished the game unofficially with four points, including a pair of free throws, and 25 assists.)

“Curtis was just something special, a dream point guard,” said Haywood, who’d first met him playing pickup games on the outdoor court at the Kronk Recreation Center.

But it was the way Jones’ dream turned into a nightmare that stuck with Haywood, whose landmark Supreme Court case in 1971 paved the way for “hardship” cases to gain entry to the NBA without a four-year college stint. Haywood didn’t engage in that fight — and the ugliness didn’t end with court victory, just as Justice Thurgood Marshall warned him — for his own game.

“I said, ‘What about Curtis Jones?’” Haywood said. “He wasn’t just one of the guys that I was thinking of back then. He was (the) guy.”

And 50 years later, he still is.

For more information about the Curtis Jones Literacy Project go to curtisjonesfilm.com.