Documentary to celebrate St. Cecilia's Gym's history

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sam Washington Jr. has many good memories of the golden ages at the historic St. Cecilia's Gym.

Whether it was seeing local legends such as Chris Webber and Jalen Rose or hearing about the lore of Dave Bing, George Gervin and a host of others, Washington always has been close to the legacy of the gym his late father started and made famous.

Now Washington Jr. is looking to preserve those memories and gathering new ones in preparation for a documentary about the history of the gym.

Washington began last week by holding an open house at the gym on the city's west side, seeking any old artifacts or footage that might help in making the documentary.

"Back then, we didn't have social media. A whole lot of stuff went on. Games were packed and everybody was there and people took pictures," Washington said. "In order for it to really work, we need pictures. We're trying to reach out to the community that might have any home movies, footage or pictures, we need them and we'll give them back."

He said the initial effort to gather some old memories produced some valuable items, including a unique portrait of the gym, featuring a good vantage point of the crowd that captured the atmosphere of the humid and sweaty mecca of Detroit basketball.

"The coolest thing — and it blew me away — is a full-length picture of the whole court, with the stands and everything, from when my dad brought a New York team featuring Bernard King in to play a Detroit team," Washington Jr. said. "It shows the whole place just packed. It was so crowded on the stage and bleachers and people were stacked against the wall. There were maybe a couple hundred more outside trying to get it."

Washington said the picture was from a team that included King, a Hall of Fame guard with the Knicks, his brother Albert, Vinnie Johnson and George Johnson.

Since its heyday in the 1970s through the 1990s, "The Saint" has continued to provide a summer pro-am tournament that displayed some of the best talent in the country, both amateur and pro. Washington installed a Wall of Fame with dozens of names of the greats who have played at St. Cecilia.

It includes the names of legends from Michigan such as Magic Johnson, Spencer Haywood, Isiah Thomas and younger players, including Shane Battier, Trey Burke, Ray McCallum Jr. and Willie Green.

Last summer, St. Cecilia hosted a team from the Netherlands, which had heard of the rich history and wanted to be a part of it. The team played games against Detroit Renaissance and U-D Jesuit, showcasing two of the city's best teams.

The summer leagues have expanded to include teams from suburban schools such as Rochester Adams and Birmingham Brother Rice, but still features some of the best young talent in the city.

Rose maintains a connection with the gym, as it serves as the home court for the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a Detroit charter high school. Rose donated the new scoreboard and he visits when he's in town.

Just like his father, Washington runs the gym and looks to keep it open to provide opportunities for students to have a safe environment to play and stay off the streets. That, along with the rich history of basketball, is what Washington hopes he can get across in the documentary as well.

"My dad passed in '89 and (the gym) is still going," Washington said. "I've taken over but that really got to my heart because not a day goes by that I don't run into somebody and they tell me how much it meant to them. It kept them off the streets and helped them in their everyday and professional lives."

If you have any old artifacts or footage that might help in making the documentary, contact Sam Washington Jr. at (248) 497-8265 or