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Local filmmaker tells tragic story of Curtis Jones

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — This was some 45 years ago now, and Perry Watson was teaching a class he never expected to teach, standing in front of a bunch of high school kids not much younger than him, talking about health and hygiene at Detroit Northwestern.

“And out of the clear blue sky, Curtis Jones walks into my classroom,” recalled Watson, speaking from his winter home in Florida last week, nearly a decade removed from his successful college and high school coaching career in Detroit. “Curt was out of his mind. He was back to us playing as kids, not making any sense. And all the kids in my class are laughing because they knew him.”

Or at least they thought they did. After Watson had walked Jones — someone he’d known half his life — out to the hallway, handing him off to the school’s security officer, he returned to the snickering students.

“They all saw him as the stumbling drunk bum from the neighborhood,” Watson said. “But I stopped the class and said, ‘Let me tell y’all something about that young man that just left this room …’ And I lectured them, explained how he was maybe the most storied person to come out of this school.”

It’s a lesson Watson often would repeat, telling everyone from NBA star Isiah Thomas to the last kid on his bench as he coached Detroit Southwestern to nine city titles and two state championships, about just who Curtis Jones was ...

And about what he could’ve been.

He’s hardly alone, as the legend of one of this city’s brightest basketball stars also remains one of its cautionary tales, and one that a local filmmaker is hoping to give a new voice, if not a happier ending.

“Fouled Out: The Incredible Story of Curtis Jones” is the latest project from Buddy Moorehouse, a Livingston County resident whose previous documentary works include a film about Gerald Ford and Willis Ward — one of the first African-American football players at the University of Michigan — as well as “The Legend of Pinky Deras,” about one of the greatest Little Leaguers in history, a boy who led his Hamtramck team to the World Series title in 1959.

‘America’s failure’

Jones was a teenage hoops prodigy — and the hardwood hero of one of the great moments in Detroit high school sports history — who spent most of his adult life battling mental illness and drug abuse. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died, “scrawny and toothless, wracked with pneumonia” in a psychiatric ward in March 1999 at the age of 49.

But all that hardship followed the revelation that came to define what was labeled “An American Tragedy” nearly a decade earlier — Sept. 2, 1990, to be exact — when the late Shelby Strother’s exhaustive story about Jones’ life was published in The Detroit News. In it, Strother documented the struggles of a future strangled by its past, as Jones’ inability to read or write cut short his basketball dreams and hastened his downfall.

Many remember Jones’ on-court wizardry and the shot he hit to upset Detroit Pershing for the Public School League title in 1967 — the first high school game televised in Detroit. But no one can explain just how Jones, with an IQ of 73 and a second-grade reading aptitude, managed to skate through school or get sent off to a junior college in Idaho after graduating, ticketed for a spot on the Michigan roster if all went well there.

It didn’t. And in the end, as his one-time high school rival and former NBA trailblazer Spencer Haywood told Strother at the time, “I don’t know who’s to blame, except maybe all of us. Curtis’ failure is America’s failure.”

We’ve heard that word quite a bit around here lately, particularly with respect to the schools. The oft-cited, politically-charged numbers today — including estimates that 47 percent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate — are dubious, and certainly outdated, derived from a 1993 federal study.

But the problems are real — just ask any school teacher or counselor or administrator. And as Moorehouse, a 54-year-old Ypsilanti native, looked for a hook for this documentary idea — bringing Jones’ story to life, rather than letting it waste away, too — he found one in his current job with the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

“This really is the perfect vehicle to reach kids in Detroit and throughout Michigan, if you’re trying to get them to recognize the importance of it,” said Moorehouse, MAPSA’s vice president of communications. “It’s one thing to sit ’em down and say, ‘Early literacy is important.’ But if you say, ‘Let me tell you about the greatest basketball player ever to come out of Detroit,’ a Detroit kid is going to listen to that story. So that’s kind of how it came about. We were looking at ways of not just promoting the film, but also promoting the idea of literacy.”

To that end, he’s still looking for financial help. Not to finish the film, which he plans to complete this summer.

“But to get it into schools, get it to policy makers, get it to libraries,” said Moorehouse, whose Stunt3 Multimedia partnership did much the same with the Willis Ward film, packaging it with lesson plans and study guides about a civil rights fight that helped shape a future U.S. president. “Anywhere, really, to reach kids — and adults — so they can understand the story, talk about it. It spurs all these discussions: What went wrong? How could that happen? What do we need to do to keep it from happening now? It’s a good conversation to have.”

‘Magic before Magic’

It’s a conversation he had recently with another local basketball star, Jalen Rose, who played for Watson at Southwestern and at Michigan before moving on to a 14-year NBA career. He still remembers the first time he saw Jones play as a wide-eyed youngster, when another future NBA star, Derrick Coleman, “basically grabbed me in a headlock and was like, ‘You know who that is? That’s Curt Jones,’ ” Rose told Moorehouse in a recent interview for the film.

Jones’ name, and game, were well-known then. Former Detroit mayor Dave Bing, an NBA Hall of Famer who used to play against Jones down at the famed St. Cecilia’s gym, called him a “smaller version of a ‘Pistol’ Pete (Maravich),” and says Jones “could penetrate and pass better than anybody that I think I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

Watson remembers “his imagination and his creativity and his … wizardry.”

“He was Magic (Johnson) before Magic,” Watson says.

But “The Magician,” as some called Jones, never really made it. His former high school coach, Fred Snowden, convinced him to enroll at North Idaho Community College, as a stepping stone to get him to Michigan, where he’d become an assistant on Johnny Orr’s staff. But as the educational charade came unraveled there, his life followed suit. Not long after — 35 years ago this week — he was committed to the Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital for the first of several stays.

An attorney representing Jones later filed a lawsuit that, while unsuccessful, might have spurred some change — minimum grade requirements for athletics at Detroit public schools, even some of the academic standards we see today at the NCAA.

But none of that changed Jones’ fate. He’d still show up at St. Cecilia’s, or at his old high school, which was only a handful of blocks away from the home on McGraw Street he shared with his widowed mother, Henrietta. But by then his mind was trapped in his youth, as he told Strother, “I made that shot, they carried me off on their shoulders. I could hear them yelling, ‘Curtis Jones, you the best ever.’ You hear me?’ ”

Potential to tragedy

Rose, who opened his own charter high school — the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy — in 2011, saw and heard a lot about Jones growing up in Detroit. And he says, “He’s one the people that I think about when I walk through the halls of JRLA every day. Because I feel like the system failed a player — and a person — like Curtis Jones.”

And as Watson cautions, “It can happen again, as long as the reward is there, and if the support system isn’t.” Which is why Rose does what he does, and why his former AAU coach, Curtis Hervey, who now drills the basketball team at his academy, says what he says.

“I told them all,” Hervey says, rattling off the names of Rose and Chris Webber and Derrick Walton and some of the other players he has coached. “And I tell Curtis Jones stories parallel to Jalen Rose stories now. Not only about the greatness of the player, but the tragedy of the life. And how easy you can take potential and lose it to that kind of tragedy.

“Absolutely, I tell those stories. Why? Because they need to be told.”

Some stories need to be told again and again.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

How to help

For a $25 donation, you can get a copy of “Fouled Out” the day it’s released — and sponsor the documentary to be given to another school in Michigan. To make a donation, and to see a trailer for the documentary, go to: curtisjonesfilm.com.