The Greatest Michigan High School Team Ever

So much of who I am is tied to the month of March.

That’s the month my late dad, a longtime high school basketball coach and athletic director, would pack my brother and I in the car and we’d head off to East Lansing for the state high school basketball semifinals and finals.

The first year he took us was 1967 – I was 13 and my brother 15. What we saw that year has stayed with us forever.

That was the year we saw the greatest Michigan boys basketball team of all time – a team whose entire starting five went on to play professional sports: Two in the NBA, two in the NFL and one for the Detroit Tigers in Major League Baseball.

The team was the Detroit Pershing Doughboys from the Public School League (PSL). The school was named after the great World War I General John J. Pershing, whose Doughboys helped the U.S. prevail. The term “doughboys” was gradually replaced during World War II by “G.I.”

That fighting spirit of the Doughboys was very much alive in the 1967 Detroit Pershing basketball team, which was coached by the legendary Will Robinson.

But for all the talent on the team, Robinson still faced obstacles during the season. One of those was his all-black team playing basketball months after the race riots in Detroit during the summer of 1967. He expected his players to play more than one sport and he stressed education above all else. If they didn’t perform in the classroom, they didn’t get to perform on his team.

“Coach didn’t show any favoritism,” said his star guard Ralph Simpson, a junior on that 1967 team. “If you didn’t succeed academically, it didn’t matter how good you were athletically – you didn’t play.”

His players responded, both in the classroom and on the court. His best player was 6-foot-8 Spencer Haywood. How good was the future NBA star? At age 19, he would anchor the gold medal U.S. team in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

He played one year of college basketball at the University of Detroit and averaged 32 points and 21 rebounds a game. He made history after that year by becoming the first college athlete to declare “hardship” and jump to the pros. He played 12 years and was a 4-time NBA All-Star.

While Haywood was the inside force, Simpson was Mr. Outside. He played one year at Michigan State, averaged 29 points per game, then went on to the NBA. He was the only high school player in the nation invited to try out for the 1968 Olympic basketball team. He played 10 years in the ABA and NBA.

Two of the other starters – Glenn Doughty and Paul Seal – played in the NFL. Point guard Marvin Lane played briefly for the Detroit Tigers in the 1970s.

Despite all that talent, Pershing wasn’t ranked No. 1 in Class A heading into the 1967 tournament. That honor belonged to fellow PSL school Detroit Northwestern , which beat Pershing during the regular season and featured future baseball star John Mayberry.

But during the tournament, an inspired Haywood led Pershing to the state championship, capped by Simpson’s record 43-point performance in a 90-66 win over Flint Central in the finals.

That was the game where my brother and I bolted to our feet many times as we witnessed high school players who could throw pinpoint behind-the-back passes and dunk behind their heads.

We still talk about that game as if it was yesterday. We still talk about the weekends in East Lansing we spent with our dad every year.

We saw some great games and some great players over those decades. But we never saw any squad as good as the 1967 Detroit Pershing basketball team. Chances are, no one else has either.

By |2015-03-09T07:30:22+00:00March 9th, 2015|Michigan Country Lines|11 Comments

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11 Comments

  1. Charlie Johnston March 9, 2015 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    I too was at that game along with my college roommate who tipped me off to the lesser known (at that time) Ralph Simpson. My roommate was himself a high school all stater who had played against Simpson many times in summer leagues. In the days before three point shots Ralph made 21 field goals and 1 free throw to account for his 43 points. Any shot he happened to miss was quite likely rebounded by Haywood. It was a simply a case of men playing against boys.

    • Nick Edson March 11, 2015 at 8:35 am - Reply

      Denny and Charlie – Thanks for posting about the great 1967 Detroit Pershing team that you also saw play. Denny, I do remember your 27-point game against Mancelona because I was a freshman guard on that Ironman team. I also remember interviewing you after you won the White Pine. Charlie, you hit the nail on the head when assessing Pershing -it seemed so easy for them because they were great athletes.

  2. Denny Polzin March 10, 2015 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Dear Nick,
    Growing up just down the road in Bellaire, I also had the chance to see that great Pershing team play. I think I was 14 and went with my junior high basketball coach. It was John Lober the legendary track coach at Central, just two or three years out of college ( Bowling Green). I remember every player on the team dunked during warm ups. I only remember playing one district game against Mancelona while at Bellaire,we prevailed and I think I scored 27. What I will never forget was the warm compliment I received
    from your father after the game. Thanks for the memories, and the years of writing such warm personal stories about the wonderful people of Northern Michigan.
    p. s. Not sure if you remember the article you wrote about me the year I won the White Pine Stampede,1996.

  3. Roger Norkoli March 12, 2015 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    Nick:
    When I saw the title of the story on the front page, I wondered if you got it right. Absolutely! I saw that game from a different perspective. We got beat in the C semis the night before by one on a buzzer beater by Mt. Pleasant SH. The Lansing Journal article the next day said that Wakefield could play with any of the teams left in the tourney regardless of class. MPSH won C easily. Menominee won B and we were team of the year in the UP, not them. So we agreed with the article……until the A final. As contestants, we got to sit in a bullpen area right under one of the buckets. Wow, what a show! And that was before the game even began. We made the long drive back to the west end of the UP knowing that no matter how hard we worked there was no way we could play that kind of game.
    Thanks for rekindling some fond memories………….Roger

    • Nick Edson March 13, 2015 at 8:02 am - Reply

      Roger:
      What a great memory you have of that 1967 season. If I remember correctly, Pat Miller was the star of the Menominee team and he was only a junior. Your Wakefield team was outstanding. Thanks for writing. Nick

  4. Julius Key August 4, 2015 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Do you know where I can get any photos, recordings or pictures of that game…thanks…

  5. Nick Edson August 12, 2015 at 10:26 am - Reply

    Yes, you can find some recaps of that 1967 championship game and some pictures with an Internet search. You can also look on the Michigan High School Athletic Association website.

  6. Jeff Fuda October 10, 2015 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    I not only saw the championship game, but played in the PSL that year from Cooley High School. Northwestern always had good basketball teams but played over their heads to beat Pershing. It was and still is, the best high school ever assembled in Michigan. Plus, they had an extraordinary coach in Will Robinson, later a college coach and a pro scout for the Detroit Pistons. It is unfortunate what has happened to the Detroit schools because many of the high schools, including Cooley, have been closed. They will never experience the great rivalries the PSL had.

  7. Dave October 21, 2016 at 8:36 am - Reply

    When you mentioned Northwestern HS and talked about John Mayberry, but you failed to mention arguably the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Michigan, the late great Curtis Jones. When Northwestern beat Pershing for the city championship 63-61 in 1967, Curtis’ stat line was 2 pts and 25 assists. In other words Curt was involved in 52 out of Northwestern’s 63 points, including the fact that his only basket was the game winner. That coming from a guy who could put 20 or 30 up on you, amazing! Curtis was and still is a legend in Detroit basketball circles. Dropping dimes, he was the best. Magic before Magic! Disco Detroit

  8. Dennis Murray April 26, 2017 at 2:00 am - Reply

    YOU GOT IT WRONG!
    Glenn & Paul were not on our team. Yes they are Doughboys and much loved and respected BUT. . . neither of them were on our 67 State Championship team. This is Dennis Murray AKA “SNOWSHOES”, which is a name given to me by Spencer Haywood. We love Glenn & Paul because we are family but you need to do more research. Sounds good but very wrong. And by the way. . . we were still awesome without their names on the roaster.
    Dennis Murray, the 1st to play for Will Robinson in high school and college.

  9. Glen Lenhoff October 20, 2018 at 12:58 am - Reply

    One error in your article involved the 1967 Detroit riot.The riot occurred in July 1967 some four months AFTER Pershing had won the Michigan High School basketball championship.Your article indicates the Doughboys won the title after the riot.This is not true.Next, I disagree that the 1967 Doughboys were the greatest High School team in Michigan history.I would opt for the 1960 Detroit Eastern team led by the greatest high school player in Michigan history : Reggie Harding.

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