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.