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A project is underway to restore Detroit's famous St. Cecilia's basketball gym

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Last month, the Detroit Pistons unveiled new team uniforms that celebrate a local basketball gym run by a Catholic church. St. Cecilia's has been a proving ground for some of Michigan's biggest stars. Since the late 1960s, young kids and high school players would turn up at the St. for scrimmages and league games and to rub elbows with local NBA players who also made a point of dropping in. Think Isaiah Thomas, Dave Bing, Magic Johnson. Born after city riots left kids in need of safe places for recreation, the little church gym became a basketball mecca where stars are made, not born. That's a quote on the gym floor and on the Pistons' new uniform along with an image of St. Cecilia's stained glass window. St. Cecilia's goes by a new name now, St. Charles Lwanga, but its mission continues. We called church pastor Ted Parker and former NBA champion Earl Cureton, now a Pistons ambassador, to learn more. I asked Father Parker, what's made this court so iconic?

TED PARKER: In 1967, after the insurrection happened here in Detroit, people, especially young people, had no place of safety, no place to go. And so Mr. Sam Washington, who at that time was an important person when it came to basketball, decided to open up the gym, and he opened up the gym, and the gym became a place where his sons played. But then all of a sudden, there were other people who he had to play there, too, and wanted to play.

RASCOE: Can you give us a bit of a picture of what the gym was like and what goes there, Earl? You played there yourself. Was it an environment where you had to go - you had to come correct? You had to play, you know, your A-game? Is that the way St. Cecilia's was?

EARL CURETON: Well, it was somewhat intimidating for a young guy coming in because of the competition. You know, you had some of the best players in the whole city of Detroit playing at St. Cecilia, so when you got there for the first time, you'd kind of be in a little bit of a shock and a little nervous. And, you know, you're right. You had to bring your A-game there when you came there. A lot of the local colleges and universities would, you know, all be there on the weekends to watch these high school players come in and play.

RASCOE: I understand rap star Big Sean helped design these uniforms as the creative director for the Pistons, but how did this idea to collaborate with the Detroit Pistons in the first place come about?

PARKER: The idea was that the parents wanted to make sure that everybody was acceptable here and that you didn't have to be Catholic, of course, that anybody in the neighborhood could come here. No matter what faith you were or wherever you went to church or didn't go to church, didn't make any difference. This is a place that people could come for safety and for sport.

RASCOE: And, Earl, what does it mean to you to have the Detroit Pistons now have this collaboration where they're paying homage to St. Cecilia's?

CURETON: You know, I think it was definitely the right decision for them to make. You know, it's been a lot of conversation. You know, this gym was up for a long period of time through decades. And, you know, as things change and public schools disappeared, you know, St. Cecilia was slowly disappearing. The doors had been shut for the last 3 1/2 years, and I was pushing as hard as I possibly could to try to get people involved, to try to find a way to bring St. Cecilia back and also let people know the history of the younger generation, the history of St. Cecilia. To me, St. Cecilia is equivalent to a place like Motown. The best singers and songwriters and everything came out of it. And St. Cecilia is a place where some of the greatest basketball players in Michigan passed through there. To me, it is - you know, it's like a mecca of basketball for Detroit.

RASCOE: Father, I mean, do you think the Pistons will get a boost maybe in basketball from this affiliation with a saint? Do you think it will help them?

(LAUGHTER)

PARKER: With a saint. Well, you know, the whole point would be this, that we have gotten a boost from the past. In this sense, it's been the name and it's because of earlier players and their fame that has helped this gym and really the parish in a sense, too, to continue on. People don't know about the parish, but they know about the basketball.

RASCOE: So, like, what made St. Cecilia, like, really stand out for Detroit when you compare it to other places around the country?

CURETON: I think what makes us different is that - the fact that our players started out playing in high school and from high school to college and then to the pros. So when you talk about where stars are made, not born, that's a true statement because players started to play there in high school. I started playing there in 11th grade. A lot of guys started playing in the 10th and 9th grade, develop into good college players and went on to become professional basketball players. And through that process, players were being made, and they wasn't born. So that's, like, a household name in the city of Detroit. And then for the Pistons to be doing what they're doing, to pick it out as an iconic spot and a historical spot, it's bringing back what we need to be brought back, to fundraise to be able to make this big and great again.

RASCOE: That's Earl Cureton, former NBA champion, and Father Ted Parker, pastor at St. Charles Lwanga. Thank you so much for being here to both of you.

PARKER: Thank you very much.

CURETON: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.