CITYBEAT: What Happened to Flint City Sports?

What happened to the great two-sport athletes in Flint like Mateen Cleaves?

It’s the fall season and a number of things have made their return.  Greatlakeshoops is back and better, this column is back again, and of course basketball season is back at the forefront of the high school sports landscape.  But can someone please tell me when the city of Flint will have a real contender in basketball again?  How about football?

I guess I should clarify and say that when I say Flint, I really mean the city of Flint.  Not Carman, not Beecher and certainly not Powers.  I’m talking about Southwestern, Northwestern, Northern, and the now extinct Central.  It has been 14 years since Flint won one in hoop and I don’t believe there has been a Flint champion on the gridiron in decades.  What sense does that really make considering all of the great athletes in both sports that have gone through the high schools?  I suggest that it makes no sense at all, but I believe I may have some insight as to why this is the case.

Let’s start with football: The last time Flint was relevant was in 1994 (this does not include the teams led by Gary Lee who would have been in the playoffs if not for ineligible players).  The ’94 Central Indians that went to the class A semifinals were led by Fred Jackson Jr. (QB), Andre Weathers (RB), Reiko Hurd (RB), DeAngelo Mitchell (WR), and George Ghattas (OL/DL).  What was the common thread between all of the players mentioned above?  They were all  at least two-sport athletes.  Jackson, Weathers, Hurd, and Ghattas were track stars.  Weathers and Hurd also joined Mitchell on the basketball court as well.  Even Ghattas at about 250 lbs. played a couple years on the court.  All of them were star football players, but more importantly, star athletes.

The last basketball championship was the year after that in 1995 by the Northern Vikings.  Led by Mateen Cleaves and the Smith brothers, Antonio and Robaire, this team took out Detroit Pershing for the state crown.  All three played on the gridiron as well, with Cleaves and Robaire Smith playing varsity football for four years.

This is not a coincidence in my mind.  Multi-sport athletes seem to be tougher both mentally and physically and you need some of those to win the playoff battles that ensue in football and basketball.  Too often, parents, kids, and coaches are encouraging kids to be specialists at an early age.  Most kids are choosing basketball from the start and never venturing onto a track, baseball diamond, or football field.  I remember the days when people felt football made you stronger for basketball and track helped your speed.  Why now is it thought of as a detriment to participate in more than one?  Don’t get me wrong though, there are some benefits to playing one sport all year.  Clearly you get more experience and Flint is still producing a whole lot of quality basketball players because of that.

But what about those kids who would’ve been great sprinters or running backs?  We will never know because they never gave it a shot.  I firmly believe that football has taken the steepest dive because of all of the pressure to pick one sport.  I remember when my elementary school coach had me playing everything from basketball and football, to kickball, volleyball, soccer, and shuffleboard (yes, I said shuffleboard).  The point was to find out where my love and talent both intertwined and that’s what we are missing today.  The city schools have lost one in Central, so the time is now to maximize the talent pool.  At Northern’s first varsity football game, JV players had to be used due to lack of participation.  At the first basketball tryout, there 75 kids easily.  Until those numbers change, the city’s fate will be similar in both sports.

Sports in general teach lessons to all involved, some of which can more easily be taught in a particular sport.  Football emphasizes teamwork, eleven players operating as one.  Basketball focuses on building a particular skill set to separate yourself as the best in that area.  Track focuses on conditioning , stamina, and speed.  Soccer teaches patience and working long stretches for one goal.  Why deprive our kids of all these lessons by limiting them to one sport?  Let them play!

Marcellus C. Miller

Citybeat is a regular column by Miller, a longtime basketball fan and coach in Flint. Miller works in Lansing and is an assistant varsity basketball coach at Flint Northern.