The game dies at Southwestern High

By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – Clarence “Sonny J” Jones was 86 years old on the morning of his murder.

He’d gone to check on the home of an old friend who was hospitalized with emphysema. Jones slid the key into the front door, pushed it opened and then was ambushed from behind by 19-year-old Eugene Peguies, police say.

More From Dan WetzelSixteen story lines Mar 22, 2010 Destiny’s darlings eye Final Four Mar 20, 2010 The two wound up inside the small living room, where police say the young man bludgeoned the old man about the head. He then pulled perhaps $20 out of Jones’ wallet, stole a used van from the driveway and left Jones to die alone in the empty house, the keys still dangling from the door.

Sonny J’s body wasn’t discovered until the next afternoon.

The August 2009 murder shocked and outraged Detroit, which isn’t easy to do these days. Jones wasn’t just any person though. For decades he was the final safety net in his Southwest Detroit neighborhood, someone who would help people find jobs, pick up the groceries when times got tough and serve as a father figure to generations of kids in need of one.

“A great man,” Detroit police chief Warren Evans declared.

He was perhaps best known as a constant presence around the powerful basketball team at Southwestern High School, which has churned out dozens of Division I basketball and NBA stars such as Jalen Rose. Jones stuck around the program long after the graduation of his sons, including Bill, a star at Iowa in the 1980s, and Tony, the current associate head coach at the University of Tennessee, which plays Ohio State on Friday in the Sweet 16.

Those days at Southwestern are gone. The school hasn’t produced a single Division I recruit since 2001, about the time the neighborhood around it began its rapid deterioration.

It’s a problem with the city schools across the country that for years powered the NCAA tournament and beyond. What has always been a difficult battle against crime, gangs, unemployment, fractured family units, teen pregnancy and failing schools has grown nearly impossible. Entire neighborhoods have all but collapsed. Nowhere more prominently than here in the Midwest.

The city of Detroit hasn’t been considered wealthy in decades, yet it still had enough structure to have its high schools produce as many as 35 Division I players a year from the 1970s-90s, according to long-term observers.

In 2009, the city’s once-potent public school league produced just two Division I recruits. There was just one from a city Catholic school. That’s three recruits; for all the high schools in the entire city of Detroit. This year is only marginally better, perhaps five or six players.

“That’s as bad as it’s ever been,” said Vince Baldwin, a Detroit resident who works as national director of scouting for Nike Elite Basketball and edits Prep Spotlight Magazine. “There’s definitely been a decline in the inner-city talent, not just in Detroit but all over the country.”

While some still make it, and other stars are plucked out to suburban districts or far off prep schools, there’s no telling how many kids have fallen through the cracks.

“The talent pool in Detroit has eroded,” said Tony Jones, who spearheads Tennessee’s recruiting. “It’s gone.”

How chaotic a year has it been for once-proud Southwestern High School?

There was no varsity football because the former coach was let go and enough players quit in protest there weren’t enough left to field a team. Its new basketball coach had to be replaced just before practice in October when he was shot in what police call a mistaken-identity, drive-by attack. And, of course, one of its oldest and most loyal supporters was beaten to death for 20 bucks.

This is the neighborhood finally dragging the school down with it, mayhem causing Detroit’s last export – basketball talent – to fade like the auto industry and tool and die shops.

The main strip that runs through Southwest Detroit is Fort Street, a wide thoroughfare that leads all the way downtown. For decades it was home to dozens of automotive factories, parts plants and warehouse facilities. Stores, restaurants and businesses filled up around them.

The Southwest that Clarence Jones raised his family in was filled with tightly-packed neighborhoods of well-kept homes and yards. While no one was rich and the houses were mostly small, everyone was proud. Everyone cared. Jones returned from World War II, got a job at the Budd Wheel Co. plant, rose to superintendent, and along with his wife raised five children and 21 grandchildren.

“You used to know every family on your street,” said Perry Watson, 59, who grew up in Southwest in the 1960s and was the head coach at Southwestern for 12 years and later the University of Detroit. “And they knew you. Everyone disciplined each other’s kids.”

“Back then, having a neighbor tell your parent you had done something wrong was called helping,” said Leslie Rockymore, 47, who grew up on the same block as the Jones family and played for Watson at Southwestern.

“Now it’s called snitching.”

Southwestern High served as the pride of the community. It produced prominent students, such as Dr. Ben Carson, now the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. Its Prospectors basketball team was a focus. This was an era in the city of juggernaut teams run by iconic coaches such as Will Robinson at Pershing, Ben Kelso at Cooley and Lofton Greene just across the city line at River Rouge. From 1979-1991, Watson built up Southwestern with a blend of tough love and coaching acumen.

The school produced college and pro standouts such as Rose (Michigan), Howard Eisley (Boston College), Voshon Lenard (Minnesota), Anderson Hunt (UNLV), Bill Jones (Iowa), Rockymore (Michigan), Antoine Joubert (Michigan) and scores of mid-major players. Under Watson it advanced to seven state title games in a nine-year span.

The program was controversial because rival coaches accused Watson of recruiting players, a charge the coach has always denied. In the broader view, it hardly mattered. City kids were succeeding. Few could argue that Watson wasn’t a positive influence.

Watson also was a guidance counselor at Southwestern and would keep relentless tabs on his players to assure collegiate eligibility. His annual goal was to make sure every player on the team had a college scholarship, athletic or otherwise. He parlayed favors to get even the lowliest bench warmer a scholarship to an in-state Division II school. He pushed mid-majors to take his sixth men.

“Somewhere, some way you’re going to get to school,” he used to say, a powerful clarion call for local kids.

“You knew that if you listened to Coach and did what he said, you were going to go to college,” said Garland Mance, who played at Southwestern from 1987-1990.

It is players such as Mance, now 38, where the fading of these city programs is most felt. A talent of Jalen Rose’s caliber won’t be missed by grassroots basketball. A suburban high school or out-of-state prep school will gladly find a way to get him enrolled.

A blue-collar player such as Mance might not have that luxury. He admits he was perhaps the fifth-best player on his Prospectors team (“A Rick Mahorn type”) yet he was recruited to St. Bonaventure, where he scored 1,000 points and earned a degree. After a run as a college assistant he’s now the athletic director in nearby Ecorse, Mich.

It was more than that though. Mance says the “foundation” for his life was set during his high school days.

“I came from a single-parent home, but there were male role models around,” Mance said. “Men like Coach Watson and Mr. Jones, they were always there for you, watching over you. Mr. Jones always had a positive word. He wanted what was best for you. All the men, all the coaches, they taught us.

“Someone has to show kids that it’s OK to be a family man,” Mance continued. “It’s OK to work nine to five. You don’t see that as much any more.”

Like much of Detroit, Southwest is a shell of itself. The factories on Fort Street are mostly shuttered, the street now lined by abandoned buildings and graffiti. When the jobs left, so did many of the families that could. In their place came poorer residents and renters. Some houses went into foreclosure and now stand empty, a haven for drug dealers.

“It changed because the seniors who lived in the neighborhood started dying off and the children wouldn’t take the houses for whatever reasons,” Tony Jones said. “It [used to be] a community, now it’s become an urban, inner-city ghetto.”

Crime has skyrocketed. Home values have plummeted. The city itself has become a war zone, 362 killings in 2008, just 33 percent of which were solved by police, according to the Detroit News. Federal Bureau of Labor statistics say the city’s unemployment rate is 27 percent, although Detroit Mayor Dave Bing estimated in December it’s actually about 44 percent.

“A portion of this generation we’ve lost to crime, to drugs, to young people being incarcerated for the rest of their life,” Tony Jones said. “It’s just becoming an era that is so sad.”

Southwestern High School hasn’t fared much better. Capable students have flocked to the suburbs or charter schools. Mass dropouts have caused enrollment to plummet. Only 25 percent of male students in Detroit public schools graduate, according to Education Policy Center at Michigan State. Some estimates claim half the city’s adult population is functionally illiterate.

They still play basketball across the city of Detroit, but with more dropouts come fewer schools which means fewer roster spots for kids. Southwestern is slated for closure in 2011, part of a huge, city-wide consolidation plan. Next season is the end for the Prospectors.

At its base level, Watson argues that it isn’t even about cultivating college-level talent anymore, although he believes a great deal is being wasted. More importantly, he says, is that the chance to play is a reason to not drop out.

“Athletics can feed academics,” Watson said. “Being on the basketball or football team is a reason to just stay in school. These days we’re just trying to get kids to graduate from high school.”

Watson was the head coach at the University of Detroit from 1993-2008 and his plan was always the same – recruit the local talent. He used to joke his recruiting budget could’ve been a couple tanks of gas. At times in the late 1990s his entire team hailed from the city of Detroit. The Titans were good too, reaching the NCAA tournament in 1998 and 1999 where they defeated St. John’s and UCLA respectively.

“By the end of my career, there weren’t any more players,” Watson said. “You’d see a kid you were interested in and they weren’t academically eligible. The whole city changed.”

Rockymore took over as Southwestern’s coach in November after the just hired William Foster was wounded by gunfire as he walked to his sister’s house to use a fax machine. Rockymore said the players are there across the city. So too, though, is the dysfunction.

“There are plenty of kids talented enough to play on the Division I level,” said Rockymore, who scored almost 1,000 points at Michigan. “But when you come down to the education, they are lost because no one has pushed them.

“A lot of the parents we deal with, they are just 14, 15 years older than the kid,” Rockymore continued. “They act like their friend, not their parent. When I was in school if a teacher said he was going to call my home I’d beg, ‘no, no, no.’ Now they don’t even care. [The parent] is more likely to take up for the kid.”

There is no easy solution to the problem. The forces running against these city teams are enormous and growing. “There are just so many elements,” Rockymore said.

People are trying, though. The Jones Family set up a scholarship program in “Sonny J“‘s name that will award five scholarships to any student [athlete or not] who shows a dedication to community service.

Mance said one of the reasons he took an athletic director job in the area was to try to stem the tide. “Somebody has to come back and start helping,” Mance said. “Somebody has got to put a stop to it.”

Rockymore, meanwhile, took the unusual step of requiring an hour study hall before every Southwestern basketball practice. The Prospectors weren’t much of a team on the court, going 6-11. In the classroom though, the coach claims they earned an average 3.3 GPA.

For years Clarence Jones was urged to move out of Southwest. Everyone could see the neighborhood was sliding. Tony and the other children offered to buy him a new house in the suburbs. “Sonny J” refused. He wasn’t giving up. Even after his wife passed away in 1994, he just became more dedicated. “He never dated,” Tony said. “He poured his life into other people.”

Where once he could use his superintendent position at the Budd Company to get people factory jobs; now it was mostly the little things. If there was an older woman who couldn’t get her garbage cans to the curb in the winter, “Sonny J” did it. If someone needed a ride to get their car fixed, “Sonny J” did it. If someone’s heat was about to get shut off, he came up with a couple bucks.

“A guy came over the house one day crying,” said Tony Jones. “He said, ‘this hurt me so much. I’m homeless and every time your dad would see me, he’d give me five or 10 dollars and I’d go get me a hot meal.’ Just little, little things like that that touched people’s hearts.”

Then there were the athletes, pushed and supported by this quiet role model of great credentials and heart.

The crowds of men at Jones’ August wake poured outside the funeral home, up, down and around the corner of the city sidewalks. They even overflowed into a gas station across the street; small clusters of Detroiters from three generations paying respect to a man some called “Padre.”

“I grew up without my dad,” Rockymore said. “A lot of the time I was able to walk down the block and talk to Mr. Jones about things. He was always supportive. He was always watching, too. You didn’t want to disappoint. He used to say to me, ‘You’re not just representing Southwest Detroit but the Liddesdale block.’”

It was that “Sonny J” that produced the outrage that led to Peguies’ arrest. Residents, many of whom either fear retaliation for working with police or who distrust police themselves, flooded the city tip line. Evans, the police chief, was so stunned with the cooperation he held a press conference to praise the people.

Peguies was captured within days. He’s in Wayne County Jail awaiting an expected July trial on both first degree felony murder and first degree premeditated murder. A conviction in either will likely carry a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Peguies has pled not guilty.

“My dad loved kids and if they had met differently, he’d have tried to instill some of his values,” Tony Jones said. “He’d [have told him], ‘don’t be so quick to give up. Try to work.’ He’d have given him that money, [he’d have said], ‘come over and cut my grass for some money.’

“But this guy, he don’t give a damn about himself. And he didn’t care about taking a couple bucks off of an 86-year-old man, off the most vulnerable people in society. Eighty-six years old? Come on. That’s crazy.”

After a lifetime of helping boys become men, Clarence Jones was allegedly done in by one he couldn’t reach.

“You think about it,” Mance said. “Who took his life? A young kid. You don’t have that male figure in their lives. You don’t have that father figure, let alone their own father. And now there is one less father figure for kids to see.

“[Peguies] did what he thought was cool – running with gangs, car jacking, breaking into houses and killing people.”

Tony Jones has spent the last seven months dealing with the anger. There is no good way to lose a loved one; there is a special level for the family of murder victims. He says he’s poured himself into helping coach the Volunteers. The work provides a bit of normalcy. He and his family have packed 36th district court for even minor procedural hearings in the case, Jones often jetting up in the morning and returning to Knoxville in time for practice.

“Just so [Peguies] knows we are there,” he said.

There is one thing that gives him a moment of satisfaction. “Sonny J” was 86, but he still carried a bit of toughness to him, still had a little bit of the World War II vet to him. There was a time he would’ve been the last guy some punk tried to attack. While time had weakened the muscles, Tony Jones doesn’t think it changed his father’s mentality.

“My dad probably got a lick in on him,” Tony said. “He probably punched him one time. He probably knew it would infuriate [Peguies] even more but my dad wasn’t going to take it.

“Sonny J was going to go down swinging.”

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports’ national columnist.

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