Edson: 50 Years Ago: Michigan’s Best-Ever High School Hoops Team

Fifty years ago this week, the greatest boys basketball team in Michigan high school history began their march toward a Class A state championship.

It’s also the first year my dad – a longtime basketball coach – took my brother and I to the state finals at Jenison Fieldhouse at Michigan State.

What I saw that year in 1967 not only left me in awe, but also everyone else who watched the Detroit Pershing Doughboys. They not only had five future professional athletes on their team, but two of them became NBA all-stars – Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson.

Pershing played in the Detroit Public School League, the 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 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 the 6-foot-8 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.

Even today, that Pershing team is still acknowledged as the best team, as people who were at the state championship game will attest.

Roger Norkoli of Traverse City remarked, “That 1967 Pershing team was absolutely the best team in Michigan high school history. I saw that game from a different perspective. Our team got beat in the C semis the night before by one on a buzzer beater by Mt. Pleasant SH. The Lansing State 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 U.P. knowing that no matter how hard we worked there was no way we could play that kind of game.”

Jeff Fuda had a unique perspective on the game. “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. Pershing was and still is, the best high school team ever assembled in Michigan.”

My brother and I still talk about that 1967 state championship 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.

Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.

Categories: Boys Basketball