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End of era: Detroit's Southwestern may have played its final game

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Detroit Southwestern High's vaunted basketball team has won numerous state championships, earned top national rankings and produced NBA stars such as Jalen Rose and Howard Eisley. Now, it's likely played its final game.

Last week, Detroit Community High walloped Southwestern, 69-48, in the district semifinals. It was a painful loss for a school that's scheduled to close at the end of the year -- a casualty of rapidly declining enrollment in one of the nation's most troubled public school systems. Detroit Public Schools has shut down dozens of schools in the last decade, and its enrollment has dropped from 150,000 to less than 70,000 as students have flocked to charter schools or suburban districts. The school system's misfortunes have mirrored the city's, which has lost more than one million residents over the last 60 years.

It could mark a sad end for a once storied school -- and for a basketball program known as a national powerhouse throughout the 1970s and '80s.

During good times, Southwestern High boasted an enrollment as high as 1,800. Today, that has dwindled to 583, according to district officials. The school has been on the chopping block twice in recent years, and officials have privately said that this third time could spell the end.

Several former players, many of whom retain close ties to Southwestern, refuse to give up hope. Many have teamed up with community members to save their alma mater. Perry Watson, the school's legendary coach from 1978-91, recently flew from his winter home in Florida to lend a hand in the rejuvenation efforts.

And progress is being made: Volunteers have been working the phones, galvanizing community support and trying to devise creative options to keep the school alive. Some supporters scheduled a meeting with district officials, and Kevin Williams, a member of the class of 1988 who went on to play at Weber State, said he and other school supporters are attempting to convince the school district of Southwestern's value to the community. They dispute the enrollment numbers and hope to collect data that will change the district's decision.

Rose, who now runs his own charter school in Detroit, has had conversations with Detroit Mayor and former Piston Dave Bing about exploring options to save the school. He has reached out to other major political figures and local educators as well.

A few years ago, Rose paid to have a new basketball court installed at Southwestern. He annually provides a $10,000 college scholarship to a Southwestern student. Still, he understands the financial reasoning behind the planned closure. But that doesn't mean he's accepting it -- he's concerned about possible consequences, including students being forced to take multiple buses to get to school. He's also sentimental about losing the school that launched his 13-year NBA career.

"For selfish reasons I would love to see them close one or two other schools and have them housed in Southwestern," said Rose, who graduated in 1991 and was a member of three city and two state championship teams.

Michigan state representative Rashida Tlaib, who represents the district in which the school is located, said supporters of the school plan to deliver letters and petitions to the governor 's office. The financially troubled school district is run by an emergency financial manager appointed by the governor. They want the governor to direct the manager to halt closure of Southwestern.

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She said that Southwestern's success transcends just sports.

"The attendance record is spectacular," said Tlaib, a member of Southwestern's class of 1994. "It's the safest high school in the city among the traditional high schools. It's also really important to know that they made AYP this year. Ninety-seven percent of the students graduated last year."

Many former players indicate that strong academic tradition enticed them to play at Southwestern.

"My eighth grade coach convinced my mother that Southwestern was the best high school for me," said Tarence Wheeler, a high-ranking city official and member of the class of 1986 who later played at Arizona State. "You could learn, play ball, graduate from high school and go to college. The game of basketball transformed my life into a young successful African American man and it all started at Southwestern High School."

Derrick Hayes, the current head coach and a member of the class of 1993, fondly remembers working under Watson. He recalls being forced to sit out a game because the coach found out that he had been "clowning in math class."

"It's easy to learn here," added Jacob Pugh-Scruggs, a 6-foot-5 sophomore center. "They give you the help you need to pass. The teachers care. Before I came here I was getting by with a 1.0. Now I'm on the honor roll."

Southwestern entered its golden age as a basketball powerhouse in the late 1970s under the leadership of Watson, a member of the class of 1968. The team won more than 300 games with Watson at the helm, including several state and city championships. Players recall seeing coaches such as Bob Knight in the stands, and four players from that era ended up in the NBA. The team ranked second nationally in 1990 and first in 1991. Watson was voted national coach of the year in '91.

Watson is particularly proud that 96 percent of his players attended college. Southwestern's program, he said, elevated Detroit's basketball profile nationally.

"No Detroit team had ever been ranked nationally or been the number one team in the nation," said Watson. "I came back just to lend support to Derrick and the team and for my memories. I wanted to be there if this is the final game."

That sense of finality weighed heavily on the minds of the players on March 7 as they played before a packed house. When the game ended, the dejected Prospectors shuffled back to their locker room.

Some wept, but not because of the loss. They were distraught that a once-proud program could fall victim to the same fate that countless facets of Detroit have succumb to in recent years: elimination.

Said Pugh-Scruggs, "We don't know if we'll ever wear that jersey again."