Beacon of Light

Pistons brighten the spirits of Highland Park with sparkling outdoor courts

Before and after shots of the Highland Park High School basketball court.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
David Payton is of the generation when basketball meant everything to Highland Park. It couldn’t have meant more to any one of its citizens than to him. The starting center on the Polar Bears’ 1975 Class A state championship team, it was basketball that kept Payton out of trouble, basketball that earned him a college scholarship and basketball that’s drawn him back to the high school tucked along Woodward Avenue amid a city hit so hard by the economy it can’t afford to keep its streetlights burning.

But on a blustery October day, the Pistons helped bring a little sunlight to Highland Park, partnering with Sprite in a $40,000 overhaul of the outdoor basketball courts behind the high school. Lawrence Frank conducted a coaching clinic and Hooper and the Flight Crew dazzled a few hundred students chosen to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony on a day basketball again carried the day for Highland Park.

“It’s a wonderful uplift for the city, the community and the school system when you have a great basketball team,” Payton said as Frank ran his Highland Park varsity players through the ABCs of pick-and-roll offense and defense on the sparkling new courts, where grass sprouted through jagged asphalt and rims were absent not so long ago. “The kids and the whole community just get really into it. Basketball helps grow enthusiasm for the whole school, even for other sports at the school.”

With courts that give battered Highland Park a facility as fine as exists in Michigan, Payton hopes and believes the flickering embers of interest that once burned with a white-hot intensity will be fanned anew – and that kids at the same type of crossroads he faced in the early ’70s will seize basketball as their path to a productive life.

Basketball has meant everything to Lawrence Frank, as well. He dreamed of becoming a coach as a 13-year-old in New Jersey, deciding on Indiana University specifically for the chance to work on Bobby Knight’s student managerial staff. Maybe because that long-shot dream paid off, Frank is especially enthusiastic to participate in grass-roots events like Tuesday’s where, he knows, the dream of some kid not so far removed from his will be visualized.

“When people get together and put their sights on different things, it just shows about possibilities,” he said. “It’s a metaphor not just for a basketball court but in life – that if you put your minds together and do things in a team-like fashion, how great things are possible. I think this is symbolic of that.”

They came together at Highland Park 36 years ago. Under a Kentucky disciplinarian named Darrell Pursiful, Highland Park had one of Michigan’s premier basketball programs in the, ’70s and ’80s. Payton’s classmate, Terry Duerod, shot the Polar Bears to the ’75 title before playing on Dick Vitale’s great University of Detroit teams and going on to an NBA career with the Pistons and Boston Celtics. Before Duerod, brothers George and John Trapp also came from Highland Park to the NBA, George playing for the Pistons in the mid-’70s.

“To be honest with you, I had some discipline issues,” Payton said. “Coach Pursiful definitely disciplined me. I hate to say this – he was a white guy coaching black players and back in our day, they wanted a black coach. He told us, our senior year, ‘If you want another person coaching, let me know and I’ll just walk away.’ We all sat there and said, ‘No, we want you to be our coach.’ I had discipline issues, but he got me straight. I was able to go to Xavier. He influenced me to stay there. I was able to graduate and the guy was definitely a big influence on my life. That’s what I’m trying to do for these kids.”

Payton, who for 23 years has taught men incarcerated at Ryan Correctional Facility on Detroit’s east side, returned to Highland Park as varsity boys coach three years ago, hoping not just to rebuild a basketball program that hasn’t won a district title since 2001 but to provide the same kind of lifeline Pursiful gave him. That’s easier to do when a city and a school community take pride in the basketball program – and that becomes a more reachable goal when the kids growing up on unlit streets have a place their own they can point to with pride.

“These courts were just absolutely horrible,” Payton said, sitting between the two regulation full-court surfaces – the space can also be utilized as six half-court areas – festooned with Pistons logos on both center courts and on the six glass backboards all outfitted with heavy-gauge rims. “You couldn’t even play out here – and that’s where you learn how to play basketball, really, is outside first. This is definitely a springboard for better things. I think some more kids are going to come to our school. Our enrollment is very low, but this event here is going to help bolster our enrollment and we’ll get more kids coming to our school.”

And, Payton hopes, with the help of a basketball program and sparkling new outdoor courts that will turn a spotlight back on Highland Park, they’ll be sending kids better equipped to succeed out into the world.