Why the Pistons honored unsung contributions of iconic Detroiters during Black History Month celebration

Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

In 2014, the issue of access to clean and affordable water was thrust into the national spotlight.

As the city of Detroit was wrestling with the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, residents faced widespread water shutoffs because of unpaid water bills. The news brought needed scrutiny to the increasing cost of water in a city stricken with poverty. It also brought issues of environmental racism to the forefront.

It was a call to action for We The People of Detroit and Monica Lewis-Patrick.

Lewis-Patrick, who serves as the non-profit’s CEO and president, has been a tireless advocate for those facing water insecurity and has become a public face for the fight, earning the nickname “Water Warrior.”

For her work, she was one of several to receive an Icon of Status award from the Detroit Pistons as part of the organization’s celebration of Black History Month. The award, presented by Crown Royal, celebrated select Detroiters for the commitment to excellence and engagement across our community. She was honored during the Feb. 14 game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Little Caesars Arena. Gifted a limited edition, Black History Month-themed Starter jacket and a bottle of Crown Royal XR, she received applause from the roughly 500 fans allowed as the country still copes with the COVID-19 pandemic.

An interview where she discussed her aspirations was played on the arena Jumbotron.

“I want their children’s children to say that the women of We The People of Detroit loved humanity enough to ensure that every human life has safe and affordable water,” she said.

Others honorees include former NBA star and Detroit native Derrick Coleman, Detroit philanthropist Tarence Wheeler, deceased former Wayne County Sherriff Benny Napoleon, hip-hop star Big Sean and deceased entrepreneur Marlowe Stoudamire.

All have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of Detroiters and the work should be highlighted year round – not just for one month.

“Black history extends beyond February and you see that in the work these people are doing,” Pistons vice president of community and social responsibility Erika Swilley said Thursday morning.

 ‘Pursuit of racial justice’

The NBA annually celebrates the contributions of Black Americans, but an emphasis was placed on supporting “the ongoing pursuit of racial justice by elevating the voices, experiences, and perspectives of Black players, coaches, employees and fans through various (programs) across the league and teams.”

Black History Month, which was first observed on the Kent State campus in 1970, typically focuses on the notable contributions of famous African Americans like civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

But the history is ongoing, and anyone is capable of making memorable contributions. That’s the idea behind the Pistons’ month-long celebration. Swilley headed up a panel that made the selections.

“We looked at who is doing good work in the city of Detroit,” Swilley said. “We thought it was timely to honor Napoleon and Stoudamire, both very beloved, but who unfortunately lost their lives to COVID.

“It was important to honor them because we know the work they started will continue in the future.”

All honorees and their accomplishments were highlighted during games at LCA. Big Sean, who was recently named Pistons creative director of influence, will be recognized tonight during the game against the Sacramento Kings; Stoudamire will be honored during Sunday’s home game against the New York Knicks.

Supporting the next history maker

For 16 years, the Pistons and Pistons legend Rick Mahorn have held a Black History Month scholarship competition with high school students competing for money to attend college.

The event – a poetry slam - occurred Thursday afternoon with Pistons players Dennis Smith Jr. and Isaiah Stewart participating in the hourlong Zoom call. Guest judges included Rick Mahorn himself, fellow Pistons legend Earl Cureton and they were joined by several local celebrities.

The event showcased seniors from various Detroit high schools - Detroit Loyola student Carlos Smith took home first place and the $25,000 scholarship named for Earl Lloyd, the first black man to play in an NBA game. Additionally, the event included a poster design contest, which rewarded $20,000 in scholarship money to Ziyah Jones from Cass Technical.

The poetic themes drew from the teens’ knowledge of Black history and were obviously informed by last summer’s killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis law enforcement, a tragedy that sparked racial unrest.

The students offered a clear vision of the future – a vision that Lewis-Patrick obviously shares.

“I love the thought that years and years from now, even if people don’t remember my face, they will know I loved them” Lewis-Patrick said. “Even if the institution goes away, what we gave to humanity will live way beyond that. For me, that’s worth getting up every day for. That’s worth fighting for.”