Thursday, March 12, 2009

Remember Pontiac Central's Chiefs

Pontiac Central played their final boys' basketball game last night. Birmingham Seaholm sent the Chiefs into the history books with a 67-47 defeat in a Division 1 district game.

With apologies to Denzel Washington, today, I find it apropos to make a statement about this quiet passing.

Remember the Chiefs.

There was no ceremony, no remembrance and none of the passion and pride for the city of Pontiac the Chiefs used to evoke. In that way, Central's last game was very Brooklyn Dodger-esque. The Dodgers played their final game at a decaying Ebbets Field on September 24, 1957 and sadness and bitterness converged for the Ghosts of Flatbush at the intersection of Bedford, Sullivan and McKeever Place. A scant 6,702 showed for the final game versus Pittsburgh. Brooklyn blanked the Bucs, 2-0.

There's a sense of sadness in Pontiac today because the Chiefs left the prep basketball landscape rather meekly, similar to Royal Oak Dondero's final football season. Central and rival Pontiac Northern will merge after this year. Teachers are being fired en masse. It's going to be a difficult transition, mashed into a five-month timetable. Pontiac's consolidation is considerably different than Royal Oak's Kimball & Dondero from three years ago. Some, including Coach Chuck Jones, thought the 'new' Royal Oak High School should be re-named with the 'old' name of Acorns and given a color combination of the blue n' white of Dondero and the blue n' gold of Kimball, merged into the 'new' blue, gold & white of Royal Oak High.

That's not an option in Pontiac. The Chiefs are Pontiac like the Tigers' olde English 'D' is Detroit. Only in the last 10-15 years did Central finally omit the 'Pontiac' from their uniforms and go with the word 'Central'. I'm researching Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries and the contribution from Pontiac Central High to metro Detroit's basketball heritage is comparable to what Catholic Central or Brother Rice added to the Catholic League.

~The Elusive Championship~

Of course, you might be inclined to tell me that Catholic Central and Brother Rice, the last two private schools to win a Class A boys' basketball title in Michigan, have indeed won championships. And Central's city rival, Pontiac Northern, won back-to-back Class A titles in 2001-02. Central never did.

True, it never happened when it mattered most for Pontiac Central. The Chiefs never won any of the five Class A title games they played in. But the NCAA tells us the 'Fab Five' never happened at Michigan, too. Does anyone really believe those Michigan Wolverines didn't leave a lasting impact on college basketball just because the NCAA says so? From 1959-79, Pontiac Central went to 11 MHSAA semifinals -- in 20 years! Zero wins in those title games might make them the Buffalo Bills or Minnesota Vikings of prep cagers in the eyes of some. It's fair. But Art VanRyzin and Ralph Grubb, Pontiac's coaches during this amazing era, never gave up, never quit trying. Further, the Chiefs didn't just compete but were a perennial power in the Saginaw Valley Conference. There was not a single prep league in the entire state of Michigan better than 'The Valley' during that time period.

Perhaps it was fitting that Seaholm and Central were paired for Central's last hurrah. Seaholm was formerly the original Birmingham High Maples and Central was originally Pontiac High's Chiefs. Birmingham and Pontiac were longtime prep football, basketball and baseball rivals for many years until the early 1960s.

The Chiefs shouldn't be forgotten as soon as the horn went silent to end their final game. Remember the battles that Pontiac High and later, Pontiac Central played that made your heart throb. Remember the Friday nights they made so memorable in so many different seasons. Remember the simetaneous hope and heartache they represented in Pontiac for so many years. Remember the Russell brothers. Remember Bill Glover, who was the heart and soul of Central for so many years.

Remember the Chiefs.

(Picture courtesy The Oakland Press/Feb. 1971/Rolf Winter)

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Rivalries, due August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing.

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