DETROIT — Imagine a Little League field where Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Sparky Anderson and Joe Torre all learned the game of baseball.
Or a corner gym where Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich had all been taught to play basketball.
You’d think that a place like that would be a shrine, wouldn’t you? Fans from around the country, if not the world, would make pilgrimages to visit a magical place that produced so much talent. It would probably include statues of the stars and a museum of the sport’s local ties. It, by itself, would be a major tourist attraction.
There’s a place just like that in Detroit. Not in some hidden corner of the city, either. It’s right off Interstate-75 and is within easy walking distance of both Ford Field and Comerica Park.
But it’s not a museum, and it certainly isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s yet another crumbling, abandoned building in the Motor City, and its only visitors are rats, the stray cats that come in looking for the rats and the homeless people using the walls as shelter from a long Detroit winter.
It sits in the shadows of the Brewster-Douglass housing project, once the childhood home of Motown stars and now just empty, dangerous buildings, which Mayor Dave Bing announced plans to demolish. When the projects come down, the little graffiti-covered gym next door might very well come down with them.
That’s not how it used to be.
A WALK THROUGH TIME
Imagine that part of Detroit, not as it is now, but as it was during the early 1930s. Instead of I-75, giant stadiums and a housing project, think about one of the most active African-American communities in the country, dealing with the Great Depression.
The year is 1932 and two young men are walking down Hastings Street. The older one, Joseph Louis Barrow, is a muscular 17-year-old with a tattered gym bag, and rather oddly, a violin case.
The younger boy, Walker Smith, a rail-thin 11-year-old, follows along, staring worshipfully at his idol and trying to do anything to get some attention. Finally, after resorting to walking on his hands, he’s given the great honor of carrying the gym bag.
They are headed for a gym at the corner of Hastings and Vernor Highway — the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center.
As they make their way down Hastings, the pair passes some of the jazz clubs that made Detroit a center for American music long before Berry Gordy’s Motown. Duke Ellington was a regular in what was called the Black Bottom, along with other jazz pioneers like Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Billie Holliday.
In the 1930s, jazz had roots that were as deep in Detroit as they were in Harlem and Kansas City. A night out on Hastings Street meant seeing some of the greatest music the time had to offer.
Joe Barrow and Walker Smith aren’t thinking about music, though. They’re thinking about an escape, and that means the Brewster Center.
It’s a new building, put up in 1929, and it gives youth in the Black Bottom area somewhere to get off the streets. There are indoor basketball courts and a swimming pool for the winter. It includes tennis courts and baseball fields for outside activities during the summer.
Even in the 1930s, the city realized that having a place for young blacks to hang out was better than having them fall into the clutches of the gangs that plagued the area. Integrating the downtown YMCA was never going to work, so the Brewster Center was built.
BOXING GREATS ARE BORN
Barrow and his faithful sidekick aren’t going to Brewster for tennis, baseball or basketball. They’re going there for one reason and one reason only — the chance to learn the one skill that might get them to a better life. They want to box and will do it better than almost anyone else in the 20th Century.
Joseph Barrow wasn’t supposed to be boxing at all. His mom wanted him to play the violin, which is why he kept his gloves in that music case. When he began his amateur career, he kept things quiet from his mother by only using his first and middle names in the ring — Joe Louis.
By the time of our story, Louis was at the very beginning of a spectacular amateur career that led him to Golden Gloves titles and a national AAU championship. He turned pro in 1934 and quickly became one of the greatest heavyweights in boxing history. He held the world title from 1937 to 1950 and was the biggest star in boxing in the years before World War II.
In the years after the war, as Louis aged, he was replaced in the spotlight by Sugar Ray Robinson — the 25-year-old that, under his birth name of Walker Smith, had tagged along with Louis on their trips to the Brewster Center.
Smith also changed his name, although for a different reason. At the age of 14, having moved to Harlem, he borrowed a friend’s ID card in order to enter an AAU tournament that required fighters to be 16.
After rekindling his friendship with Louis while the two fought exhibitions in the U.S. Army, Robinson won the world welterweight title in 1946, then grabbed the middleweight title in 1951. He beat Jake LaMotta in that fight, which served as the centerpiece of the movie “Raging Bull.”
Robinson won the middleweight championship five times, losing it for the last time in 1960 — a quarter-century after he and Louis had begun their reign over the fight world.
In 2009, Robinson was named the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in history by ESPN.com. Louis finished fourth.
DESTINED TO TEACH
If no one else had ever come out of the Brewster Center, it still would be an historic place worth celebrating. But Louis and Robinson make up only half of its Hall of Fame roster.
At the same time Louis and Robinson were learning the fight game, there was another smaller teenager who would spar with both of them. He was also a star, winning Golden Gloves titles alongside Louis, but a heart murmur ended his career in the ring.
It didn’t end his love for the sport, though, so he turned to teaching other fighters. By the 1950s, he was training world champions, but his most famous pupil didn’t come along until after the 1964 Olympics. That’s when Detroit’s Eddie Futch, already considered one of the sport’s best trainers, took over the career of Joe Frazier.
It was Futch who taught Frazier a move that Futch learned back at the Brewster Center — a fast left hook over an opponent’s lazy uppercut. That was the exact punch that caused one of boxing’s most famous knockdowns — Frazier leveling Muhammad Ali in the 15th round of their first fight.
Futch stayed with Frazier through all three fights against Ali and was the one who stopped The Thrilla In Manila after the 14th round, fearing that Frazier would be permanently injured.
Futch later trained the likes of Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Riddick Bowe and Alexis Arguello.
A LEGENDARY TRAINER
The Brewster Center never had a group like Louis, Robinson and Futch again, but it remained an important place for young African-American Detroiters for several more decades.
In the late 1950s, the boxing gurus in residence were given another talented beginner to mold. Like the trio before him, he was a brilliant fighter right from the start. He went 94-3 as an amateur, capping off his career with the national Golden Gloves championship.
Needing to support his family, he decided he couldn’t give up his job with the electric company in order to turn professional. To keep his hand in the game, he worked nights as a part-time boxing coach, first at the Brewster Center and then, beginning in 1971, at the nearby Kronk Gym.
That’s where Emanuel Steward changed Detroit’s boxing history forever. Kronk turned out a stable of superstars — Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty and Milton McCrory — in the early years. The successes kept coming with heavyweight champion Michael Moorer and ill-fated middleweight champ Gerald McClellan.
Steward also became a hired gun, taking over the careers of established superstars like Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Miguel Cotto and Lennox Lewis. At the time of his death earlier this year, he was still training heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and had become one of the sport’s best analysts with his work on HBO.
Louis, Robinson, Futch and Steward are all dead, but they will forever share two places in boxing history. They are all enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in upstate New York and started their careers at a quiet recreation center in Detroit.
The Brewster Center is probably beyond saving. The city doesn’t have the money or the inclination to do anything with it, and no private developer has stepped forward with rebuilding plans.
At best, it might get a commemorative plaque, such as the one on the former site of the Olympia Stadium, the Red Wings’ home until 1979. At worst, it will be left to rot away like Tiger Stadium did until the wrecking ball finally took it down a few years ago.
It doesn’t deserve either of those fates. Four men from the Brewster Center lit up the world for 75 years, and someone needs to keep their story alive.