New Reality has Roseville Dreaming Big

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

January 30, 2019

ROSEVILLE – Something happened last February that produced a dramatic effect on the Roseville boys basketball team.

It’s difficult for Roseville coach Hassan Nizam to put into words – but he’s certain that his team’s trip to Ann Arbor to play Pioneer and, more importantly, their visit to the Crisler Center to watch a University of Michigan practice had a positive impact on last year’s team and the program as a whole.

“(The U-M staff) gave us a tour,” Nizam said. “It was eye-opening. There was something about it. I can’t even explain it. We’ve lost twice since. Maybe it turned them into dreamers.”

Roseville won seven straight after losing that game to Pioneer before a 44-39 defeat to Macomb Dakota in a Class A Regional Semifinal ended the Panthers’ season.

They’ve stormed back this winter and sit 13-1 entering the final month of the regular season, with their only loss coming at Dakota, 55-52, in the fifth game. Roseville avenged that loss with a 63-56 victory at home Jan. 15 and is ranked No. 3 in Division 1 in the latest Associated Press poll.

The Panthers are 8-1 in the Macomb Area Conference Red and have clinched a share of the title. They can win it outright with a victory at Sterling Heights Stevenson on Monday.

After that and over the next two months, Roseville is shaping up as a possibility to not only make school history, but carry its entire area into an elite scenario for the first time.  

Teams from Macomb County have rarely been relevant come tournament time. Not only has a Macomb County team never won a Class A (now Division 1) title, the county has never been represented in a Class A Final in boys basketball. Warren DeLaSalle made the Class B Final in 1982 and has come close to breaking that county barrier, reaching Class A Semifinals in 1986, 2007 and last season. Dakota also lost in the Class A Semifinals in 2016.

Enter Roseville. The program has had limited success in the MHSAA Tournament – last season the Panthers finished 16-7 and won just the fourth District title in program history. They’ve never won a Regional.

Talent has come through in the past, but didn’t always guarantee a postseason run. Sir’Dominic Pointer (known as Dominick Pointer while attending Roseville) played two seasons at Roseville before transferring to a prep school in North Carolina, then played collegiately at St. John’s and was selected as the 53rd pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by Cleveland. He is currently playing professionally in Israel. Still, Roseville was not able to get past the District round in either of his seasons.

But on the positive side, this team is coming off that District title and has plenty of experience to go with ability. Four starters are back including seniors Darien Banks, Lazell Judge and John Ukomadu. The other returning start is junior point guard Martell Turner who, if he isn’t the team’s best, is likely the team’s most important player. The fifth starter is senior Deshaun Wright.

At 24, Nizam is one of the state’s youngest head coaches and his upbeat coaching style has had a rippling effect. This attitude impressed those who were responsible for hiring him, notably school principal Pat Adams.

“Our search for a new coach was centered on someone who loved kids and was passionate about the game,” Adams said. “In Coach Niz, we struck gold on both accounts.  A big part of changing the culture in a building is to have the kids believe in themselves, feel pride in who they represent, and respect the leaders who spend time with them. We believe Coach Niz has demonstrated that he's a very important part of that formula and will continue to be as the program evolves.”

A 2012 graduate of Dearborn Fordson, Nizam spent three seasons as the junior varsity and varsity assistant at Fordson before becoming an assistant at U-M Dearborn for the 2016-17 season. Nizam said one of his first objectives when he was hired at Roseville in May of 2017 was to build consistency.

“I was just an assistant coach looking for an opportunity,” he said. “As far as the program here, I knew they had had some success. The transition was pretty smooth, and the kids bought in. (Sir’)Dominic stops by every now and then, and the kids appreciate that. The guys have to understand that individual success comes from team success.”

Last season was one of the most successful in school history. As a member of the MAC White, Roseville competed in the MAC Red/White division playoffs and defeated Clinton Township Chippewa Valley for the title. Two weeks later, Roseville won the District title by defeating St. Clair Shores Lake Shore 80-77.

Roseville opted to move up to the MAC Red this season, and one result is a more competitive schedule. In addition to the increase in competition the Red affords, the Panthers defeated DeLaSalle to open the winter, then defeated Division 2 contender New Haven at New Haven and slipped past Cincinnati Withrow (Ohio), 42-39, at the Motor City Roundball Classic.

“We kind of have the approach that we want to get better each game,” Nizam said. “We’ve got a chance to win the MAC Red, the MAC title, a District title and a Regional. It’s that day-to-day thing we like to emphasize.”

What makes this team better than last season’s is Roseville’s play on the defensive end. The players are communicating better, switching assignments when teams run a motion offense and playing help defense.

In Roseville’s 65-60 victory over New Haven, the Panthers held Romeo Weems – New Haven’s best player and a likely candidate for the Mr. Basketball Award – to 20 points. As a team, Roseville has allowed 45 points per game. And just one team, New Haven, has scored in the 60s.

“That New Haven game was big for us,” Nizam said. “They hadn’t lost a game at home in like six years. We weren’t going to let Weems beat us. Our kids believed in each other that game. After that, their confidence went way up. It showed we can be a problem for any team.”

Offensively, Roseville likes to score in transition, but its half-court sets have improved since last season as well. Banks is an accurate 3-point shooter and leads the team in scoring at 21 points per game. Turner is the table-setter who averages seven assists. Ukomadu is a 6-foot-7 post player who jumps well, and Judge is a 6-1 lefty who plays the wing.

Wright is a 6-3 power forward who possesses a good mid-range jump shot. And he’s one example of why the program has shown promise and is on the rise. Wright never played high school basketball before this season. He played basketball in middle school before concentrating on football his first three years of high school.

Wright saw the success the team had last season and, in the end, it was Nizam’s coaching style that won him over.

“I caught a few games at the end of last year,” Wright said. “I liked (Nizam’s) enthusiasm. He wants to win as much as we do. He wants it just as bad as we do. My mom (Ruth Wright) told me, to be a two-sport athlete coming out of high school would help me in college. I would love to play either one in college.”

Wright has yet to decide on which school he will attend next fall, and he is expected to take a visit to Urbana University in Ohio before making his decision.

In the meantime, Wright’s focus is on his teammates and continuing what they together have started.

“Once we step on the floor, we’re connected,” he said. “Our goal is to get better every game.

“Sharpen the ax. And we are getting better every day. I know by the way we compete against each other in practice.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Roseville’s John Ukomadu throws down a dunk during a scrimmage. (Middle) Panthers players huddle with coach Hassan Nizam. (Photos by Brian Sevald Photo.)

Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

April 13, 2023

Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.

Greater DetroitBut what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.

A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.

Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.

Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.

“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.  

In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.

She answered, and it was Beckett.

“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”

Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.

At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.

“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.

Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.

“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”

But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.

Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.

That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.

“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”

Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.

However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.

“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.

Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.

It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.

“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”     

Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.

“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”

Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.

“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.