By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
It’s hard to overstate the importance of basketball to a community like Muskegon Heights.
On one hand, a bunch of kids playing a game in a gym seems like a low priority, almost trivial in a town whose violent crime rates and percentage of residents living in poverty are among the highest in Michigan.
But on the other hand, the “Tiger Pride” that is on display each time Heights alumnus Dell Stewart and his team of 13 players take the court – and the returning crowd of community members who are getting back on the bandwagon as the wins continue to pile up – could provide the spark to create real change in this beleaguered West Michigan town.
“Basketball has always been a source of pride in this community,” said Stewart, a 1989 Muskegon Heights graduate, who is in his fourth year as the Tigers’ head coach.
“Basketball and all sports almost ended here completely four years ago, but we weathered the storm. We’re back. And we want to be a source of hope and pride.”
The school is now known as the Muskegon Heights Academy, a public charter school which replaced the debt-ridden Heights district in 2012, but the basketball standards are as high as they have ever been in a community which boasts six MHSAA championships – 1954, 1956, 1957, 1974, 1978 and 1979.
Heights has its sights set on another banner after taking its high-energy show on the road Saturday night and improving to 10-1 with a convincing 55-45 victory over perennial power and longtime rival Benton Harbor, which was ranked No. 10 in the state in Class B.
The Tigers beat the “downstate Tigers” on Saturday with their trademark full-court pressure defense and multiple offensive weapons – and now should finally get a spot in the Top 10 of this week’s Class C Associated Press state poll.
Underclassmen led the way in Heights’ big win, with junior point guard Antoine Jones scoring 18 points and junior Serinus Daniels and sophomore DeCarri Brown each grabbing 10 rebounds.
The energy of the team starts with the backcourt trio of Jones and his twin brother, Anthony, and senior captain Anthony Gordon. The starters inside are 6-foot-3 sophomore center Kieshon Watson and senior forward Deondre Wilson, but Daniels (a 6-6 junior) and Brown also see plenty of minutes.
“The thing I like about this team is that every game it seems like we have a different leading scorer,” said Stewart, who is assisted on the Tigers’ bench by his younger brother, Terry, a sharpshooter on the 1993 Heights team that lost to Saginaw Buena Vista in the Class B championship game. “We don’t have a lot of size, but we make up for that in different ways. We have the pieces of the puzzle to make a run.”
The win at Benton Harbor was just the latest impressive road victory for the Tigers, who turned some heads with big tournament wins in December over Southfield at Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills and Lansing Sexton at Battle Creek Central. Heights also handed host Kalamazoo Phoenix its first loss on Jan. 22.
Fans at home are starting to take notice – and come back.
When “the storm” Stewart referred to made landfall in 2012, a state-appointed emergency manager had taken over and there was uncertainty about whether the district would exist for the upcoming school year, let alone have a sports program.
That uncertainty led coach Keith Guy and high-profile players such as DeShaun Thrower (the state’s Mr. Basketball in 2014) and Joeviair Kennedy (now playing at Western Michigan University) to go to neighboring Muskegon High School – and many longtime Heights fans went with them. Soon, the traditional football school was now the place to be for basketball as well, as Thrower and Kennedy were joined by 6-9 Deyonta Davis (now at Michigan State) for an undefeated season and Class A championship in 2014.
Almost forgotten was the county’s traditional basketball power, Muskegon Heights.
Amidst all the new-found Big Reds’ basketball hoopla, Heights basketball picked up the pieces. With longtime administrators Glen Metcalf (athletic director) and Jerry Harris (faculty manager) leading the way, Heights was able to lure Stewart away from his job as head coach at Reeths-Puffer and back home to be head basketball coach and dean of students. His first order of business was to convince kids that they did not need to transfer to find basketball success.
Stewart’s words were backed up by results in 2014, when the Tigers made a run all the way to the Class C Semifinals at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, where they lost to Pewamo-Westphalia.
“I looked up in the stands and saw some of the old fans coming back and even people I hadn’t seen in 15 years, people who were starving to be part of something positive in Muskegon Heights,” said Stewart.
The problem has been that for every step up, there have been two steps back in terms of the Heights’ image.
One month after the Tigers made it to the Breslin in 2014, starting center Marquis Gresham was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Last fall, Heights was back in the news for the wrong reasons, when a home football game against Muskegon Catholic Central was cancelled after a shooting earlier that day.
Those incidents weigh heavy on all of the town’s residents, but they seem 1,000 miles away, at least briefly, when the Tigers work their magic on the basketball court.
One of those Tigers having plenty of fun is junior forward Keshawn Gresham, Marquis’s little brother, who is one of 10 underclassmen on the Tigers’ 13-player varsity roster.
As he laughs and jokes with his teammates, as a big throng of community residents cheer on in support, one fact is apparent:
Basketball is more than just a game in Muskegon Heights.
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Heights junior point guard Antoine Jones drives up the court during a 70-47 win at Muskegon Catholic Central on Jan. 26. (Middle) Muskegon Heights coach Dell Stewart congratulates junior forward Serinus Daniels after a block on one end and a bucket on the other during the win over MCC. (Below) Muskegon Heights' Joe Moore (right) and Serinus Daniels (left) defend Muskegon Catholic's Christian Martinez. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
MHSAA.com's weekly “Breslin Bound” previews and reviews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 college savings programs (MET/MESP), as well as scholarship and grant programs that help make college Accessible, Affordable and Attainable for you. Connect with MI Student Aid at www.michigan.gov/mistudentaid and find more information on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.
PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click by Christine McCallister.)