Yesterday, a northwest Detroit neighborhood celebrated the opening of the Curtis Jones Park located at 1941 Ferry St. in Detroit. For those of you who do not know who Curtis Jones is…keep reading.
On February 21, 1967, with five seconds left to play, Curtis Jones, also known as “The Magician,” sank a 19 foot jump shot in the first prep game ever televised in Michigan. Jones who played for Northwestern led his team to a 63 – 61 victory over Pershing High School for the city of Detroit PSL championship. On that day he went from a playground legend to king of Detroit. He was carried off the court to screams of, “Curtis Jones, you the best ever!” At 5-feet-9 (some reports listed him as tall as 6-feet-2); he was considered the finest high school point guard in the United States.
That game was the highlight of his life before his life turned into what some call a cautionary tale and others call an American tragedy. Curtis graduated from Northwestern High School reading at a second grade level with an IQ of 73. Over the years, he was passed along from grade to grade. On his college entrance exam, he scored in the bottom one percentile. The University of Michigan recruited him, but with his test scores and grades, he could not attend. Jones claimed that a U of M assistant coach (his former high school coach) sent him to North Idaho Junior College in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and arranged for the school to carry him academically for two years until he could transfer to the University of Michigan. He was promised as long as he played ball, he would be taken care of. With no support system, and no one teaching him to become literate, he was set up for failure. For a while, he carried a “C” average because tests were taken for him. In his first year at the school, he led the team to a winning season. Then on February 16, 1970, he missed a test and had to take a make-up exam. For some reason, he was not given the answers and soon everyone found out he was illiterate after he asked a classmate to read the questions to him. Instead, she laughed at him as a crowd gathered around him and began teasing and taunting him. Later that day, he was taken to a local hospital suffering a mental breakdown. Back at home in Detroit, on March 23, 1970, he was admitted to the Northville Regional Psychiatric Center for the first time. He was committed there for a year before being released. Jones was eventually diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, and from 1970 to 1990, he was committed for treatment seven more times.
In 1981, Jones filed a $15 million dollar suit against the Detroit Board of Education, the University of Michigan, and North Idaho Junior College charging that they caused his mental breakdown by pushing him into college even though school officials knew he was illiterate. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed. Still, the case brought attention that led to change. Detroit Public Schools passed rules requiring minimum grades for athletes, and the NCAA created academic entrance requirements.
In 1990, Curtis Jones stated, “I got too close to my dream and my soul could not bear it. But someone let me get too close, you hear me? I can’t read, I can’t write. Never could. I knew it would catch up to me. I always had an inferior complex. Man, when you can’t read nothing, you can’t feel no other way. But I can play ball like a bitch. Still the greatest dribbler of all time. You hear me? Ever see anyone dribble a ball behind his back, ‘tween his legs, using just one finger? I invented Larry Bird’s shot and he took it from me. Magic’s shot – that’s mine too. My passes were stole by Pistol Pete. Isiah took my moves. Earl the Pearl. Damn, ask Jimmy Walker, Dave Bing what I did to them down at the Y. I was in the 11th grade and was taking ‘em all…Ice Man George Gervin asked me for my autograph. You hear me? I took the shot that won the city championship for us.”
Curtis’ claims were backed up by former NBA professionals. Spencer Haywood was on the Pershing team that lost to Northwestern and recalled in 1990, “He was Mr. Wizard on the court. A fantastic playmaker. Everything you see the pros do today, Curtis Jones was doing when he was in 10th grade. At one time, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind he was going to the NBA and was going to make a lot of money. No doubt whatsoever. That day, that game – I’ll never forget it. There were about 20 seconds left to play and Curt got the ball and he just dribbled the clock down and everyone in the gym – man, the state of Michigan stood still for this game – just knew he was going to score the winning basket. Just like he did. It’s a shame what’s happened to him. A tragedy. But before he got sick, he was the greatest little man on the court there ever was.”
Jones never had a job and his mental illness ruled his life. He would wander the neighborhood, get lost, and once was found in an alley eating mashed potatoes out of a garbage can.
Curtis Jones died on March 14, 1999, at the age of 49 in a psychiatric ward from pneumonia. His mother came home on a cold, rainy Saturday, to find Jones struggling for breath. Jones told her he was sick and to call an ambulance. He was taken to Receiving Hospital. The hospital told his mother they would keep him overnight for observation. The next day, his mother learned they had moved him to the mental ward before transferring him to Mercy Hospital’s psychiatric ward. It was a week before his mother could see him, and when she did, she noticed right away he could not breathe. When she complained to the psychiatrist, he told her he could not help. His mother went home and a few hours later, Jones called her to tell her he loved her and wanted to come home. Curtis Jones died talking to his mother on the phone that night.
Spencer Hayward summed it up best when he said, “I don’t know who’s to blame except maybe all of us. Curtis’ failure is America’s failure.”