Desperate for a Rebound, Detroit Turns to Basketball
Local Officials, NCAA Organizers Hope Final Four Provides Lasting Boost to Struggling City

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

DETROIT -- A throng of 100,000 people is expected to stream into Detroit for this weekend's NCAA Final Four, the most lavish celebration in college sports, which pits Michigan State against Connecticut and North Carolina against Villanova for the right to advance to Monday's game to determine the men's basketball national champion. Their revelry will make for some sharp contrasts in the nation's most troubled city.

Basketball fans will dine at the Wolfgang Puck Grille, play blackjack at the Greektown Casino, swig beer at Cheli's Chili Bar and, if the weather cooperates, join the mass pep rally along the refurbished riverfront.

Not far from Detroit's spruced-up downtown, thoroughfares are riddled with potholes, treetops are festooned with windblown trash and aging factories, warehouses and office buildings stand empty. In the residential area near 8 Mile Road, which marks the city's northern edge, only every third or fourth house is occupied. The rest have been burned or vandalized and can be bought for a $500 down payment -- less than a pair of Final Four tickets -- and $250 per month.

With the U.S. auto industry on life support, Detroit is once again turning to sports for a sorely needed economic -- and psychological -- boost. But this time organizers hope the Final Four serves as a prototype for hosting such lucrative, mega-sporting events.

In a tacit acknowledgment that staging such a lavish spectacle against a backdrop of such profound need would invite charges of insensitivity, the NCAA is making a financial contribution to a charity in a host city for the first time in tournament history. In this case, the $250,000 gift is going to a community-based program launched by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan that is focused on early childhood education.

In addition, the NCAA has teamed with a Detroit-based food-rescue group, Forgotten Harvest, to deliver any unused prepared food from the myriad parties and conventions associated with the tournament to the city's most needy.

They are modest gestures considering that the NCAA receives $6 billion over 11 years from CBS for the tournament's broadcast rights. But local organizers hope the initiatives will leave Detroit with a Final Four legacy that is more lasting than empty beer cans and will be replicated in Indianapolis, host of the 2010 basketball championship, and the cities that follow.

Others, such as retired auto worker Larry Christensen, question the NCAA's motives and largesse.

"If they really see a need, is that all they can come up with?" asks Christensen, 64, who worked for 30 years on Chrysler's chassis-assembly line. "The United Way is here year-round. Forgotten Harvest is here year-round. The problems are so immense. Do they think that dumping a couple hundred thousand dollars is going to make much of a difference?"

Neither initiative was envisioned in 2003 when the NCAA awarded Detroit this year's Final Four. But the current recession has crippled the Motor City, idling auto plants and leaving more than one in five Detroiters jobless.

According to the NCAA and Detroit officials, the Final Four will pump $30 million to $50 million into the city, with basketball fans filling hotels, partying at downtown casinos and celebrating at restaurants that are starved for customers.

With all 72,000 tickets sold even before Michigan State secured its berth with an upset victory over Louisville on Sunday, Detroit will set a Final Four attendance record because of the seating configuration at Ford Field, the domed home of the National Football League's Detroit Lions.

For Detroiters who can't afford a ticket, the games will offer a respite from the gloom. But no one expects that three college basketball games will shore up the auto industry or transform Detroit into a vacation hotspot.

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College with expertise in sports, said the economic impact of Detroit's Final Four has been exaggerated, arguing that it is closer to $10 million to $15 million. He also said he believes any notion of an image makeover is fanciful.

"It's not likely that people watching on television are going to say, 'Let's take a vacation to Detroit!' " Zimbalist said. "It's very rare that anything like that happens, even in much more attractive cities. I wish them all the best, but it's not going to turn that city around. It'll be a small boost, but that's it."

None of this is a revelation to Detroiters. Hard times have a way of tempering expectations. But even if they don't expect to benefit directly, many residents are thrilled the Final Four is coming to town. If nothing else, it's a chance to prove that Detroit is still functioning.

"America thinks that we are dying," says Larry Alexander, president and chief executive of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Unfortunately, when you say 'Motor City,' they think that's all we have to offer. People assume that if the auto industry is dying, Detroit is dying. But give us a break. If Wall Street is dying, you don't say, 'New York is dying.' "

Given the magnitude of the city's problems, Alexander said he believes the games will be a slam dunk if they simply leave visitors feeling, "Detroit is not that bad."

In Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood, where poverty and hunger track below the city's averages, Shirleen Dexter-Ashley and Shawness Woods-Zende are working to give local youngsters a shot at a better life.

They're among the child-care providers using the services at the Shurly Family Learning Center, which houses the first of four educational programs supported by Detroit's Final Four organizing committee and the NCAA's $250,000 bequest.

Brightmoor, created in the early 1900s to house the Ford plant's factory workers, is teeming with young children yet short on licensed day-care providers. Most are cared for by relatives or neighbors who lack the skills and tools to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten.

That's where the Detroit local organizing committee for the Final Four thought it could help.

"If you can get a child reading before 5 years old, he stands a significant greater chance of graduation," says Bill Ryan, the panel's executive director.

The center trains caregivers and boasts a lending library of educational toys and games designed to help children 5 and younger learn shapes, colors and letters before starting kindergarten.

"It's unspeakable when I think of the full potential of the children in this Zip code that goes untapped," Dexter-Ashley said.

Across town at Joe Dumars' Fieldhouse, a recreation center housed in an old agricultural building at the scrubby Michigan State Fairgrounds, Fred Hatcher doubts that the Final Four's impact will be felt by the neighborhood kids and adults who clog its basketball courts seven days a week.

A metal detector frames the entrance. Inside are a few soda machines, a hot-dog stand and bleachers where players wait two and three hours to get on a court. It's the only gym in the city with four basketball courts, one set aside for kids younger than 14, and it's open until 2 a.m. On especially busy days, Hatcher, the facility director, sets a limit of eight minutes on games and brings out a timer to keep track.

"It won't really touch their lives," says Hatcher, 48, who grew up on Detroit's west side. "The tickets are so expensive, the average family can't afford to go."

Tremarius Campbell, 18, is among those shut out. His mother was laid off six months ago from her job assembling axles for Chrysler. With two siblings, Campbell has been on a fruitless hunt for part-time work to help out, but the grocery stores and shops near his house in Warren aren't hiring.

Even though he won't see the Final Four in person, he is glad it's coming to town. That way, he says, people will see that Detroit is no different than any other city, with good neighborhoods and bad.

Jerry Braxton, 67, a retired autoworker, feels the same.

"It's a drop in the bucket, but every drop helps," Braxton said.

Like most Detroiters, Braxton is convinced the city will rise again, if only because he has seen it rise and fall so many times.

"Detroit built the country. It built the tanks that saved the world during the war," said Jai Lee, 36, whose family has owned stores for decades in the neighborhood once called Black Bottom. "We're at the point now that we're stumbling and having to beg for help. How can the government bail out a bunch of banks but you don't bail out the industry that built America?"

Pride is a recurring theme in Detroit.

The hand-lettered signs next to the fresh strawberries, apples and broccoli at Eastern Market advertise "Produce of the USA!" A Ford Explorer idles at a stoplight with a bumper sticker that reads: "Lost Your Job Yet? Keep Buying Foreign!" And in the days leading up to the Final Four, a flatbed truck traversed the state, stopping in cities and towns to show off components of the actual basketball floor that has since been installed at Ford Field. The floor was fashioned from trees grown in northern Michigan.

"Never count Detroit out!" said Alexander, of the visitor's bureau. "We might be down on one knee, but I tell you: We will rise."

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