In the summer of 2014, Michael Harris started making one stop before going to Berston Field House, a historic gym in the heart of Flint, Mich., where he held his basketball camp for dozens of youngsters. It was at East Pierson Road near the corner of Saginaw Street. It was at a Family Dollar store, one of many five-and-dimes that dot this predominantly black town where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty.
“I’d go there every day before our practices on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, sometimes on Sundays, and buy a case of [bottled] water,” Harris told me by phone. “The young lady there got to know me. I’d go up to the counter and say, ‘Here’s my [money],’ grab a case, and walk on out the door.”
It was a routine Harris adopted because he couldn’t let his campers drink the brown water they saw for the first time that summer, when it gushed out of fire hydrants opened by city officials for kids to play in.
Just in the past few months have the rest of us learned what Harris and other Flint residents discovered that summer. Flint’s most precious resource, its children, were being threatened by the poisoning of another precious resource, one that is all but an afterthought for most people in this country: clean drinking water.
Kids. Unwittingly, they became the canaries in the mine that helped signal the man-made environmental calamity in Flint of funneling lead-contaminated drinking water into homes.
Kids, who could grow up to be the next generation of young men and women to make this city of no more, now, than 100,000 residents, well known for something positive other than being the original home of General Motors.
Kids, who could follow in the sneaker prints of basketball stars who made Flint a familiar name around the country, like Glen Rice, Tonya Edwards, the “Flintstones” who carried Michigan State to a national title — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell — and others. Kids, who could step into the cleat marks of Flint-born and/or -reared football stars like Carl Banks, Andre Rison, Mark Ingram Jr. and Sr. et al. Kids, who could someday fit the boxing gloves of the city’s Olympic medalists Andre Dirrell and Claressa Shields.
“We make automobiles and athletes,” Harris, a United Auto Workers man and president of the Greater Flint Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame, exclaimed of his home town, where he went to Northwestern High School in the mid-1980s with Rice, Rison and Jeff Grayer. That trio led Northwestern’s basketball team to a 55-1 record and consecutive state championships over two seasons. It became what remains the greatest run of any high school in Michigan’s rich schoolboy basketball history.
As this basketball season tipped off, Northwestern Athletic Director Mike Thompson told Flint native and sportswriter Eric Woodyard at the Flint Journal that his office was crammed with over 100 cases of bottled water — with more being randomly donated — for use by his teams as well as by visiting opponents. It’s a common sight in athletic offices at schools around the city.
“I know it’s going to be a while before they get this problem solved,” Thompson told Woodyard, “but I’m just hoping and wishing that we don’t run into that problem [of having no water]. Everything runs out sooner or later.”
Until now, there was never a threat to Flint’s athletic talent running out. Even as the auto industry, which once made Flint the second-largest city in Michigan, flagged over the past quarter century, Flint’s athletics continued to blossom and bolster the city’s pride. Four years ago in London, Shields became the first U.S. woman to win boxing gold. In 2009, Mark Ingram Jr. won the Heisman Trophy.
Just last season, Michigan State went to its sixth Final Four in the 2000s, a decade that started with those Flintstones leading it to a national championship. But 2015’s Final Four team was the first of those teams without a player from Flint. With this health crisis, it could be a while before any more come along. By last summer, Harris said, he and his camp coaches taped over, or broke off, handles on drinking fountains at Berston to make sure kids would not potentially poison themselves.
Athletics, like General Motors and its ancillary businesses, produced value for Flint. Another example is Herb Washington, a former sprinting and baseball star from Flint Central High School, who after Michigan State stole bases for the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s and donated $20,000 to an effort by Flint Athletes for Better Education a few years ago to build a new track at Northwestern High. The president of the organization at that time was Jeff Grayer, the Flint Northwestern star who set the all-time scoring record at Iowa State, made the 1988 Olympic team and played parts of nine NBA seasons.
In recent months, however, that value from Flint athletes started being cashed in ferrying bottled water into the city for residents — especially vulnerable children — to drink, cook with and bathe in, something state and city officials should have insured. Great Flint athletes started giving back in emergency, as Mark Ingram Jr. is doing with a couple dozen other NFL stars in organizing a donation of anti-bacterial body wipes, as well as water, from a California company called ShowerPill.
Woodyard told me he was part of a quickly forming group of Flint athletes like Rice and Rison, who teleconferenced recently to brainstorm what more they could do for their beleaguered home town. Some sort of entertainment event, he said, in an effort to make people feel better while they’re being saved by imported clean water.
Drinking water. How ironic.
Even when Flint was 200,000 strong in its heyday, it was still one of those places producing so many more elite athletes than its population would suggest that it was said “there must be something in the water.”
Now, at least, there is. And it’s not something from which Flint, or anyplace, can grow a future.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.