EAST LANSING, MI – Sports mean everything to the Beecher community.
Whenever the Buccaneers step onto the basketball court, a sea of fans, draped in red gear, travel to whatever building to proudly support the team. During the bridge of the national anthem, everyone knows to point the letter “B” toward the American flag in unison, which represents their togetherness.
That’s a Beecher thing.
Players aren’t only playing for themselves. When they slip on those red and white uniforms, they compete for an area that has withstood blow after blow throughout the years, from poverty to population loss to crime.
And yet they’re still standing. By adding another state championship to its collection, Beecher is identified as one of the top sports programs in the state and further cemented its winning tradition.
“We don’t think about losing, we prepare to win,” Beecher coach Mike Williams said. “We set a standard that we want to win championships and it’s important that these kids understand how to set goals and then how to work toward them and that’s one thing that they get from me is that end of discipline.”
In 1985 and 1987, Beecher also won Class B state championships under legendary coach Moses Lacy then repeated in 2012 and 2013 with Mr. Basketball Monte Morris guiding the ship. But this team wasn’t led by a star player; it was a team effort with everyone fulfilling their roles. In many ways this team was a reflection of their territory, nicknamed Buc-Town.
“We have their back on the court just like they’ve got us in the stands,” senior guard Sammy Toins said after scoring 17 points off five 3-pointers in the state finals. “We need them just like they need us. We look for them in the crowd. We look for them to get on the other team’s nerves.”
Buc-Town, as it’s known in the area, isn’t even legally a city or a town, but locals hate being labeled as Flintstones even though most were actually born in Flint hospitals. The “District of Champions,” is nestled between Flint and Mount Morris with its own school and water/sewer systems and has a population of roughly 10,000 people. Nearly 70 percent of the community is African-American and the entire area is just less than 6 square miles.
According to the U.S. Census, approximately 42.2 percent of all residents are living below poverty level, which is 2.5 times the state average of 16.8 percent of residents in poverty.
Beecher has seen its share of tragic events. The 1953 tornado, Michigan’s deadliest, killed 116 people while destroying more than 350 homes and businesses. On Feb. 29, 2000, Beecher drew negative national attention again when 6-year-old Kayla Rolland died after being shot by a boy in the chest inside her first-grade classroom at Buell Elementary School in the Beecher School District.
Those incidents, notably the tornado, were a big reason for the economic falloff, but when basketball games are being played nobody in Beecher recalls that hardship. It’s all about winning and it starts from the grassroots.
Athletes are constantly being developed through elementary sports programs so when the time comes for players such as Malik Ellison or Aquavius Burks to play at the Breslin Center, they’re prepared to step right in and contribute immediately for Coach Williams.
“Sports are very important because it gets the kids off the streets and the after school programs try to get them started early to get the basic fundamentals and when we stick together this is results of it,” said 1978 Flint Beecher graduate Mike Hawthorne.
Sports are the common bond, according to Hawthorne. Besides athletics, there’s really not much to do outside of grabbing food from Roma’s Pizzeria and shopping at local party stores.
“Beecher is low-income and the streets are horrible, but there’s a lot of good people in Beecher,” Hawthorne said. “People are committed. Sports is something that the kids can fall back on.”
Former Beecher Community School board member Tracy Harris agrees with Hawthorne’s analysis. She also attends every game and follows the program regularly. Athletics have a way of bringing the old school and new school together to root for the Buccaneers.
“Once you’re a Buc, you’re always a Buc,” Harris said. “I feel safe, it’s just like that. We’ve been like this all the time.”
Never give up
Former NBA player Roy Marble is arguably Beecher’s biggest star. Other professional athletes such as Courtney Hawkins, Carl Banks and Lonnie Young also reached the NFL, but Marble embodies that Buc-Town spirit the most with what all he’s going through.
Marble, 47, is fighting for his life with stage 4 cancer. He couldn’t attend Beecher’s state championship victory because he had to attend his mother’s funeral on the same day in Flint. But in all three of the games he’s witnessed, he left impressed.
“They remind me of the typical Beecher Bucs team that gets out and stays after you with the full court pressure,” Marble said. “That’s that old Buc-Town flavor.”
Watching the current Bucs is refreshing for Marble, especially with his illness. He’s back and forth traveling between Michigan and Iowa, getting treatment but soaking in that positive energy keeps him in great spirits.
“To see my community stay strong and represent the state of Michigan the way we’ve been doing for over a decade now, it’s great to see it,” said Marble, Iowa’s all-time leading scorer. “I know the kids are benefiting from it and just seeing the community grow together because that’s one common bond with winners.
“When the whole community is a winner then we’ll figure everything else out,” he added.
The basketball success is now opening doors for the school with renovations and other perks. After the last state title run, property owners overwhelmingly voted yes in May of 2013 to approve a bond millage which upgraded its athletic facilities. With kids witnessing history being made in athletics, Williams is trying erase that stigma surrounding the community.
“This means everything to the Beecher community,” Williams said. “Beecher is kind of at the bottom when you talk about the population of kids so this makes kids want to come out at Beecher. This makes parents take a second look at Beecher.
“Beecher is not what Beecher was 15-20 years ago, Beecher’s an excellent place to send your kid and not only that they can be successful and go to college,” he added. “So the stereotypes are thrown out the window.”