Get to know: Earl Cureton ’11, basketball legend works for Detroit’s communities

Earl Cureton speaks to a class.Earl Cureton ’11 has spent his adult life alongside some of the greatest basketball players in the world.

The Detroit Mercy Titans Hall of Famer played 12 years in the NBA, sharing a court with Michael Jordan and a number of legends while winning a pair of championships. When his playing career ended, Cureton coached at various professional levels, including in the WNBA, for several years.

At an age when many people are beginning to slow down, Cureton, 64, is finding new purpose in giving back to people and communities in Detroit.

Earl Cureton smilesSince 2013, Cureton has worked for the Detroit Pistons as a community ambassador to raise awareness for the franchise’s community outreach programs. His involvement includes neighborhood basketball court renovations, community events and Pistons governor Tom Gores’ Toys for Tots drive.

The role allows Cureton, who calls Titans men’s basketball games as a color analyst, to connect with youth in Detroit. It’s something he cherishes.

“Sometimes, you can make a difference in people’s lives just by sitting down, talking to them and explaining things,” he said. “I like being out in the community and working with the kids.”

Cureton relates to the children he meets as a native Detroiter who was once in their shoes. He grew up playing basketball in the city, prepped at the former Finney High School and played collegiately at Robert Morris University and University of Detroit. 

In two seasons with the Titans, Cureton helped the team win 36 games and earn a spot in the 1979 NCAA Tournament. More than 30 years after his collegiate playing career ended, he returned to the University to earn his degree, fulfilling a promise to his mother.

“The kids are always impressed to hear the stories about me playing with Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas and all these guys,” Cureton said. “Through these conversations, we start talking and they tell me about themselves and what they want to do. I just give them advice that they need to know, try to encourage them and let them know that they can do anything they want to do if they believe in themselves.”

Growing up, Cureton spent his summer days at various recreational centers or the historic St. Cecilia’s gym on Detroit’s west side. The gym, now part of St. Charles Lwanga Parish, was a safe haven for Detroit youth starting in the late 1960s and became a proving ground for budding basketball players. Cureton said that playing at the gym helped him earn a scholarship to play collegiate basketball.

“St. Cecilia was like the mecca for every basketball player in Detroit and outside of Detroit,” Cureton said. “It was so impactful.”

Cureton has countless stories about St. Cecilia’s gym and the legendary players who stepped foot on its court. But more importantly, he experienced firsthand the recreational center’s positive impact on youth during Detroit’s racial strife.

“So many people had opportunities to do something with their lives just by being in the gym. It kept kids off the street. We had race riots in Detroit in 1967; the gym opened up after that. That place was a melting pot. When you went into St. Cecilia, you saw every nationality together, playing basketball, talking, getting along and having a great time.

“It kept us off the street, kept us out of trouble and we learned so much from just being around each other and great mentors.”

Last year, the Pistons announced a partnership with Ceciliaville, a nonprofit on Detroit’s west side created with the help of the Archdiocese of Detroit and St. Charles Lwanga, to revitalize the gym and establish a community center near the parish.

Cureton, who is on Ceciliaville’s board of directors along with another Detroit Mercy alumnus, Isaiah McKinnon ’75, ’78, knows the past cannot be recreated, but is hopeful of the project.

“Make it a place where kids can come and not only get into sports but get a whole lot of other things out of it, too,” he said. “When you create an environment like that, you create an environment where they can have great mentors. I think of all the things I learned from the people at the recreation center. I was around good people; they gave me advice.”

However, Cureton’s advice isn’t limited to youth. As a coach, he took players under his wing as they tried to make it to the NBA. He also enjoys speaking to Detroit Mercy students, most recently visiting Fr. Patrick Kelly, S.J.’s courses this academic year.

As a guest speaker, Cureton shares his story about longevity in basketball, playing the sport professionally on three continents and working hard to achieve dreams.

“I try to encourage them to let them know whatever their dreams are, you’ve got to stay focused on what that dream is,” Cureton said. I also let them know the importance of education. I’m always honest about that; I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to that, but at the end of the day, I had to come back and get my degree. That’s going to last you a lifetime.”

Wisdom from Dick Vitale

Earl Cureton dunks a ball during his playing days at University of Detroit.While at University of Detroit, Cureton’s basketball dreams crossed paths with then-Titans coach Dick Vitale, who later became a broadcasting legend known for his charity work. Although he never had the chance to play for Vitale—who left the University to coach the Pistons in 1978—Cureton still carries the lessons he learned to this day.

“What I learned from Dick was invaluable. He taught me so much in a short period of time. He talked to us about life,” Cureton said. “Dick would always talk to us before practice, 35-40 minutes, about the importance of life. Basketball was one thing, but he talked about the importance of getting your education, getting ready for the next level and how to conduct yourself. It was always so impactful.

“He’s raised millions for cancer. He would always tell you, ‘Use the basketball, don’t let the basketball use you. This ball will take you around the world.’”

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