'Fighting,' giving spirit endears New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green to Detroit fans

New Orleans Pelicans head coach Willie Green, left, and guard CJ McCollum (3) talk before the game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, on April 5, 2022.
New Orleans Pelicans head coach Willie Green, left, and guard CJ McCollum (3) talk before the game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, on April 5, 2022.

Even for the most passionate NBA fan living in the Eastern time zone, staying awake all the way through a game broadcast from the West Coast can be a daunting task.

But, for one night, New Orleans Pelicans first-year coach Willie Green, who came to the NBA by way of the University of Detroit Mercy (Class of 2003) and Cooley High School (Class of 1999), provided a solution to the problem.

As April 15, was turning into April 16, and with the Pelicans on the verge of missing the playoffs in a win-or-go-home matchup against the host Los Angeles Clippers, Green unleashed a pep talk captured by a Turner Network Television microphone that won’t soon be forgotten.

Sam Washington Jr., who prides himself on having seen "the best of the best" in Detroit basketball, says hard work has allowed Willie Green to be successful in the game.
Sam Washington Jr., who prides himself on having seen "the best of the best" in Detroit basketball, says hard work has allowed Willie Green to be successful in the game.

“His words woke me up and then I was ready to play myself,” said 66-year-old Sam Washington Jr., who proudly embraces being a caretaker of Detroit basketball history. “I was like, 'Put me in the game coach!' It showed how powerful Willie Green is on the inside and his players responded, and that’s why they won the game (105-101). It’s hard to get millionaire players that make more money than you do to buy into your program, but the players on the Pelicans have. They buy into Willie Green as a coach and Willie Green the human being.”

More from Scott Talley: Detroit pastor conducted services with only 3 people in sanctuary for more than a year

Detroit man's 61-year connection to Tigers started with early Black players

When Washington talks about Green it sounds personal, because it is. Washington, whose father created what became the fabled St. Cecilia basketball program on the city’s west side, recalls meeting Green when the future NBA player and coach was in the seventh grade through Green’s late uncle Gary. Washington says what Green has done through the game of basketball is exactly what his dad Sam Washington Sr., had in mind when he first opened up the St. Cecilia gymnasium to youths across the city to provide a safe, nurturing haven in the aftermath of the 1967 rebellion.

“Coming up as a player, Willie Green was not highly touted and was never considered as that 'blue chipper, can’t miss' guy,” but he worked hard and kept getting better,” said Washington, who continues to “carry the torch” of St. Cecilia and his father’s legacy through the Sam Washington Foundation, which focuses on mentoring Detroit youths. “Willie Green didn’t have that big reputation right away. But the cream always rises to the top. We don’t have a lot of Detroit ties to the NBA right now, but we can look at Willie Green and appreciate how he got to the position he’s in now, through his hard work. With this pandemic, we need something positive right now and we have that in Willie. As a city, we love sports. And the entertainment of sports helps us get through everything that’s going on right now. But when you have someone you know providing that entertainment, it takes it to another level. And right now — especially with social media, where you can follow the Pelicans and see that speech — everyone is jumping on Willie’s bandwagon, even if they weren’t on it before. All eyes are on Willie.”

Detroit Mercy's Willie Green (34) shoots for two over Youngstown State's Bill Mallernee during first half action on Feb. 27, 2003.
Detroit Mercy's Willie Green (34) shoots for two over Youngstown State's Bill Mallernee during first half action on Feb. 27, 2003.

On Wednesday, a day after the Pelicans upset the Phoenix Suns to even their seven-game, first-round playoff series after two games, a group of Detroiters that have long been on the Willie Green bandwagon came together. Included were men who once played with or coached Green at Cooley High. Along with their connection to basketball, the group of former Cooley Cardinals consisted of fathers, husbands, community leaders and even "techies" who helped bring the “State Champs!” podcast to life. The podcast was taking place in a basement studio roughly 3 miles away from the old Cooley High (15055 Hubbell) in the Hubbell-Lyndon neighborhood, which closed in 2010. While heaping praise on Green, the men were equally proud when talking about the high school and neighborhood that shaped each of them.

“The Cooley spirit? Oh, yeah, we’re built differently,” said Delvar Barrett (Class of 1998), who described how he happily welcomed Green to Cooley after Green transferred from Mumford. “Once you walk through those halls at Hubbell (Street), it’s a fraternity, you’re locked in for life. We treat each other as brothers. If anybody calls any one of us for anything, we’re there to support, and we’re there to have each other’s back. And Willie was a big part of that spirit. When he came to Cooley, he fit in like he was there the whole time — hard working, real good, real humble, funny, just a really likable kid.

From left, former Cooley High School basketball players and Willie Green teammates Jason McGowan, Mike Gardner and Delvar Barrett before watching live broadcasting of an episode of "State Champs!" podcast hosted by Rafeal Peterson and George Ward in Detroit on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.
From left, former Cooley High School basketball players and Willie Green teammates Jason McGowan, Mike Gardner and Delvar Barrett before watching live broadcasting of an episode of "State Champs!" podcast hosted by Rafeal Peterson and George Ward in Detroit on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

“As a coach, Willie has turned around an organization without its franchise player. But when you’re hardworking and humble, that can happen. If you do things the right way; if you sacrifice; if you work hard; if you treat people well and stay the course, it’s unlimited what you can accomplish, even for kids in the inner-city of Detroit. And that is what Willie is showing kids right now. He excels and wins everywhere he goes, and it’s not by accident — he just gets it done. And it just makes you feel proud to know that you’re really close to someone like that, who has done things the proper way.”

Jason McGowan (Class of 1999), who was sitting across from Barrett, looks like he can still take the court and be productive for any team’s backcourt. And on Tuesday, he was happily dishing out props to his former teammate from back in the day.

“I go back longer than anyone with Willie because we started playing together at Greater Grace Christian Academy, and then we broke off when he went to Hally and I went to Cerveny. And then we linked back up at Cooley,” McGowan explained. “It feels great. It’s a dream to see someone I grew up with leading a franchise that was down, and now they’re in the playoffs. But none of it is unexpected coming from Willie — he’s always been a leader, he’s always been ahead of the game. And it all started from Willie’s uncle (Gary). From the time we started playing, he put us in a position to be leaders and men, and Willie took it to the next level.”

Mike Gardner (Class of 1999) has his own special memories of Green at Cooley, but on Wednesday literally all he wanted to talk about were the words Green delivered that sparked the Pelicans win-or-go-home victory over the Clippers.

“To be honest, the only reason why I wanted to come here tonight was that speech,” Gardner, who also played with Green on Team Detroit in AAU, said while taking part in the podcast. “I was watching 'Get Up' on ESPN in the early morning and they were playing that speech, and Willie was saying: ‘You gotta fight ..!” and I was getting hyped, for real. I wanted to hoop right then, or run through a wall with him. I felt chills and I wanted to tell the team to fight for Willie. It was real. And it felt like one of our moments at Cooley when we were in the trenches, down at crunch time with two minutes left and you get to see who’s really with you.”

During the “State Champs!” live podcast on Wednesday, Raphael Peterson (left) and George Ward, proud representatives of Cooley High School ’s basketball legacy as players and coaches, traded stories about how Willie Green purchased uniforms and shoes for Detroit high school teams during Green’s NBA playing days.
During the “State Champs!” live podcast on Wednesday, Raphael Peterson (left) and George Ward, proud representatives of Cooley High School ’s basketball legacy as players and coaches, traded stories about how Willie Green purchased uniforms and shoes for Detroit high school teams during Green’s NBA playing days.

Eight o’clock Wednesday evening signaled the start of the “State Champs!” podcast, so called in tribute to the three consecutive Class A state championships won by the Cooley boys basketball team a decade before Green’s arrival. The show is co-hosted by Rafael Peterson and George Ward, who won state championships as players at Cooley and then helped to shape Willie Green’s game as young assistant coaches on the Cooley staff. Given their basketball pedigrees, a reasonable expectation for Wednesday’s show would have been a full-blown NBA playoff discussion, especially since the Pelicans will be hosting the Suns on Friday and Sunday in what will be games three and four of the series. However, the podcast’s hosts thought that using their platform in that manner would not be the Cooley or Willie Green way, and instead wrapped up their Willie Green talk by discussing assists of a non-basketball nature.

“I’m going to one-up you,” said Ward after Peterson shared a story about Green buying uniforms for the Cooley team when Green played for the Philadelphia 76ers. “When I was coaching Southeastern, this was probably 2011, Willie called me and asked if I needed anything for the team and I said maybe you can get us new shoes for when the (Public School League) playoffs start. Later that season, Willie called me the morning he came into town for an NBA game and asked did we get those shoes? I said no, and then he said give me some sizes. Willie went to the mall. Willie Green had an NBA game in his hometown at 7:30 p.m. and he went to the mall to make sure the Southeastern Jungaleers had shoes for the playoffs.

“People can talk about people of good character and say they do good things and all of that, but for Willie Green to get in his car, or get in someone else’s car, to get those shoes shows that Willie Green didn’t forget. God bless Willie Green. I’m proud of him, for real.”

Scott Talley is a native Detroiter, a proud product of Detroit Public Schools and lifelong lover of Detroit culture in all of its diverse forms. In his second tour with the Free Press, which he grew up reading as a child, he is excited and humbled to cover the city’s neighborhoods and the many interesting people who define its various communities. Contact him at: stalley@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @STalleyfreep. Read more of Scott's stories at www.freep.com/mosaic/detroit-is/.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroiters celebrate Willie Green's NBA coaching success