High school basketball is more than just a game in Saginaw, it’s the fabric of a community and its two high schools
SAGINAW — How big is the Saginaw High vs. Saginaw Arthur Hill basketball rivalry?
It’s big enough that some folks were using up their frequent-flyer miles to catch the action when the two programs met at Arthur Hill earlier this season.
"I flew in for this game from Maryland,” former Saginaw assistant coach Ronnie Bryant said of the Jan. 27 showdown. “That ought to tell you something."
Dwayne Adway, who played for Saginaw in the 1980s, made it to the gym just in time to catch the tipoff after catching a flight from Los Angeles.
"I just got here," said Adway, an actor with 16 movies on his resume. "Normally, the game happens during Christmas time. It lines up when I come home to see my parents for Christmas."
For Bryant and Adway, it was hardly an inconvenience to go the extra miles to watch a regular-season high school basketball game. It is, after all, The High vs. The Hill, arguably the greatest boys basketball rivalry in Michigan.
And, after being a fixture on the Saginaw sports calendar for more than a century, the rivalry is in jeopardy.
Interim Superintendent Kelley Peatross recommended closing Saginaw High at a Feb. 18 board of education meeting. Yet, no one on the board supported a motion for members to vote on the school’s fate, sparing it from the chopping block for the time being.
If that recommendation is ultimately adopted at some point, the two high schools likely would end up being merged into one at Arthur Hill’s building.
Entering this season’s matchups on the basketball court, it was thought both schools might be hosting each other for the final time.
"I’m glad of it, don’t get me wrong," said Marshall Thomas, a Saginaw High graduate who was the Trojans’ head basketball coach for 22 years, beginning in 1981, following eight years as Charlie Coles’ assistant. "But I don’t know what tomorrow holds. I’m just going to say that we wake up each day and we’re just glad to be alive that day; we don’t know what tomorrow holds. There was a lot of speculation that it was going to close. I’m sure there were some things all of us weren’t privileged to know that went into the decision. I don’t know the essence of it; I’m just glad we got at least another year."
It’ll take a monumental upset for the Trojans and Lumberjacks not to meet at least one more time at 6 p.m. March 11 in a Class A district semifinal at St. Johns.
Arthur Hill faces Owosso on March 9, with Saginaw High awaiting the winner. Owosso shouldn’t spoil plans for the finale, having lost nine consecutive postseason games.
Once the clock expires on that contest, one team will play on, another will put away its equipment, but a special era may end for both schools and an entire city. They have been rivals since Arthur Hill opened its doors in 1903. Saginaw High was founded in 1865.
The Saginaw-Arthur Hill rivalry is at risk of going the way of other great urban rivalries – such as Flint Central-Flint Northern, Pontiac Central-Pontiac Northern, Lapeer East-Lapeer West, Detroit Cooley-Detroit Southwestern, Detroit Mackenzie-Detroit Redford, Detroit Kettering-Detroit Northeastern, Detroit Miller-Detroit Northern and Detroit Southeastern-Detroit Eastern, that have ended in years past due to school closures and consolidations.
"This is the identity of Saginaw, and it has been for years," Bryant said. "This is one game that brought the community together at all times. It didn’t matter — black, white, it brought us all together for this game. People came here to just enjoy themselves and see great basketball.
"The records never mattered. Whenever this game came about, it was a dogfight,” he added, “and you never knew who was going to win."
Indeed, fans who packed the schools’ small gyms to witness this rivalry were treated to some of the best high school basketball in the state.
Saginaw High has won six Class A championships and has been the runner-up four times, capturing 27 regional titles along the way. Arthur Hill has won two state championships, has been runner-up five times and has won 16 regionals.
The rivalry has reached its height in what may be its final hours.
The schools combined for three successive state championships from 2006-08 and, with Saginaw’s 2012 title, four in seven years. The winner of the last 23 postseason meetings between them has gone on to win the district title.
Saginaw High has had three NBA players: Darvin Ham, Anthony Roberson and Draymond Green. In addition, it has produced NFL standout LaMarr Woodley. Former NBA slam-dunk champion Jason Richardson played at Arthur Hill.
"These guys have done a great job in terms of coming back and remembering the city," Thomas said. "They’ve done things for our city to inspire the kids to want to go on. They pay it forward, if you want to call it that."
There was a time when the rivalry was quite one-sided.
Saginaw won 21 consecutive district meetings from 1967-97, but the Trojans’ edge has been only 9-6 since 1998. That includes victories over Arthur Hill in the past three district tournaments.
"In order for it to be a rivalry, one team can’t win all the time," said Thomas, a 1966 Saginaw High graduate and the school’s athletic director from 2003-2014. "When I was in high school, it was a rivalry because one year one team would win and another year the other team would win. Seldom would one team click off 10, 12 wins in a row.
"Then it came to the point where Saginaw Arthur Hill hadn’t beaten Saginaw High in 15, 20 years. Then it started changing,” he recalled. “When it changed, it changed for the better. We not only had one team in the city that people were pulling for, but we had two. We’ve been even for the last 20, 25 years."
The rivalry has become more competitive, but there are always some veterans who still believe things were better back in their era.
"Some people may disagree with me, but I don’t think the talent is better now than it was back then," 1986 Saginaw High graduate Terry Reed said. "I think the talent was better in the ’70s and ’80s. You had guys walking the halls of the school buildings who could start for any team who couldn’t make our team, because we had too much talent."
When the two schools met Jan. 27 at Arthur Hill, Patricia Jacob was perched in her usual spot behind the Arthur Hill bench. She has been watching the Lumberjacks since she was a sophomore at Arthur Hill in 1967. Her mother, husband, three children and two grandchildren graduated from Arthur Hill.
"For me, it’s been fun to watch," said Jacob, who retired two years ago after working security at Arthur Hill for 19 years. "It’s a little scary sometimes, but it’s getting better. There’s always going to be something, because people don’t like change.
"I think it’ll be good,” she said of the possibility of merging the high schools. “It’ll make us a stronger community. From 1967, I’ve been watching the games. I haven’t been to every single one of them, but a good majority of them."
In the bleachers across the court that night sat Ron Bittner, a longtime fan with four children who’ve graduated from Arthur Hill. Bittner is a basketball junkie, who attends at least three games a week, most of them involving the Lumberjacks.
"It’s been a good rivalry, because there are no guaranteed winners in it," he said. "It’s fantastic, just the enthusiasm of the kids. It’s like that every year, every game. They sell all the tickets in about a half hour. It’s unbelievable."
The stands were packed by the start of the junior varsity game this season, and that’s the norm. The enthusiasm on the court and in the stands for the warmup act rivaled that of most varsity games elsewhere in the state.
After all, these kids also were representing The High vs. The Hill for what might be one of its last hurrahs.
"It was just this energy," Ardway recalls from his days in the rivalry. "We had a tremendous amount of fans, parents, students, people in the community coming out in support of Saginaw basketball. This is just a continuation of what was happening back then."
The current players for both schools got a reprieve when talk about closing Saginaw High was tabled for a year. Although it remains in doubt, Arthur Hill star senior guard Eric Davis is thankful he has had the opportunity to be a central figure in the rivalry.
"I just want to go out and have fun and represent Arthur Hill, because this may be the last year," Davis said. "We just want to go out with a bang. I tell the guys, ‘Act like you’re seniors. Act like this is the last game you’re going to play.’ "
Because there is open enrollment in Saginaw, many of the players live in the same neighborhoods as their rivals. A best friend of an Arthur Hill player might wear the black and gold jersey with "The High" emblazoned across the chest.
For 32 minutes, such friendships are put aside.
"Off the court, they’re cool kids, we’re cool," Saginaw High sophomore Ronquavius Southward said. "We hang out together, go out to eat sometimes. On the court, it’s a whole different story."
"It’s real intense. It’s Arthur Hill and Saginaw High, you know. It’s your childhood friend. Now, on the court, they’re your enemy, they’re against you,” he said. “These are guys you go out and hang out with. You go over their house. It’s a real good rivalry. It’s something special. I’m happy to be part of it.
"I’m a totally different person (on the court). If you don’t have ‘Lumberjacks’ on, you’re not my friend."
If the schools were capable of winning four state titles in seven years with two separate rosters, what might happen if consolidation occurs? How much of a powerhouse might a combined program become?
"They’re going to be the toughest team you ever saw in the state," said Ted Tapesh, who runs the 50-50 drawing at Arthur Hill games. "They are going to have the best team. They won’t be the best in football, but their basketball skills are beyond anything I’ve ever seen.
"You’ll have the best basketball team you’ve ever seen between the two schools. If you combine them, they’ll take anybody on."
Arthur Hill has only four seniors, with five juniors, three sophomores and a freshman on its roster. Saginaw High has six seniors, eight juniors and two sophomores.
"It’s going to be a big task for whoever takes over," Saginaw High coach Julian Taylor said. "They’re going to have a lot of talent to work with. I have a lot of young guys and (Arthur Hill coach Greg McMath) has a lot of young guys. Hopefully, somebody can put it together."
Is it possible to merge two groups of players, who have been rivals their entire lives, into one cohesive unit?
"I don’t think it will be that hard at all, because growing up you usually merge and play on different AAU teams and you run into each other and make great bonds and friendships," said Herbert Warren, a 2003 Saginaw High graduate.
Thomas, who has spent virtually his entire life at Saginaw High, hates the idea of his alma mater closing, but he understands the reasoning behind it. Saginaw High’s enrollment has slipped from 1,802 in 1987 to 662 this year. Arthur Hill’s enrollment has dropped from 2,395 in 1985 to 945 this year.
If consolidation is approved in the near future, Thomas said it’s time for people on all sides of the issue to come together to make Saginaw stronger.
"Any time you have something with perennialness, it’s always sad to see it end, but that’s not what we have to focus on," Thomas said. "We have to focus on a bigger and better Saginaw. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re not a city that can take care of two high schools. We’ve gotten to the point where we probably need one.
"Someone such as me, I prefer Saginaw High stays open. People who have gone to Arthur Hill would prefer that Arthur Hill stays open,” he added. “Yet, what’s a bigger thing to me is the community as a whole. I want the community to survive and become bigger and better than it’s been. We have to look at it that way with positiveness.
“Then we can move forward."