MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — It may be cliché to say that Wednesday’s basketball game in Muskegon Heights was “more than just a game,” but in this case it also seems to be true.
Members of two communities stricken by recent gun violence packed Muskegon Heights High School’s gymnasium for the ‘Unity Game’ to find hope and healing through basketball.
“It feels really good to know that we have so much of a support from people,” student Desmonicka Brown said. “It just feels good even after all that we’ve been through as a school and as a community.”
“Just seeing all these different faces come together and come support one team — not only one team but two teams — it’s huge for us,” another student, Devon Kitche, added. “So I definitely think we’re going to start more on the right track now everything is just up from here.”
Last week, Shelby pulled out of the basketball game at Muskegon Heights over safety concerns following a shooting outside the school after a game last month. Kalamazoo Lakeside Charter School — part of the community still coping with the recent shooting rampage that took six lives — stepped up to play instead.
“I appreciate it. It just gave me a chance. It gave me hope,” Muskegon Heights basketball player Anthony Gordon said of learning Kalamazoo Lakeside would play.
For Gordon, a senior captain, the matchup was a final home game that almost wasn’t.
“It’s the Tiger Den. When these bleachers are rolled out and there ain’t nothing but that Tiger in the middle, makes you got to play harder,” Gordon said as he walked on to the court hours before the game.
Students were abuzz before the game. It was all thanks to a school from a city also struggling with recent gun violence.
“We just want to play basketball,” Kalamazoo Lakeside assistant coach James Ray said. “We’re just glad we could get out here and forget about the crimes that’s been happening and the craziness that’s going on in our city.”
In a city that has been known for the homicide headlines, the basketball team in Muskegon Heights — just like the football team before it — is now serving as a symbol of resiliency and hope for the community.
“It’s more than just a game,” head coach Dalrecus Stewart said. “I think the guys feel the weight of wanting to be a part of resurrecting the image and the identity of the community.”
“They (the students) take the bumps and the bruises of everything that happens on the outside,” parent Kaja Thornton told 24 Hour News.
She said the kids didn’t deserve to be punished after outsiders brought trouble to city during the February shooting.
“They (the students) take it and they say, ‘No, we’re still Tigers, we can still do this. It wasn’t about us. How can we show them we are good people?'” Thornton said.
Local police, prosecutors, church and other area leaders were at the game. Among the attendees were the mayors of Muskegon Heights and Kalamazoo, Kim Sims and Bobby Hopewell.
As the community rallied around Muskegon Heights, a message surfaced: The broader perception of the city may not be the same as that of the people who call it home.
“It’s blessing just to wear Heights across your chest,” Gordon said.
“They’re (the team) a sense of hope to a lot of people,” Stewart added. “A lot of people are getting on board because it’s something special about a group that can find a way to look at the bright side or keep fighting when it seems like it’s a losing battle.”
School leaders expected a sell-out crowd of more than 2,000 people at the game. The parking lot was packed and it was standing room only inside the Tiger Den.
“As I walked up to the stadium, I really felt overwhelmed with gratitude that the community has come out at times like this and really supporting their neighbors,” said Cedric Scott, who played on Muskegon Heights’ 1978 state championship basketball team.
Security was ready for the large crowds. There were also a number of police officers on hand — not only for safety, but also to support the team.
Muskegon Heights Interim Police Chief Dr. Joseph Thomas said the game made a statement to those who want to incite violence.
“We are telling people we will not allow certain groups of people to terrorize us in America,” he said. “We’re going to be together and we’re going to stand together and we’re going to stand tall for each other.”
Muskegon Heights won the game 76-27.