Flint Finds Solace in its Sports Culture

by Matt Sweeney & Peter Janny, Staff Writer & Sports Editor

The city of Flint, Michigan primarily gets the national spotlight for the tragedies its people have endured. The per- severance that the city showed in spite of its drinking water crisis has been well-document- ed. This underdog attitude and blue-collar mentality is seen through the long line of elite athletes Flint has produced.

Flint is most known for being the birthplace of General Motors. However, what is likely less known is their proud sports history. From Kyle Kuzma to Terry Crews to Claressa Shields, Flint has helped raise no shortage of athletic heroes.

The 2020 L.O.V.E Flint Team took in a basketball game at Mott Community College MICHEVI DUFFLART / COURTESY

The city played a part in shaping the careers of dozens of professional athletes, in- cluding 29 basketball players, 35 football players, 10 baseball players, six boxers and athletes from various other sports.

“We’ve been able to express ourselves through sports,” said Klenton Sparks Sr., a Flint native who is the associate di- rector of education at Florida Career College and a long- standing member of the PGA of America. “Even though Fint has had its share of negativity, we have always had recreation to express our talent. Our roots are in our ability to show our talents, and that has never been questioned.”

Sparks chose the game of golf as his outlet. His love for golf has to do with the social nature of the game, which has broken down barriers for black golfers like himself.

“I learned how to play golf at the age of four from my father,” Sparks said. “Golf breaks down all barriers and golf is business, cultural, social, and economics. A discussion that goes on in a countr y club benefits ever yone because even though it’s pri- vate it becomes public. Golf is a bastion of social growth.”

Once upon a time many of these professional athletes were just like any other child in Flint who were subjected to poverty and crime. The catalyst for these adverse social condi- tions was the closure of many GM factories, which under- mined the city’s economy.

When the city’s drinking water supply system switched to the Flint River in 2014 due to budgetary concerns, the water crisis followed which propelled Flint into the national conver- sation. The result of this water source switch was widespread lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water that posed se- vere health threat. The event created an environmental catastrophe that exposed the neg- ligence and mismanagement of the city and state government as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

As people of color were most impacted in Flint, the city’s star athletes made their voices heard and raised funds for struggling families. For instance, Glen Rice Sr. and Mark Ingram Sr. stood in solidarity with their fellow citizens by organizing the Fresh Flint Festival, an event for city residents meant to promote the importance of fitness and healthy living. For 11 years running, Flint native and Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee has donated turkey dinners to residents for Thanksgiving.

The fallout from the water crisis led to Flint becoming an annual destination for Manhattan College Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experi- ence (L.O.V.E.) trips. Over the course of the week spent there, the students work with local organizations to support relief efforts surrounding social justice issues such as access to clean water.

“My favorite part about Flint was the people,” said Mi- chevi Dufflart ‘20, a former civil engineering student who went on L.O.V.E. Flint in Janu- ary 2020. “Everyday we visited somewhere different, but no matter where we went we were greeted with open arms and the people were very willing to share their experiences in sto- ries.”

“We became a family,” Sparks said about his relation- ships with the L.O.V.E team. “They didn’t just come to do a spirit week. They came to learn and left with a different soul.”

Tragedies may seem impossible to move on from initially, but resilient communities often see no choice but to move on with passage of time. Cultural interests such as sports can add stability to troubled situ- ations. If not for the platform that athletics affords, many athletes would likely never be able to overcome the difficult situations that they’re born into.

“In Flint there’s a working town and the administration knew the children needed something to do,” Sparks said. “Sports in Flint was our outlet from factory life. And it’s not just a Flint thing for sports, it’s a Michigan thing.”

“I think the number one thing that really stuck out to me in Flint was hearing that the crisis is not the most major thing in their life, which is what I gathered from the media,” Dufflart said. “In fact, what the people in Flint wanted us to do was carry their stories so that we could tell others what the media didn’t show, which is

that they were strong, resilient and so much more than the crisis.”

The L.O.V.E. team enjoyed spending time around leaders who were also decorated athletes.

Shelly Sparks, sister of Klenton Sparks Sr., invited the team to check out the Flint Development Center where she serves as the Executive Director.

Before her career in civil service, Sparks played basketball at Southern University, an HBCU school, and is one part of Flint’s proud history of excellence in athletics and leadership.

The team’s interactions with former basketball players didn’t end there.

They crossed paths with Linnell Jones-McKenney, a Flint basketball legend in her own right who is affectionately known as “Coach.” Jones-McKenney worked hard to accomplish her dream of playing professional basketball and did so by surpassing the limits placed on women in a time when basketball leagues were exclusive- ly for men in the 1970’s and 1980’s. She went on to play for Ferris State, Saginaw Valley State and finished out at Ken- tucky State University, where she was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.

After college, “Coach” con- tinued to live out her dream by competing in the Women’s Professional Basketball League upon getting drafted by the St. Louis Streaks with a fourth pick in the 1980 draft. Afterwards, she reached a historic mile- stone by becoming part of the first class of American women to be signed to the European Women’s Professional Basket- ball League.

After amassing three MVP awards and five All-Star se- lections while playing in Italy, Jones-McKenney felt the time was right to give back to her home community in Flint.

Today, Jones-McKenney works as the program director for the Sylvester Broome Em- powerment Village where she also manages their youth bas- ketball program for children from 8 to 17 years old.

“She was ver y animated and passionate about her work,” Dufflart said of Jones-McKen- ney’s service to Flint.

On the landmark front, nothing quite compares to the sporting memories associated with the Berston Field House, located off North Saginaw Street.

Founded in 1923, the Ber- ston Field House has served as the hub for North Flint commu- nity activities for almost a cen- tury, according to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Boxing legend Claressa Shields is one of many giants to have trained at Berston and is a favorite among “Flintstones,” as the locals refer to them- selves. “T-Rex’’ has dubbed herself the “Greatest Woman of All Time,” or G.W.O.A.T, in the sport of boxing and she may not be exaggerating.

According to the New York Times, Shields became “the first undisputed champion, male or female, in two weight divisions in the four-belt era.” At 26, Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of seven boxers ever—male or

female—to have held all four major world titles in boxing concurrently, according to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics website. She epitomizes the fighting spirit of Flint in every way pos- sible.

The magic of sports in Flint even extends to the highest of- fice in the United States.

While campaigning for President Joe Biden in Flint last fall, former President Barack Obama swished a three on the basketball court of the since shuttered Flint Northwestern High School, where the afore- mentioned Claressa Shields, Glenn Rice Sr. and former world heavyweight title-holder Chris Byrd all went to high school. Unfortunately, the school succumbed to the grow- ing trend of educational institu- tions closing their doors due to low enrollment. Consequently, Charter schools have cropped up to make up the difference in educational opportunities for residents, though their very existence in the city is hotly de- bated since they are privately funded.

No matter what, the chil- dren of Flint have many local athletes to admire and emulate. And by investing in the young- er generations of “Flintstones”, the city will in turn be investing in the next great wave of Flint athletes.

“All the athletes that come from Flint don’t feel like we’re famous,” Sparks said. “They don’t think of us anything else than ‘Flintstones.’ They give back but I don’t even see it as giving back… they are just helping.”