McLouth Steel and UM basketball

Watching this year’s University of Michigan basketball team brings back a lot of memories for me.

The year was 1965 and I was working downstate at McLouth Steel in Trenton, just a rock’s throw from the murky Detroit River.

It was a great time to be a sports fan in Detroit. The Tigers were a competitive team, just three years away from the glory of 1968 and ace pitcher Denny McLain.

The Red Wings, who played their games at musty, but historic, Olympia Stadium, featured Gordie Howe and Terrry Sawchuk. Watching those two Hall of Fame players was worth the price of admission alone.

The Lions were among three best teams in the NFL, behind Green Bay and Cleveland. They had a great defense that featured Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt, and were always entertaining.

The Pistons were in town at Cobo Arena but ignited little interest back then.

U of M basketball usually ranked lower, but in this particular season, they had a very good team. Flashy guard Cazzie Russell was the star of the show, displaying talents that Magic Johnson would showcase many years later.

The Wolverines also had a bruising center in Bill Buntin and hard-working forwards in Oliver Darden and Larry Tregoning. George Pomey was the point guard.

Working on the so-called “Labor Gang” at McLouth, I and about 100 others, were assigned to different spots in the sprawling mill on a daily basis.

I say so-called labor, because the strong United States Steelworkers Union offered strong support for its members.

If you were having a bad day, you simply bid on a detail where you weren’t expected to do much. The afternoon shift was known as an easy time by most.

There was ample time to listen to the Wolverines in WJR Radio on a transistor (remember them?) radio.

My crew of four had a mixture of sports fanatics. One was a true-blue UM fan from Garden City, another was a guy from the hills of Kentucky who fervently claimed Adolph Rupp was the greatest coach ever.

I was a Michigan State fan in a time when the Spartans were just so-so in hoops, but they were my team.

The afternoon shift listened all that winter to the exploits of the Wolverines, who remind me a lot of this year’s edition. They were fast and could put points up quickly.

To make a long story short, UM made it all the way to the NCAA title game against UCLA, which was just starting its dynasty under legendary coach John Wooden.

A smooth lefthanded guard named Gail Goodrich did them in with 42 points, effectively canceling out Cazzie Russell.

The race riots of 1967 would drastically change Detroit and the surrounding area.

As for McLouth Steel, the company would later claim bankruptcy. A prospective Chinese buyer, when asked about the labor force, said: “When I could find someone working, I wasn’t impressed.”

The mill along West Jefferson Avenue now has been mostly demolished, a symbol of what the steel industry once meant to the area known as “downriver.”

As for myself, I enrolled at Suomi College (now Finlandia University) the following year.

I ended up being drafted into the Army three years later after neglecting my studies at Northern Michigan University.

But watching the Wolverines today brings back memories of those long-ago days ….