Detroit native Earl 'The Twirl' Cureton died Feb. 4 at the age of 66; board members say his legacy will live on at west-side gym
DETROIT — As Detroiters mourn the loss of Pistons basketball great and community icon Earl Cureton, a community he helped re-found will carry on his legacy for years after his sudden passing Feb. 4 at the age of 66.
A standout center for the Detroit Pistons who starred in 674 NBA games and won two championships following a decorated collegiate career at the University of Detroit and Robert Morris, Cureton earned his nickname, “The Twirl,” for his athleticism and accomplishments on the court.
But the Detroit native’s contributions off the basketball court, particularly after his retirement in 1997, will continue to be felt by generations of Motor City youths.
Cureton was instrumental in the revitalization and planned reopening of the historic St. Cecilia’s Gym on the city’s west side, a destination for young boys across the city with dreams of playing professional hoops.
Cureton himself got his start playing basketball at St. Cecilia’s as a youngster growing up in Detroit. “The Saint,” as it was known, was a haven for Detroit teens to build friendships and sharpen their skills, attracting players such as Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose and Isiah Thomas before they became household names.
As a community ambassador for the Detroit Pistons, Cureton’s vision for the project brought together leaders from across the city, including the Archdiocese of Detroit and St. Charles Lwanga Parish (formerly St. Cecilia), various nonprofits, businesses and the Pistons organization, to establish a “world class sports facility and community center” at the site, which had fallen into disrepair.
In 2021, the new “Ceciliaville” nonprofit was announced with a plan to revitalize the gym and surround it with a community center, mentoring and tutoring services, job training, financial literacy and other services in Detroit’s Russell Woods/Nardin Park neighborhood.
Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon, Ph.D., former deputy mayor of Detroit who serves as chairman of Ceciliaville’s board of directors, said it was Cureton’s memories of playing at “The Saint” that drove his enthusiasm for bringing it back.
McKinnon, who was teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy at the time, said Cureton brought up the topic while a student in one of McKinnon’s classes.
“During one of our conversations, he said, ‘Doc, we need to do something for The Saint,’” McKinnon said. “’Any kid who grew up playing basketball in the city of Detroit played at St. Cecilia,’ he said, ‘We can’t just let this building continue to die.’”
Cureton grew up in Detroit on the corner of Mack and Bewick, a particularly rough area of the city at the time, McKinnon said. Cureton would take two buses as a teenager to get from his home on the east side to St. Cecilia’s, where he would spend “all day playing ball.” Those days made an impact on him.
“He continued to talk to young people about their lives and the life he had growing up in Detroit, and how basketball in particular turned his life around,” McKinnon said.
Cureton wanted to pass along that legacy to a new generation and dove into the project with enthusiasm. Renderings for the restored Ceciliaville gym were released in October 2023, and Cureton joined other Pistons greats such as Dave Bing, Charlie Edge and others to unveil the vision, along with special green, Ceciliaville-themed Detroit Pistons “City Edition” jerseys.
“Earl was a fighter all his life in a good sense,” said Msgr. Charles Kosanke, rector of the Basilica of Ste. Anne and a fellow Ceciliaville board member. “He fought his way through the NBA and for the good of the local community. His latest ‘fight’ was Ceciliaville. He knew how much it helped him as a young man and how much it has helped youth throughout recent decades. That fight will continue!”
During the unveiling, Cureton was vocal in support of the project and his belief in the good it could do for the city’s young people.
“We need everyone in the community to reach out and support this,” Cureton said at the time. “We don’t have recreation centers like we used to, don’t have that opportunity go out and have the kids play with the pros and college kids.”
McKinnon said the momentum Ceciliaville has built up is a testament to Cureton’s legacy in Detroit — a legacy he hopes to see cemented as he plans to petition the city council to rename a street near the gym “Earl Cureton Avenue.”
“I think Earl will be remembered as a hard-working, dedicated person who did everything he could to make a difference not only for the young people of Detroit, but as many young people as he could. That’s the impact he’s going to have,” McKinnon said.
A memorial service will take place Saturday, Feb. 10, at 1 p.m. for Cureton at St. Cecilia Church (St. Charles Lwanga Parish), 10400 Stoepel St., Detroit. In lieu of flowers, donations in Cureton’s memory may be made to the restoration of Ceciliaville.