The love for basketball in the Thigpen family runs deep

February 15, 2011

Justice Thigpen (middle) poses for a portrait with his daughter Reba and his son Justice Jr. after a church league basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 12. Justice was the first Afro-American from Flint to play in the NBA.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — When Justus Thigpen Sr.  was called up from the Continental Basketball Association to play for the Detroit Pistons in the middle of the 1972-1973 season, he became the first basketball player from Flint to ever play in the NBA.

After he hung up his sneakers for good, he was willing to pave a similar path for his two young children, Reba and Justus Jr.

But it was up to them whether or not they wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps as a professional ballplayer.

“He was the first man to put a basketball in our hands, but one thing he would always say to us (was), “I’m going to introduce you to the game but it’s up to you whether or not you want to stick with it,’” Reba Thigpen remembered.

The two kept at it. Although neither of them ever cracked a NBA or WNBA roster, their success in the sport still made their dad proud. Reba left Northern High School as the school’s all-time leading scorer in 1989 before heading to Lansing Community College for two years where she scored 30 points per game.

Justus Jr. was also a Northern graduate who attended Iowa State and averaged 17.6 points per game as a senior in 1993. He got passed over in the NBA draft but had a brief stint in the preseason with the Utah Jazz before playing for several teams in the CBA, including the Flint Fuze.

The trio was all back on the same court this past Saturday in a church league at Scott Elementary with Justus Sr. coaching them just like old times. There’s only one difference now, Justus Jr. (40) and Reba (41) are not the same little whippersnappers that Justus Sr. used to drill in the playgrounds. He still has no problem reminding them or anyone else of his resume though.

“In this sport, if you get to that highest level, it’s a certain cockiness that you gotta have and you need that if you want to be great or successful,” Justus Jr. said. “So he would remind himself, ‘Hey, I was that man who paved that way for a lot of cats.’”

In his prime, Justus Sr. was a handful. He was cut from virtually every basketball team he tried out for from the seventh grade all the way up until his senior year of high school at Northern in 1965.

“For a guy to never make the high school team, I’m the only one to come out of there and play professional basketball and I’m in five hall of fames,” Justus Sr. boasted. “But I couldn’t make a high school basketball team and they call me ‘the late bloomer’ but that’s not true. They just didn’t let me play.”

When he finally got his chance, he made the best of his opportunity and earned a scholarship to Flint Junior College (Mott Community College) where he dominated in two seasons, averaging 26.5 points as a sophomore. In the fall of 1967, he transferred to Weber State University where he finished out the remainder of his college eligibility. During his tenure as a Wildcat, Justus Sr. made the Big Sky Conference first team for two consecutive seasons.

In 1969, he was drafted by the San Diego Rockets of the NBA but opted to take an offer from the Carolina Cougars in the ABA. Before the season began, the Cougars shipped him over to a league in Paris for one year to develop. He did so well in France that the Pittsburgh Pipers of the ABA came calling and later the Flint Pros of the CBA.

Justus Sr. averaged over 40 points per game, with no three-point line, for the Pros in the 1972-73 season, competing against legends like George “The Iceman” Gervin, who is now in the NBA Hall of Fame, on a nightly basis. He signed with the Detroit Pistons in the middle of that season and played in 18 games while averaging 2.6 points in the Motor City. He would never get another shot at the NBA, but he still marvels at his past triumphs.

“I want people to understand that I was the first one to be in the NBA!” Justus Sr. said. “A lot of us old timers don’t get a lot of recognition. We were the original ‘Flintstones.’”

Although the Thigpen family reunion was a prosperous one with great tradition on the line, their Kingdom Entertainment team still fell to Great Lakes Black, 88


2 Responses to “The love for basketball in the Thigpen family runs deep”

  1. carlos collins said

    Wow ! That’s a lotta knowledge ! ! I never knew any of that ! I played hoop with her a lot and didn’t know her history.

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