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PLEXIGLASS BARRIERS had gone up along Linwood Street, encasing attendants at gas stations and clerks at liquor stores, sealing employees from harm but also human touch. Hard to slide a hug through a slot meant for credit cards, pens and pennies. After the racially charged riots of 1967, when the west side of Detroit burned, most of the remaining businesses installed bars, steel shutters and, of course, bullet-resistant glass, making every trip to the bodega feel like a prison visit.
Who could restore dignity to the neighborhood? Who could lift the spirits of residents, especially now, with the auto industry on empty? A renowned lazy ass. When I think of Derrick Coleman, I see a talented 6'10" NBA forward of the '90s with the smooth head and the body that always looked pulled from a hamper. He could defy coaches, dress codes and traffic laws, and still conjure 20 and 10. No utterance underscored Coleman's ethos of apathy more than this response when he heard that a New Jersey Nets teammate had missed practice: "Whoop-dee-damn-do."
As it turns out, this was impatience speaking. A lot of athletes use the pros to escape their communities, but Coleman couldn't wait to use his basketball earnings—about $90 million over 15 seasons—to lay a bread-crumb path back to the neighborhood where he has long maintained a home. His is the one with the backyard basketball court, which friends tend to use as a parking lot.
Did he ever love his NBA job? "I didn't have a hard time [leaving]," Coleman says. "I don't miss playing the game." This sentiment won't square with anyone who celebrates Brett Favre's desire to speak in audibles till his last football breath. "Oh, we'd get mad at DC too," laughs John Johnson, a longtime neighborhood friend of Coleman's. "We'd see DC lying on his back with a towel over his head, not playing. We'd yell at the TV, 'DC, get in the game!'"
It's worth remembering what Favre said before reneging on retirement, when asked what he planned to do next: "Nothing," expressing a vacuum of purpose many players feel at the end. Coleman, 41, always knew the future would bring an adrenaline rush. On the drive back to Detroit from Syracuse in 1990, shortly before he would be drafted No. 1 by the Nets, Coleman told Johnson that when he retired he wanted to use his riches to right old wrongs. "As a kid I got tired of talking to people through glass," says Coleman. "Why can't I have a conversation with you without talking through glass?"
There is neither plexiglass nor steel bars in the four stores he owns in Coleman's Corner, a handsome strip mall of brick and stucco he opened last year, part of a $6 million (and counting) investment he has made into developing the first retail center on Linwood Street since the riots. So neighbors don't get haircuts in their basements anymore; they gather at the Barber Lounge, where they can talk politics and watch football on the tube every Sunday. So teens don't have to take two buses to a suburban mall for a job; they can walk a few blocks to punch a clock at Hungry Howie's, the pizza franchise Coleman owns and Johnson manages.
Johnson was the one who winced when Coleman refused to raise prices as gas shot to $4 a gallon and the cost of food skyrocketed. He was the one who saw a 2% drop in the ledger after Coleman decided to offer a dollar slice of pizza from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. last summer. "Derrick remembered how, as kids, we'd take bottles in for a deposit," Johnson says. "He wanted kids to be able to buy a slice with them. I'd tell him, 'It's costing us.' And he'd say, 'That's O.K., school will be open soon. Then, we'll end it.'"
Some of those same children held an ear of corn for the first time when Coleman, a student of urban agriculture, brought a weekly farmers' market to a parking lot across from his mall. Who knew eating right didn't include a Fruit Roll-Up? "And you wonder why we, as black people, have a high rate of diabetes and high blood pressure," says Coleman, who hopes to ultimately own seven blocks in the area. He can talk green energy solutions, biofuels and the platform of his candidate for Detroit mayor, Dave Bing, the Hall of Fame guard and former Piston. Years ago, Bing built his manufacturing business in Detroit's inner city. "He has been my father figure," says Coleman, who stood next to Bing when he announced his candidacy last month. "I'm in his footsteps."
As even Bing acknowledges, there are safer places to invest than Detroit for millionaire athletes. "Yeah," says Coleman, "but if I don't try, how will I know?" A man of perseverance, this is the DC few knew beyond Linwood. All along, the NBA knucklehead wasn't misspending his talents, but saving for the day when his vision would shatter security glass.