It’s 10:30 a.m. on a gray Tuesday in August. The shell of the former Duke Ellington Middle School sits on Detroit’s east side, covered in its own soot. After the Detroit Public Schools moved it a mile away into the former William J. Beckham Academy on Park Drive in 2013, the building operated as a youth community center until it was set ablaze in September 2016. The community center had been a partnership between a pastor, who had been leasing the property from DPS, and Dennis Foster, head coach of the boys’ basketball team and assistant athletic director at Hamtramck High School.
Together, the two men facilitated a computer lab; open gym, finance, clothes-making, and speech classes; a bike-giveaway program; and provided daily lunches. Ellington was also the practice space for Foster’s youth-recreation basketball team, Change The Mentality or CTM for short. The team’s jerseys and Foster’s life savings were lost in the blaze. Now, the building remains vacant, surrounded by sunken frames of frowning houses. This is the first time Foster has been back since the fire.
“You eating ice cream in the morning?” says Foster as he and his players pile out of his burgundy, 2005 Yukon Denali and enter the old gym. Foster takes a minute to mosey quietly under one of the hollow hoop frames. After clearing his thoughts, he and his team, consisting of boys ages 12-15, pose for photos for the purpose of this feature, on the dusty, mid-court Panther mascot.
Foster graduated from Hamtramck High School in 1996, where he was an All-City, All-State basketball player. As a student athlete at Marygrove College, he led the nation in scoring two years in a row. Eventually, he left Detroit to play professionally in Ireland for five years and won the All Ireland Cup.
Now 40, Foster recalls his time in the Amateur Athletics Union as a kid and the lack of discipline it taught him. “Just show up. You’re going to have sneakers; you’re going to have uniforms. Trips out of town — L.A., New Orleans — you’re good, long as you can play,” he says. “And it didn’t give us a sense of work. With CTM, we work for everything. We have to go outside to play. We have to do everything the hard way.” For Foster, however, it’s the hardships that build character. Since losing their gym, CTM hasn’t practiced regularly in two years. Aside from an occasional run at Derby Hill, a field on Mound Road, all practice takes place on Foster’s white board, during games. Still, the team has taken home first-place trophies from most of their tournaments.
The extraordinary aspect of Foster’s coaching style is his mentorship off the court. He’s not just coaching kids; he’s looking to raise mature adults. Following the photoshoot, the team had lunch at Buddy’s Pizza on Conant Street. As they ate, Foster mentioned seeing an inappropriate post on one of his players’ social media accounts. Although two boys from the adjacent table assured the coach that they had convinced their teammate to delete the post, Foster demanded push-ups from the player while in the restaurant.
The most prominent of Foster’s preaching to his boys, one of whom is his son, is the importance of respecting women. Courtside with him at many of CTM’s games is Odyssey Sims, guard for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and friend of Foster’s. Foster believes that if the boys see Sims on ESPN, play as her character in video games, and look up to her as a coach, there’s no reason they can’t respect their mothers when they go home. “Behind every strong man, there’s a stronger woman,” he says. “My mom raised me and she did it by herself. So, with me, you have to respect that woman, that queen.”
According to Johnson, his godfather exposing him to out-of-town AAU basketball tournaments saved his life as a kid living in inner-city Detroit. “That gave me an opportunity to see something outside of Detroit,” he says. “By [Dennis] creating the Change The Mentality brand, I told him, anything I can do to help those kids, man, I’m with it because [basketball] helped me.”
“He’s like a second dad to the ones that have a father and like a first dad to the ones who don’t have a father around,” says Latasha Baldwin, mother of CTM player Davon Ruffin, 13. Davon has been playing for Foster since he was 6 years old. “He is the only way they get to and from the games,” she says. Foster picks every player up for games, feeds them, contributes to travel funds, and lets the boys wash their uniforms at his house. He also employs his players at his cleaning service, appropriately named CTM, as well. They clean two commercial buildings, two residential homes, and one office building, of which, Foster stows away 60 percent of the profits to put toward a new gym and mentorship program.
The main reason Foster started his cleaning service is because of the flexible hours it offered, affording him the opportunity to deal with a series of health issues that presented themselves shortly after his return from playing in Ireland. Doctors discovered Foster had a quarter-sized hole in his heart and diagnosed him with cardiomyopathy. Once back in Detroit, he began his coaching career at the former Crockett High School. A few years later, he was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer when he saw his doctor about digestion issues. “The thing I’m yearning for now, is help,” he says. “My health is deteriorating. I can’t do all of the things I usually do for the kids.”
One major source of support to the team is Detroit native and a friend of Foster’s, Dominique Johnson who plays professional basketball in Italy, but when he’d come home, he’d work out at his former elementary school — the Duke Ellington building. CTM players would watch him train. After their uniforms were lost in the fire, Johnson bought the team new ones. He has also helped contribute to funding the team’s tournament trips to L.A. and Las Vegas. Without having practiced beforehand, CTM took home first place in L.A. In Vegas, the team competed in the Fab 48, the elite tournament for AAU basketball. They made it to the final four before being eliminated.
“I love these kids to death,” Foster says. “I just need help.” The goal for Change the Mentality’s future is to open the brand and mentorship up to all sports for all walks of life. Johnson wants to help Foster bring the boys to Europe to play overseas, while he’s still there. “Nobody’s done that so that would be another barrier that’s broken down,” Johnson says. To introduce the boys to a global arena — for many, their first trip out of the country —Foster would gladly oblige.