Saving The Kronk: Rich And Famous Vow To Keep Legendary Gym Alive

By Terry Foster
Updated: December 21, 2005

DETROIT– Emanuel Steward is a walking historian as he points to a wall of photos that line the tiny Kronk Recreation Center boxing gym.

Some of the best boxers in the world have trained here, and Steward has the pictures to prove it.

There’s six-time champion Thomas Hearns, who grew up on Detroit’s east side. There, too, are Lennox Lewis and Sugar Ray Leonard. Neither came from here, but both made their way to the southwest Detroit mecca to train under Steward’s tutelage.

They represent the good old days, when the Kronk boxing team was pumping out champions like a rich oil field.

The boon days are over. Kronk is one of nine Detroit recreation centers threatened with closure because of cutbacks.

But true to the Kronk boxing club spirit, the centers supporters are not going to surrender without, well, a fight.

“Where are all these people going to go if we don’t help them?” Steward asked?

Wednesday, Steward gathered with his supporters to unveil a plan to save the center. Actor George Clooney and rap stars Eminem and 50 Cent have vowed their support at fund-raisers.

The Detroit Recreation Department estimates it will take $500,000 annually to keep Kronk open, and Steward vows to raise it.

Plans are as grandiose as black-tie benefit dinners and as simple as grassroots collections.

First up, a Feb. 2 fight card and celebrity-filled dinner in the lobby of the Fisher Theater, not coincidentally timed for the week of the Super Bowl.

A tribute for Steward is being planned for the spring. There is talk of fashion shows and boxing exhibitions, too. A campaign is slated to solicit donations from Kronk’s southwest Detroit neighborhood.

Steward said he’s looking into marketing the familiar red-and-yellow Kronk logo and merchandise.

After all, the Kronk logo might be the most recognizable Detroit symbol in the world. Boxers from Germany, Norway, Jamaica, Russia and Great Britain have trained here. Steward can walk the streets of Detroit in relative obscurity, but he is a celebrity in Europe.

“A lot of these kids dream are to put on that jersey and not just here,” Steward said. “That is like a dream of anybody.”

Attorney Gary Spicer, who played baseball through the Kronk recreation program, helped Steward by setting up a foundation two years.

Steward is now creating a partnership with the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department where all money raised will go to keep the gym open.

“Kronk is as much a part of Detroit as Motown is,” Steward said. “And it will stay in Detroit.”

Steward keeps pledge

Steward is keeping alive the wishes of former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, who was a boxing fan.

Every time a Kronk team competed in a national championship Steward took his team downtown for a talk with the mayor and a photo session.

“He’d lean over and whisper to me that this is never going to leave Detroit,” Steward said. “He made me promise.”

So, Steward vows: “This center will not close.”

We know Kronk for its world-class boxers. But this goes beyond boxing.

Thousands have come here to swim, play basketball and enjoy arts and crafts.

“We are going to save this building,” Kronk supporter John Oram said, pounding his fist. “We all used recreation centers like this. They have saved a lot of lives.”

That includes Steward, who in 1959 was a street thug who enjoyed beating up people. He said he once knocked out a kid with a kick to the face.

He got a second chance to change his ways.

It was either youth detention or box at a local recreation center. Six months later he was a Golden Gloves champion.

Going ‘to be somebody’

You’ve probably never heard of twins Joseph and Jacob Bonas. They are 12-year-old boxers who sometimes get in trouble at school.

And they have an agreement with Steward.

If they abide by the rules, they get to box. If they don’t, they won’t see the ring.

“This is a second home to them,” said their father, Costica Bonas, a former Romanian boxer who came to the United States in 1985. “If this place closes all they have are the streets. Here they get discipline and they have learned to respect older people. And they are going to grow up and be somebody.”

Homberto Alala brings his son, Alex, all the way from Pontiac to box at Kronk. Alala has worked Hearns’ corner in the past and talks boxing on a local show Saturday nights.

“There is a spirit here,” Alala said. “Like the first time I came here there was a feeling like I never knew before. I knew I would find some spirit when I came here.”

Stephanie Stern moved to Detroit two years ago from Milwaukee. She has been a fan of Kronk ever since because she works at a nearby elementary school where many of her students are Kronk regulars.

She calls Detroit her dream city, and wants to make an impact by helping the Kronk effort.

“I know a lot of people whose lives were saved by boxing,” she said.

“I made it through a lot of adversity and I never would have made it if someone did not lend a hand to me or help me out. A lot of these kids here don’t have that.”

Steward wants to keep that spirit alive. He has lots of connections and his campaign officially begins today.

“We’ve never lost a major fight here,” he said. “And we are not about to start now.”

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