DETROIT -- The original point guard hiked out of the stands and into the tunnel, his wife in the crook of his right arm and the roaring crowd in his ears. Swaddled in shining Spartan green, he paused to chat up Motown's finest; acknowledged, with a grin, the mix of reporters and Michigan State faithful now chanting his name ("Magic! Magic!"); then turned as still another fan, some dude named Tom Izzo, literally sprinted after him to say hi ("Earvin! Earvin!").
"We got one more," Magic Johnson told them all. "One more!"
But in those moments after his alma mater's 82-73 win over UConn -- that margin of victory a declaration in and of itself -- it was hard to tell if Magic, now 49, was looking ahead to North Carolina or simply saluting the latest point guard in his own lineage.
Michigan State's current point guard, Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas, had just notched a game-high 21 points against the Huskies to complement five assists, the 32nd time this season that the sophomore hit double figures. "He's the key," Johnson said in the tunnel, flashing his signature Cheshire smile. "And he can play at the next level."
For now, the present level deserves our attention. The week of the Final Four, the Spartans resolved to turn the semifinal matchup against UConn into a showcase of Big Ten speed -- fully aware, they admit, of how strange that notion sounds to conference elitists who view the league as a group of Midwestern plodders. But with Lucas's foot on the pedal and what Izzo calls the six-footer's "warp speed" on demand, Michigan State outraced the Huskies and put up 22 points in transition.
"Kalin got us to that point," says assistant coach Mark Montgomery. "We told him we were going to run, and he knew exactly when to go and when to back it up and run the offense. He has that quiet confidence. He wants to make the big plays."
To wit: with UConn surging back with 3:58 remaining, Lucas pulled up to the left side of the arc. Over the previous minute and 14 seconds, freshman forward Draymond Green had missed two free throws while the Huskies' veteran point guard, A.J. Price, drained four of his own to pull within six. Lucas drilled the three to suck the air out of the comeback bid. "I think that shot said it all," Montgomery says.
On this elevated stage, Michigan State has witnessed such statements from its floor generals twice before. It's been precisely 30 years since Magic steered Sparty to a 75-64 win over Larry Bird and Indiana State for the 1979 NCAA championship. It's been nine years, too, since Mateen Cleaves trounced Florida, 89-76, to capture the school's second title in 2000. "It goes back to my oldest theory," Izzo says. "A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team."
"Kalin's been our best player," adds senior center Goran Suton. "That's no secret."
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Her apartment sits over on Mack Avenue, one part of a squat, three-story complex right across the street from Detroit Medical's ER. As ambulance sirens wailed back and forth around the neighborhood, Mae Sturdivant helped raise her grandson, Kalin, from infancy to high school as his parents worked. "I always had him around," says Sturdivant, who happened to move into the building in 1979.
"I love her to death," Lucas says. "She's like my second mom. Most people talk to their parents, but I go to my granny. She's calling me every day."
Kalin's listed hometown is Sterling Heights, about half an hour beyond the city, but only his grandmother prepared all his favorites (chicken wings, French fries and Kool Aid for dinner) and toted him to the court at nearby Spain Elementary, where he'd first test out his jumper. Not coincidentally, Lucas would learn the game in a wholly local context. The future point guard didn't even start watching basketball on television until high school.
"All I wanted to do was play," Lucas says. "Growing up, I'd rather play it than watch it." Sturdivant always obliged. A former nurse, she swears that the "biggest reason" for her retirement last year was that she wanted to attend all his games at Michigan State. "This is my gift," she says of her grandson's college career. "I feel that way. I really do."
In recent years, of course, she hasn't been the only one watching. On the summer AAU circuit as a sophomore in Sterling Heights, the kid who never watched the NBA -- perhaps predictably, he doesn't have any favorite Final Four memories, either -- earned the nickname "Little Chris Paul."
The comparison to the Hornets star sparked an abiding interest. "I became more of a student of the game," Lucas says. Even today, he studies the highlights of the man he exclusively calls "CP3" on TV and YouTube, focusing on his spin moves ("Unbelievable"), how to come off ball screens ("I want to create like that"), and how Paul runs one-on-one fast breaks ("He loves to do an in-and-out and put it between his legs").
But when it came time to pick a college, that expanding window to the world beyond Michigan suddenly shrank back down. His home state came into full view, and Lucas -- a four-star recruit with a 3.1 GPA at Orchard Lake St. Mary's in Sterling Heights -- picked between Michigan and Michigan State.
The latter, he now remembers, employed a peculiar pitch.
"The first words that Coach Izzo told me," Lucas recalls, "was if we did come to Michigan State, we'd play in big games, we will play the top players and we will go to a Final Four and it will be in Detroit.
"We looked at him," he continues, "like, 'Yeah, right.'"
* * *
On the interstate by Granny Sturdivant's house, out along the two-mile path leading from Detroit Medical to Ford Field, stands a green billboard for lawyers specializing in bankruptcy. Complete with an 800 number (1-800-SAVED-ME) and a pro-Spartans slogan (GO STATE), it's a marketing ploy that's as depressing as it is effective.
The not-so-subtle implication: Trying to save yourself from the depths of recession? In this tournament, you're probably rooting for MSU.
Just ask Lucas and classmate Durrell Summers, the team's two Detroit-bred players, as well as childhood friends and AAU teammates. Lucas says relatives and friends' parents have lost their jobs thanks to the collapse of the American auto industry. Summers, for his part, has gone so far as to invite struggling cousins and friends to stay with him and eat meals at his dorm back in East Lansing.
In turn, the two players have suddenly turned into pitchmen hawking the city's virtues. "It's a great place to come," Lucas said of Motown during one press conference at Ford Field. "It's the Motor City, and there are great things you can do downtown. As far as people my age, you can tell them you can go to clubs and parties and good-looking girls, too."
"There's a lot of good things," offered Summers, simultaneously and independently, sitting in a conference room of his own. "Downtown, there are some nice food places, the Renaissance Center, the Fox Theatre. There's a lot of good here. The sports, the sports venues. I could go on." (The effort, ironically, may have convinced at least one person: Tyler Hansbrough. "They say it's a rough city," the UNC star noted. "But I haven't really noticed it, I guess. I like it.")
The de facto ad campaign is a noble effort in the face of the heartbreakingly obvious. Take, for instance, one example of a recent encouraging headline. On March 19, 2009 -- the first day of the NCAA tournament, incidentally -- the Detroit Free Press published a story titled, "Analysts: Detroit not deadliest city if socioeconomic status weighed."
Days after that, the city's unemployment rate then hit 22 percent -- or almost three times the national average -- thereby urging one local columnist to compare the devastation of her city to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.
"There are a lot of people here with big hearts," Summers says. "But maybe the circumstances they're going through they may not understand, and sometimes they resort to doing bad things."
It all makes Saturday's Final Four-record crowd of 72,456 -- more than 50,000 of whom were Spartan fans, with countless others partying in the streets outside -- that much more breathtaking. That rare kind of human gathering, actually, that can iron hyperbole down into understatement. "I think we have the whole city behind our back," Lucas says. "Oak Park, Southfield, wherever... I want to get it done for myself, for my team, for my grandmother and for my parents and for everyone in Michigan."
As if to prove it, before the Connecticut game, the point guard requested that his hometown officially be changed on the program from Sterling Heights to Detroit.
* * *
Lucas's coming-out moment, by his coaching staff's estimation, was State's 78-72 upset of then-No. 5 Texas last season. Coming off the bench, he outplayed future NBA lottery pick D.J. Augustin en route to a line of 18-6-6.
Three months later, by the time the Spartans played Pitt in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the precocious frosh was starting and scoring 19 points in a 65-54 win, outshining two more point guards of note: backcourt mate Drew Neitzel, then a senior, and Pittsburgh assassin Levance Fields, a junior.
In those months following, however, Lucas felt he didn't get the respect he deserved.
"I talked to Kalin this summer," says Mateen Cleaves, who'll send Lucas a motivational text message now and again. "He was worried because they were mentioning a lot of other guards around the country and he didn't get that much recognition in pre-season magazines." In fact, Cleaves knew the feeling from his own experience as a sophomore.
But now? "They're all talking about Michigan State," Cleaves says, with no small hint of satisfaction. "He's running this team."
His successor has the spotlight, in other words. Although that's no secret.
Kalin Lucas has the torch.