This story appears in the Nov. 6, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Maybe Miles Bridges isn't as crazy as his mom thought. Maybe he isn't "a weirdo," like Tom Izzo says. Maybe returning to Michigan State for his sophomore year, instead of being an NBA lottery pick, was a normal and sensible decision, and we're the ones who are out of our minds.
You're skeptical. Of course you are. You have come to see college basketball as a highway rest stop, where the best players play 30 games, gas up and buy Doritos on their way to the NBA. Bridges was tabbed as one-and-done before he even started his one. Kentucky coach John Calipari promised Bridges's mother that if Miles came to Lexington, he would be ready to leave after one year. Michigan State's Izzo had the same idea: "I won't hold him back."
But what if Bridges held himself back? What would people say? After the last game of his freshman season, a 90-70 NCAA tournament loss to Kansas, he sat in the locker room and thought about the decision he had already made.
"I knew I was staying," he says. "But I knew the backlash [was] coming, people going after me: 'Why would you stay?'"
He knew one of those people was his mother. Cynthia Bridges planned to retire from her job as a receptionist when he turned pro. She was about to have a second knee-replacement surgery, and she was going to have medical expenses. So when Miles called her and said he had decided to become that most dreaded word in college basketball, a sophomore, she was incredulous.
Cynthia said: "Miles, the bills are going to start coming in."
And Miles said: "Ma, you'll be O.K."
And his mom said: "What are you going to get if you win a championship? A cap and a shirt. What will Coach Izzo get? Millions."
And Miles said: "Money's the root of all evil. I'm not in it for the money."
Cynthia says she tried "anything and everything" to change her son's mind. But the battle was lost. Truth is, it was lost before he ever played a game at Michigan State. It was lost one night on campus, shortly after Bridges arrived in East Lansing. He and freshman Josh Langford were hanging out with junior Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn Jr., talking about spirituality and religion and the purpose of their existence from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m.
Bridges started crying.
He told them, "This is what I prayed for before I got to college—to have a spiritual connection with people, and find people who really care about me."
Maybe you want us to stop right here. Come on! How naive can we be? This is college basketball. The best players leave. There must be more to this story.
Maybe Bridges just isn't that good. Ah, but he is: Bridges is a 6'7" NBA Slam Dunk champion waiting to happen. Because of injuries to several Spartans, he played out of position at power forward last year, and he battled a left-ankle injury, but he still scored an efficient 16.9 points and grabbed 8.3 rebounds per game. He probably would have been selected between eighth and 12th in a loaded draft, but in a typical year he would have gone in the top five.
You might think Izzo mind-tricked him into staying. Actually, Bridges says, "Coach even tried to push me out a little bit. He kept asking me, Are you sure?" Izzo told Bridges that most guys who flirt with the NBA and come back still have their eyes on the pros. Izzo told him, You can't come back just to win a national championship. It's too unlikely. Too much has to go right. And you might not improve your draft position, either. College basketball is awful at Hollywood endings.
If another team wins the title and Bridges fails to improve his draft position, opposing coaches will tell top prospects that Bridges wanted to leave but Izzo persuaded him to stay. Looking solely at recruiting, Izzo says simply, "I'm f-----."
That, however, would be Izzo's problem. When Bridges told his coach he was staying, Izzo still didn't believe him. A year earlier Izzo had gone for a drive with freshman Deyonta Davis. As they sat at a stop sign, Davis told him he was staying. Davis left. And Bridges was a much better prospect.
Bridges's teammates had been telling their coach: Miles is coming back. Before the season had ended, Bridges told Langford and Nairn he wanted to stay in school. Langford was surprised at first. He knows how the sport works. But Langford did not need to ask any follow-up questions.
"If he says something, he means it," Langford says. "I never second-guessed it."
Izzo didn't realize that Bridges—unlike most players considering a jump to the NBA—was not making a decision based on money or trophies. Bridges, Langford and Nairn had been gathering every night for a Bible study and to talk about God. Langford says, "All three of us cry. A lot. You just kind of get thankful about certain things." Bridges was thankful for his talks with Langford and Nairn. He didn't want to leave them.
Maybe we should explain to nonbelievers and skeptics, the Spartans welcome nonbelievers and skeptics. Ask Nairn about his "religious beliefs," and he corrects you.
"Not religion," Nairn says. "Spirituality. Josh and Miles are both spiritual dudes. I think religion pushes people away from what's really true. You put people in a box: Muslim, Buddhism, Christian, Catholic ... and all of that is, If you don't believe what I believe, it separates us from God, separates us from each other. Everybody has their own beliefs."
Bridges was a choirboy as a child, and like many choirboys he sometimes complained about getting dragged to church on Sunday mornings. At Michigan State he started to see his faith as more than just a set of rules. He started putting other people ahead of himself, and it made him happier.
Michigan State coaches say they have never had a superstar like him. He cried when his teammate Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury last February. He returns his coaches' calls and texts quickly, and when he doesn't, he is either in class or at Bible study. He does not own a car.
"He walks everywhere," Nairn says, giving just one example of how his friend keeps things simple. "He understands [his purpose] is bigger than basketball. You have the ability to make somebody's day. I've never seen him turn down a picture. Never seen him turn down an autograph. When your best player is humble, it helps your team be like that."
Maybe this is the problem with college hoops: Everybody is so eager to leave school, they forget the value of being there in the first place. That's what Izzo thinks. He sees players who can't wait to get out—some for the pros, but many more who transfer at the first sign of hardship—and he wonders if the value of the college experience is being lost. He thinks back to the signs in his locker rooms as a kid: WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET GOING. Or the old Bo Schembechler line: THOSE WHO STAY WILL BE CHAMPIONS.
"Now," Izzo says, "it's, Those that stay a year might be champions—otherwise, let's get the hell out of Dodge. And: When the going gets tough, bolt. The sayings have gotta change."
Izzo sees so many players transferring for more playing time, and he thinks, How will they learn to work through failure? (Michigan State does have two transfers on its roster.) He knows some players are ready for the NBA after one season, but he sees others leave and thinks, Do they really know what they're doing? Are they leaving because they want to or because they feel like they're supposed to? He thinks a lot of them end up in a hotel room on the road with plenty of money, plenty of time and no idea how to manage either.
"Hard to adjust, man," Izzo says. "I don't know why people think you can just do that. It sounds like I'm going against what the kids want to do. I don't want [future NBA players] to stay four years. But would two or three be better for them to be successful? Ninety percent of the time, the biggest growth is between your freshman and sophomore years."
Izzo thinks we have taken the crucial formative years from the ages of 12 to 21 and distorted them. We obsess over career paths: play one sport, study one subject, focus on one goal. He would rather see athletes play three sports ("You're not getting quite as good, maybe, but you're more well-rounded") and fewer games in the summer. He says, "We're putting so much pressure on these kids." And not just athletes. He saw a TV segment on a 15-year-old who went to Harvard, and he felt bad for her. He wondered, How will she ever have a life?
"I'm cool," Izzo says. "I already got my championship; I'm in the Hall of Fame; I've got everything that a coach can have. But I do care about the kids, and I do care about the profession. And I'm still trying to figure out: Who does it benefit?"
His mentor, Jud Heathcote, used to say that every freshman was unhappy. But they stayed. They learned to work. They figured out who they were and what matters to them. They made lifelong friends. Isn't that why people go to college?
Maybe it will help you to know that for the longest time, Bridges was just like every other player eyeing the pros. His father, Ray, started talking about Miles's NBA career when Miles was in elementary school. (Ray and Cynthia separated five years ago.) It was all Miles wanted as a kid in Flint, Mich. When his mom signed him up for T-ball, he sat in the outfield and played with the dirt. He tried karate but got bored. He played football briefly but wasn't interested.
He was a pretty good student, but even then, every essay was about basketball. His sister Tara, who is nine years older, sat him down and tried to get him to write about something else, anything else. How about squirrels, Miles? He finally wrote a story about a fantasyland. But the ruler of the land was named King LeBron. Tara gave up.
Miles grew tall and jumped absurdly high, and after his freshman season at Flint Southwestern Academy, he did what so many top players do these days: He left his hometown for a private school, Huntington Prep in West Virginia, one of those basketball factories that attracts talent from around the country. The Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng went there. So did the Lakers' Thomas Bryant.
But it didn't feel exactly right to him.
"People try to put all the top players together on the same team," Bridges says. "That just takes away the whole competitiveness of the game, the fun of it. It's the same way in the NBA right now. You should play [high school ball] where you came from instead of going somewhere to play."
He didn't hate Huntington, but his heart wasn't in it. He became a selfish player. He didn't mean to do it, and maybe nobody else noticed. But he did. Recruiting rankings would get updated, and Bridges would obsess over passing whoever was in front of him on the list. He focused on individual glory: get invited to the McDonald's All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic. (He was selected for both.)
Before his senior year Bridges asked his mom if he could move back home. Cynthia said no. She wanted him to finish what he started, and besides: Flint was a dangerous city with lead in its water. Flint was a place you tried to leave. Why was he so determined to go back?
Miles says, "The only thing I could think about was, How was I going to be able to come back and win a championship for Flint or Michigan?" He wanted to strengthen his roots. Even now, when you ask him what he will do when he does make millions, he immediately mentions giving money to Flint's Boys & Girls Club and the people suffering from the water crisis. Says Bridges, "I feel like that's my purpose in life. The city is what raised me."
Maybe you should know: Even after Bridges told Nairn and Langford he was coming back, he did his due diligence. He contacted former Michigan State stars Draymond Green, Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine. None of them told him what to do. But Green stayed four years and has no regrets. Harris came back for his sophomore year and is glad he did. Valentine told Bridges he wished he could have had a fifth year at Michigan State.
We should all remember that the next time we say a player's draft stock is so high that he "has to go." No. He can go. He can also stay. He doesn't have to apologize for either.
Maybe Bridges is only a "weirdo" in the sense that he doesn't care if you call him a weirdo. He wants to play one more year for a coach who can't trade him, and with teammates who go to class with him. He has refined his game, too. Last year he scored mostly at the rim (using his freakish athleticism) or from behind the three-point line. At a recent practice he showed off a new aspect of his game, slicing through the defense, then pulling up and hitting a midrange jumper. Langford says Bridges is a much more complete player now.
Bridges says he wants to get a 4.0 GPA before he leaves, or at least a 3.5, which would land him on the dean's list. This won't help him get drafted into the NBA and it won't earn him a degree in journalism, because everybody knows he is leaving after this season—for real this time. But he wants to make the Dean's List because his grades were just O.K. last year and he thinks he can do better.
Izzo called him the night of the draft to see if he had any regrets. Bridges said he did not. This summer Malik Monk, the 11th pick, bought his mother a new house and car. Bridges got himself a cat. He named it Calypso, after his favorite brand of lemonade.
Maybe you think this won't last. Maybe you think Bridges will get rich and even more famous, and he'll change. He'll be the dunking equivalent of the philosophy major who ends up running a hedge fund or the idealistic law student who ends up defending white-collar criminals.
Maybe you're right, or at least partially right. But that's even more reason Bridges should savor this time in his life. He has one chance to be 19 years old, with 19-year-old dreams and 19-year-old values and 19-year-old friends. He knows that someday, "I'll have a family, bills to pay, my mom and my sister to take care of. But I can come back, always. It will give me memories of how I was."
Nairn says, "The kid wanted to get better, but he also wanted to grow spiritually for when he goes into that world."
Despite all the things designed to make our lives easier—Waze and Venmo and, pretty soon, self-driving cars—what is our biggest complaint? That we still don't have enough time. Miles Bridges wants more time. That's all. This year he doesn't have to look at a map to see where his classes are. He isn't so frantic on the court, either. He says, "Last year my mind was everywhere. I'm the star of the team, scoring 16 points a game. I was trying to fathom it. I was kind of overwhelmed."
Take the long view: He would rather have two years in college and 14 in the NBA than one year in college and 15 in the NBA. What's so weird about that?
Cynthia gets it now. She wasn't as desperate for him to leave as she thought she was. She is a worrier. That's all. Every time Michigan State assistant Mike Garland calls her, she immediately asks, "Is Miles O.K.?" When he comes home to Flint, she worries he will fall in with the wrong crowd. After his first practice this season she asked if his ankle felt all right.
But now she realizes she would have worried about him in the NBA, too, and for good reason. An agent who was recruiting Bridges told him what NBA life was really like. Some players go home to families after games, and others go out together. Teammates don't always like each other. They are fighting for the same jobs. It can be lonely.
"You've got to be mature going into this," the agent said.
The next day Miles called his mother: "I only have four pairs of underwear."
If he couldn't even keep track of his underwear, he probably wasn't ready for the rest of professional life. And soon after Miles announced his decision, Cynthia realized he was right: She retired anyway. She just has to hold on a few more months, and then he will turn pro and make the big money. In the meantime Miles can focus on the dean's list and Bible study and Calypso and his friends and the midrange game he didn't have last year but has now.
Maybe he can win a national championship, too. Or maybe not. He will enjoy this season either way. The Spartans have a motto: It's not because you've got to. It's because you get to. Maybe everyone in the sport should adopt it.