They did not rebuild any of those abandoned buildings or restore any of those lost jobs at the GM plant. They simply adopted the city's economic plight as their own, and in doing so, demonstrated the kind of compassion and social awareness that we rarely see in sports anymore. Izzo used pre-game talks to teach his team about Detroit's astronomical unemployment rate, and in press conferences, players repeated what they had learned. Guard Durrell Summers spoke openly about his parents being laid off and having to scrape for work. Summers's story was startling to hear, especially the day before the national semifinal, but he wanted the crowd at Ford Field to know he was one of them.
The national media tried to turn the storyline into something greater than it was, implying that Michigan State was assisting in Detroit's economic recovery, but the Spartans always knew that was impossible. Sure, they might have helped the local bars sell more drinks and the vendors hawk more T-shirts, but Michigan's State's cause had more to do with boosting spirits than real estate values. "Everybody talked about us lifting Detroit," Summers said. "It was really more about Detroit lifting us."
The Spartans were Big Ten champions, nobody's underdogs, who played with the purpose of a 15-seed. They upset top-seeded Louisville to get to Detroit and knocked off top-seeded Connecticut to make their stay worthwhile. They played well, but more than that they played hard, inspired by more than their NBA aspirations. After the UConn game, Izzo tried to think of a way that his team could walk the streets of downtown Detroit incognito, before alumnus Magic Johnson politely informed him that he was out of his mind. "I would have given my right arm for that," Izzo said.
Michigan State's campus is 90 minutes from Detroit, but the Spartans were treated like homecoming kings, drawing 8,000 people to a pep rally, 25,000 to a practice and 72,000 to games, almost all of them dressed in green. College basketball has never seen a spectacle quite like it and may never again. The spirit in that cavernous dome, enhanced by the connection Michigan State players forged to their new fans, made the place feel as intimate as the Breslin Center.
There is a tired line in sports, oft-repeated by coaches before championship games, that no one remembers the team that finished second. I was at the 2009 Final Four, and someday, I will almost assuredly forget that North Carolina won it. I will never forget who they beat.
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