Three months have passed since the Final Four, three months remain until Midnight Madness, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is wearing a T-shirt that reads JUST CHILLIN'. He got home an hour ago from a 10-day recruiting trip, his wife and kids are off to see the new Harry Potter movie, and he has adopted the posture of any suburban dad on summer staycation. He walks barefoot down to his basement—an upscale man cave with a fireplace underneath a flat screen underneath a row of commemorative basketballs in acrylic cubes—and sinks into an L-shaped leather sofa framed by a view of the pond out back, where his son's baby-blue paddleboat is parked among the lily pads. Izzo looks ready to have a pi√±a colada, not to deconstruct the most taxing, thrilling, disappointing and ultimately uplifting weekend of his life.
This is an article from the July 27, 2009 issue
The basement is filled with photographs of basketball players, but the picture that captures Izzo's attention is of a shopping mall. It's a place just outside Detroit, in the bedroom community of Troy, and the picture was taken on Friday, April 3, the day before the Spartans' semifinal game against UConn. More than 8,000 people had come to the mall that afternoon, exceeding capacity and prompting police to turn patrons away. All three floors surrounding the mall's interior were filled, and when there was no more space to stand, the crowd spilled into glass elevators, riding up and down, noses pressed to windows. Izzo entered through a back door, with no idea what he was getting into, and one of the mall's owners pulled him aside to say, "I've never seen anything like this." As the players followed Izzo, fans pawing at their sweat suits, they began to think of themselves less as subjects of a pep rally and more as headliners at a rock concert. Says guard Travis Walton, who's now playing on the Pistons' summer-league team, "We were like the Jackson Five."
Even now, in the still of the off-season, in a brick house 90 miles from Detroit, Izzo can hold that photo in his hands and feel Motown pulsating through him. Eight thousand people at a pep rally. Twenty-five thousand at a practice. Seventy-two thousand at a basketball game, with 60,000 of them screaming for the same team. The first time point guard Kalin Lucas walked onto the floor at Ford Field, the sophomore looked skyward and a Spartan-green canvas stretched as far as he could see. "Oh, my God," he said. Izzo was right beside him. "Holy s---," the coach said.
"It didn't feel real," says guard Durrell Summers, who was then a sophomore too. "It felt like we were in a movie." If it had been a movie, the Spartans would have won the national championship. Instead, it was real life, and North Carolina beat them by 17 in Monday night's final.
Every NCAA tournament has its sweetheart, its Davidson or George Mason, making a splash one year and vanishing the next. Michigan State was everyone's sentimental favorite not because it was an underdog but because in an era in which teams decline to take up even the safest social causes, the Spartans went out of their way to embrace Detroit and, by extension, anybody struggling to pay a mortgage or find a job. "They made us proud," says former Pistons star Dave Bing, Detroit's new mayor. When the team bus passed abandoned buildings, Izzo pleaded with his team to "win one for Detroit!" In the locker room, Summers talked about his mother, who had been laid off by a Detroit hospital, and his father, who'd been laid off by GM. "We wanted to make the city's struggle our own," Summers says. "But the best we could do was bring some entertainment for a minute. After that, people had to go back to the hardness. Everybody talked about us lifting Detroit. But it was really more about Detroit lifting us."
Summers's parents are working again, but the auto industry and the local economy are still in tatters. The Michigan State basketball program, however, is stronger than ever. The Spartans will be in everybody's top five this preseason, and even though they have no proven center, they are deep and fast everywhere else. When they have won national championships—1979, 2000—they were led by willful point guards with megawatt smiles. Lucas, the reigning Big Ten player of the year, is the latest toothy incarnation of Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
Izzo will give his players a DVD at the start of the season, filled with photos and television footage of their unforgettable weekend in Detroit. Different images play on a loop in Izzo's memory. He is standing on a wooden chair in Detroit's Atwater Block Brewery, before a crowd of 300 assembled by his old boss Jud Heathcote, and being serenaded with a song that has only one teasing verse: "You are special today." He is in the locker room after the 82--73 semifinal win over Connecticut, telling Magic that he wants his team to walk through the streets of downtown Detroit, though he knows what a mob scene that might create. Magic is leaving the court after the semifinal, telling Detroit policemen, "One more. One more."
Conventional wisdom says nobody ever remembers the team that finished second. But the '09 Spartans are the exception. A janitor told Walton that the guard had made him a Michigan State fan. A clerk at a Quiznos asked Summers to re-create his dunk over UConn's Stanley Robinson. Izzo went to Detroit to throw out the first pitch at a Tigers game, and guys on the grounds crew came up to congratulate him. He has received reams of letters with Detroit postmarks, from people who did not care a whit about Michigan State before the NCAA tournament and are attached now. "It makes you feel like you're finally accepted as one of them," Izzo says. "And, really, that's what I've wanted since the day I got here."
Izzo is from a working-class town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula called Iron Mountain, which is a lot like Detroit if you can get past outward appearances. "It's just that my people were white and the people in Detroit are black," Izzo says. "Everything else is the same." He started working in his family's shoe-repair shop when he was 12, and when he wasn't pounding leather, he worked laying carpet, installing doors, hanging siding. He played college basketball at Northern Michigan, and to make pocket money one summer, he jackhammered rock as a laborer at Tilden Mine. When the miners went on strike, he stood with them on the picket lines. He has spent his entire life in Michigan, save two months as an assistant coach at Tulsa in 1986. When another assistant's job opened that year at Michigan State, he came right back home, and when he bought his first house he put up the drywall himself. Because he had dirt under his nails, he thought he could recruit Detroit's public schools, and he set his sights on a silky shooting guard from Pershing High named Steve Smith. "I'd be playing a pickup game, a summer-league game, and there's Tom Izzo," says Smith, now an analyst for NBA TV. "He was everywhere."
Smith came to Michigan State in 1987, but for the next 14 years the Spartans did not land any player of prominence from a Detroit public school. "It broke Tom's heart," says Utah coach Jim Boylen, who used to be an assistant with Izzo at Michigan State. "He didn't understand it. There was a perception in Detroit that Michigan was the place and we weren't."
Whether it was Michigan's football tradition or the overwhelming popularity of the Fab Five, the Michigan State staff started to see Detroit as a place where it could not win. When Izzo took over for Heathcote in 1995, he increased the program's presence in the city, but he lost his first five games to Michigan and three in a row to Detroit Mercy.
But even if Izzo did not have Detroit players, his teams evoked the city, rugged and relentless. When he won the 2000 national championship with a nucleus from Flint, he knew he was inching closer to the Wayne County line. "We took pride in having that Detroit attitude," said Cleaves.
On July 1, 2003, Izzo hatched a new strategy to invade Detroit. That was the day Ford Field was awarded the rights to the 2009 Final Four, and it so happened that Izzo was after a jitterbug point guard whose grandmother lived all of 1.8 miles from the stadium. When 14-year-old Kalin Lucas, then a high school freshman, heard Izzo's grand plan, that together they would take the Spartans back to Detroit in '09, he said to himself, "Yeah, right." But he ended up signing with the Spartans and so did Summers, a skywalker from Detroit whose civic pride is such that he refers to his Tigers hat as "my D crown." The coach's daydream became a collective mission. Before last season, Izzo wrote FORD FIELD DETROIT on a dry-erase board in the Breslin Center on the East Lansing campus. When Michigan State was routed by North Carolina 98--63 at Ford Field in December, Lucas and Summers pledged to shoot 400 jumpers every night until the Final Four. When the Spartans were knocked out in the Big Ten tournament, Walton called his pastor at Rivers of Life Church in Lansing and asked him to talk to the team without the coaches present. After Pastor Jesse Brown had gone around the room, forcing every player to vent, he ordered them all to stand up and hug each other. Walton believes the group hugs saved their season and spurred them to Detroit.
The Spartans spent six years working toward one weekend, and now that it's over and the Final Four is moving on to Indianapolis, what are they supposed to do with themselves? Try to save Indy? Lucas and Summers share an apartment in East Lansing, and they cannot count how many times they have watched the replay of the Final Four this summer, punishing themselves by reliving that horrible final against the Tar Heels. Lucas wonders why Izzo did not take a quick timeout as Carolina ran out to a 24--8 lead and why Izzo left him in for the end of the game, when the outcome was obvious. He guesses that Izzo wanted him to marinate in the pain—and he is correct.
In the moments after the game, as the Spartans tried to figure out if they were more devastated or proud, freshman forward Draymond Green asked Izzo if he could say a few words. "Just remember," Green told his teammates, "those guys over there were down 40--12 to Kansas last year in the Final Four and they just won the national championship." The Spartans were not out of their locker room and they already had their mission for 2009--10: to return, like the Heels, and finish what they started. "I'd still like to play for the state, for the city, for the economy," Izzo said. "But it will be a hard thing to duplicate. It was a moment in time. Do I think it will have an imprint? Yeah, I do. How big? Only time will tell."
Detroit is still a maize-and-blue town, but green is at least in vogue. The Michigan football team lost nine games last season; Michigan State won nine and is on the fringe of the top 25 preseason rankings. Meanwhile, the Michigan basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years, but that was lost in the shadow cast by the Spartans. Izzo has already secured a verbal commitment from arguably the best high school player in Detroit, rising senior Keith Appling, another decorated guard from Pershing High. "It used to be that kids in Detroit would look at Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, and they could relate to them so they would go to Michigan," says Pershing coach A.W. Canada. "Michigan State didn't have many city kids. But now they look at Michigan State and it's a team full of guys from here."
Izzo unwound from the stress of the Final Four in a most unorthodox way. Less than two weeks after the championship game, Greg Ganakas, a New York City theater director, showed up in Izzo's office and informed him that he would have to start memorizing lines, working on dance moves, learning to sing. Ganakas, the son of former Michigan State basketball coach Gus Ganakas, demanded that Izzo rehearse four hours a day for 10 days to prepare for the musical Izzo Goes to Broadway. Izzo had agreed in September to do the show at Michigan State's Wharton Center to benefit the American Cancer Society, but he thought he was just going to walk across a stage and shake some hands. "He was so committed to it," Ganakas says.
"No," Izzo says, "I was asking myself, 'What the frick am I doing?'" On May 6, Izzo took the stage with family members, players and a handful of Broadway stars. He did not flub a line, and the sellout crowd of nearly 2,400 cheered for six minutes at the end.
That was supposed to be the hardest thing he did this off-season. But on June 12, at the Tom Izzo Spartan Shoot Out, a tournament held every summer at Michigan State, Dorian Dawkins's heart stopped beating. Dawkins, a vaunted 14-year-old point guard and the son of Saginaw High coach Lou Dawkins, collapsed while shooting free throws. He was revived and sped to nearby Sparrow Hospital, where he died that night of a heart defect. Izzo and his assistant coaches were at Dorian's bedside until 3 a.m. "They were holding my hand, hugging me, supporting me," Lou Dawkins says. "Without them, I don't know how I would have made it through that night." At the funeral, Izzo and his assistants presented the Dawkins family with a number 3 Spartans jersey, the number Dorian planned to wear four years from now at Michigan State.
There will be plenty of causes to rally around this season in East Lansing: honoring Dorian, avenging the embarrassment inflicted by North Carolina and, if Lucas and Summers have their way, continuing to wear the D Crown to represent Detroit. Sure, Michigan State could be like any other top 25 team, playing simply for wins, NBA scouts and a title. But given what the Spartans were part of three months ago, that no longer seems like enough. As Lucas sits inside the Breslin Center, basketballs already bouncing on the practice court down the hall, a mischievous grin creeps across his face. "You know," he says, "Indianapolis is not that far from Detroit."
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