Confronted with doubts, injuries and a frightening illness, guard Travis Trice stayed the course—then guided Michigan State to the ultimate destination
HERE WAS one of March's familiar sights, a senior sobbing on the court after an NCAA tournament game, his mind and body overcome with memories of the path he had traveled. That Travis Trice was on the winning side of Michigan State's fist-tight 76--70 overtime defeat of Louisville on Sunday in Syracuse illustrated the arduousness of his journey, one filled with pain, doubt and the fear that he wouldn't live to see his senior year. For nearly a minute the 6-foot point guard crouched while each of his parents rubbed a heaving shoulder. He stopped only when he was summoned to the stage for the East Regional trophy presentation. Even after accepting Most Outstanding Player honors, he lingered blank-faced behind his smiling teammates as they mugged for the media horde, his hands folded atop his shaking head and his eyes drifting skyward. "He thinks he's not worthy," said Trice's mother, Julie. "But Travis is so worthy of this time. He really is."
If Trice's tears were unanticipated—Spartans forward Branden Dawson, his friend since seventh grade, had never seen Trice cry—so was his ascent. Trice's pedigree is impressive: His father, also named Travis, starred as a 6'1" point guard for Butler in the early 1990s, and his 5'10" maternal grandfather, Bob Pritchett, was honorable mention All-America at Old Dominion. But as a 5'10", 150-pound 11th-grader, little Travis was deemed too slight for power-conference basketball by the recruiting services, which gave him a three-star grade. Skeptics attributed his success on the AAU circuit to playing with five- or four-star teammates like Dawson and future Michigan star Mitch McGary, and his heroics for Wayne High in his hometown of Huber Heights, Ohio, to playing for his father. "He never really got credit for who he was," says the elder Trice, who has coached Wayne since 2007.
What naysayers missed was a kid who had obsessively learned the high-arcing angles and space-creating step-backs that had fueled his father's crafty, undersized game. As a six-year-old Trice was such a savvy competitor that he nearly forced the Huber Heights YMCA to change a rule dictating that no player be guarded outside a painted line 15 feet from the basket; possession after possession Trice would dribble to a spot just beyond the boundary and launch a shot, rendering himself unguardable. His family still laughs when they watch the footage of those early games.
In the summer of 2010, Spartans coach Tom Izzo was scouting Dawson at a tournament in Milwaukee, but he grew so smitten with the point guard setting up the star's scores that he began recruiting Trice personally instead of delegating the job to an assistant. "He had a little swagger to him, a little chip on his shoulder," says Izzo, a former walk-on and assistant at Division II Northern Michigan. "I saw a little bit of myself in him. His chances of playing at this level were like my chances of getting this job: slim to none."
Once in East Lansing, Trice's slender body betrayed him in unexpected ways. In the May after his freshman season—in which he was hampered by a high right ankle sprain—Trice began sleeping past noon and spending his waking hours in a haze of fatigue. After tests for mono came back negative, a litany of blood work, MRIs and CAT scans over the next two months led doctors to think that he had some kind of a virus in his brain. With no diagnosis and thus no treatment, Trice slept away his summer, shedding 20 hard-earned pounds as his eyes darkened with heavy rings. Questions about his future on the court gave way to more grave concerns. "There was a point," says Trice, "where I was like, Man, am I about to die?"
Trice still doesn't know what ailed him. Nor can he explain what happened in August 2012, when he began to slowly regain his strength and energy. That November he played in the season opener but sustained a concussion that caused him to miss five games; two months later he suffered a second concussion and was out for another four. As a junior he averaged 22.3 minutes off the bench despite playing most of the season with an infected blister inside of another blister on his left foot. "I don't know a whole lot of people who can continue to get back up in those situations," says his father. "Sometimes you think about throwing in the towel. But not only has he bounced back, he's better than he's ever been."
This season Trice had just one notable setback: a January rib injury that coincided with a shooting slump and temporary shift out of the starting lineup. At that point the Spartans too were out of whack, with a bubble-worthy résumé featuring a mediocre 6--4 Big Ten record. In the nearly two months since they have developed into yet another Izzo postseason success story, nearly nabbing the Big Ten tournament title from Wisconsin and storming into Indianapolis as a No. 7 seed and this Final Four's most unexpected guest.
If the Spartans can get past Duke in the national semifinal on Saturday, it will likely be due to continued clutch scoring from Trice, who is averaging a team-best 19.8 points in the tournament, including 24 in a 62--58 Sweet 16 win over Oklahoma. Whatever Indy might have in store, Trice's postseason magic has already earned him a place in Michigan State lore. When he finally left the court after Sunday's postgame celebration, he was stopped by the school's alpha legend. As the two hugged, Magic Johnson echoed Julie Trice's sentiments: "You deserve it."