THIS IS SPARTA
Michigan is where I was born and raised. It really was not until I was an adult and began my interpretation of the Dr. Seuss book that I began to acknowledge the Wolverines. I had not really cared one way or the other about them before that point. In fact, it was still a point of discussion with my lovely ex-wife during our marriage. I did not really began to pay them much attention until their amazing run to the NCAA title in 1989 in men’s basketball. I had sorta liked Glen Rice (pre-Sarah Palin affair!! Notice that rumor was never ‘refudiated’) and his story from being an also-ran in the fertile hoops area of Flint, to becoming the all-time leading scorer and one of the sweetest jump shooters I ever saw in college. Then there was Desmond Howard, who was simply a magnetic player. If I had a son, that would have been his name! So between those two individual and ‘the Fab Five’, I found myself being able to tolerate Michigan a lot more.
My cousin who went on to have a long and productive pro career and now coaches in the NFL pulled my attentions to Ohio State football. I always want the Buckeyes to win on the gridiron and in basketball as well. Two of my most remembered players are Carter Scott (which was unseated by Desmond as a boy’s name) and Dennis Hopson (Dennis, the Buckeye Menace!). It is a little astonishing that you have two schools with the basketball history of both Michigan and Ohio State is overshadowed by their dominant football programs. I mean between the individual players to the programs accomplishments, with all those National Titles, appearances in big games, any other school would feature basketball as a prominent jewel.
But always lurking in the background, much like the annoying little brother that former Wolverine football player once called them, was Michigan State. It isn’t that State did not have major accomplishments and notable highs. It is State that played in ‘The Game of the Century’ against Notre Dame in 1966. And Sparty had more appearances in the NCAA basketball tournament but still was under the radar. In fact, the star player before Magic came and would change their basketball fortune, Gregory Kelser, grew up in my general neighborhood (it is hard to say ‘my neighborhood’ as I grow accustomed to Omaha; the same distance is ‘across town’ here). lurking He would sometimes help his younger brother deliver papers and we would go at it in the newsstation, where we would pick up our papers for delivery. He was a little older than me, but at that age, 11 and 12 is a sight away from being physically and emotionally mature as a 15 or 16 year-old teenager. He would try to pick on me, and I was always like, “brother, I thought you knew! You can SAY what you want but it costs!”
The reality of it was still overwhelming. He was too big, too strong, and too fast. The reason I found this out was because it was the outcome of our ‘Foghorn Leghorn-Barnyard Dog’ relationship, with me playing the former! But because it was not a zero sum game, I never stopped being ‘me’, which was as annoying as ‘Obnoxio the Clown’. I would also invest in finding out about Michigan State and ballers like Terry Furlow, a Detroit product and that was when I noticed who played for State and who played for Michigan. It just seemed that the cats that played in East Lansing were different from the ones that would go to Ann Arbor. It was always like that.
I remember a football coach for State calling the Michigan people a bunch of ‘arrogant a$$es’ after losing a game to the Wolverines. I also recall when Kirk Gibson played All-American level wide receiver for the Spartans and he ran past, over and well, he never seemed to go around anyone too much, especially Michigan players!
IT DIDN’T START WITH THE FAB FIVE…
Michigan basketball has underachieved for many a decade. From the Cazzie Russell-led teams, to the squads they had in the late 70’s-early 80’s, they would produce teams that were loaded with talent, but for whatever reason, never got over themselves to actually win anything. This was never more true with the Roy Tarpley-Antoine Joubert led teams, always preseason favorites, only to take a gaudy regular season record into the tournament to lose in their first game to ‘Nobody U’. Meanwhile, over in East Lansing…
He is a respected NBA coach now, but Scott Skiles was a load as a high school player. From a small town in Indiana, a rural place that most of the athletes who go to State have in common, that hard-scrabble outstate ruggedness, and he was truly a wild cat. Had problems drinking and the coach at the time Jud Heathcote (with Tom Izzo on staff) flat out took Skiles under his wing. When the press was howling for Coach Heathcote to kick him off the team, Jud stood by him and you knew it wasn’t simply a matter of a coach giving a player special treatment. Scott was beset by the kind of demons that city cats are too self-involved to understand. For instance, I doubt if anyone in a major city like Chicago can understand what methamphetamine is doing outside of the city. But it is a scourge that is at least as harmful as crack cocaine was in the city and is harder to prevent. By that I mean I do believe that if the government wanted to cut into the cocaine trade, they could. But when you can go to a few drug stores and mix your supplies (the process is the risk escalator on par with those that exist in the urban drug scene), it is a different kind of fight. Jud being who he is, simply provided Scott with the stability and structure that allowed him to get to a place where he could make the most of himself.
Anywho, of all the State athletes in my lifetime, he used to take such a pleasure in beating the Michigan basketball team, that you would have thought that there was no greater calling in his life. Before the Fab Five, there was Joubert, who was as well-renowned as a high school player as LeBron James was when he was in school. This is not an exaggeration by any stretch. He was the most recruited player in the country out of Detroit Southwestern and he chose to go to Michigan, as their version of ‘Magic’ Johnson, the Lansing Everett (and Mookie Dee) alumnus. But he never quite came close to the lofty speculation that was made about him and essentially, that was that. Still, for his time and place, he was the measuring stick for Michigan basketball and supposedly the cat to make them a major player in basketball. Except, along with their gag jobs in the tournament, those teams had problems trying to guard Scott Skiles (who was immortalized in song by ‘A TribeCalled Quest’). I recall before one match up between Michigan and State, Joubert talked about how he was going to such Skiles down, despite his deadeye marksmanship and superior passing skills.
Watching the first half of the Capital One Bowl game between Georgia and the Spartans was like watching your girlfriend out with another cat on the couch and he is on third base… and he is making the turn for home! I kept the game on and gritted my teeth, getting myself prepared to hear more crap about how much better the SEC is than the Big Ten. Then one of the announcers began to talk about the new attitude that has been put in place with Mark D’Antonio’s arrival as head football coach. This season’s seniors were his first class and they had never played on a bowl game-winning team. It recalled the situation a season (or was it two??) ago in basketball where there was a chance that Tom Izzo would have his first senior class of players who never got as far as the Final Four. I remember thinking as they Spartans would suck it up, including an amazing buzzer beater against Maryland, to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis, where they fell against Butler. It seemed to me that the underclassmen really were playing for the seniors. I know that the atmosphere at East Lansing really does work like that, even as the ideal is overused and seems Pollyanna in this era of the recruiting issues that makes the notion of playing for the team, quaint. Well, when it comes to the football and men’s basketball programs I want to believe that it is true.
The second half of the Capital One Bowl looked like one of the second halves of a State basketball game… the one in mind is a game against Derrick Rose’s Memphis team a few seasons ago, where Memphis had their lead cut but were still winning. But a look at the two benches could not have been more telling, as the Spartans players truly looked like they were warriors who had fought their way through the worst that they enemy could provide, and now they could sense victory. On the other team bench, the anxiety in their eyes and on their faces provide poor cover as they bore the unmistakable look of not just defeat, but worse, surrender. It wasn’t that they were destined to lose, at least not until they stopped fighting.
When the football team for State had fought back from a 16-17 point halftime deficit and then to drive down the field with less than a minute to play and score, sending the game into overtime, the sidelines were of such stark contrast that I had tears in my eyes. The Spartans looked as glorious as the fictional Spartans did in the movie ‘300’ did facing the approach of the Persians. And on the Georgia sideline…
ANOTHER THING THAT “YOU” CAN’T DO
It did not matter that the game was still in the balance or that maybe Georgia form the big, bad, SEC may have had better players. What they did not have was a better TEAM, one that was playing for something so much larger than their own individual glory, that they were not going to be denied.
Standing there on the precipice of defeat, several times the Spartans fought their way back to victory. Glory or doom, baby, glory or doom. No one is leaving until you give us what we came here for!
So I cried when Michigan State won today. I cried because it symbolized so much of what I hope to accomplish means overcoming moments where it may seem all is lost or I have to preserve for the sake of others, or just because the only option is to hold on and be strong.
MARK, DIDN’T YOU SAY YOU WOULD NOT MAKE AN ENTRY OF MORE THAT 1500 WORDS..?
Yes, yes I did Charlotte. So sue me.