By Paul M. Banks
During his college days at Michigan State University, Milwaukee Bucks guard Charlie Bell was privileged enough to play in a Final Four in three (1999, 2000, 2001) out of his four years at East Lansing. It was the same time that MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo was establishing his program within the nation’s top tier. With another Elite Eight appearance in 2003, a Final Four in ’05, and of course last year’s national title game appearance, Izzo and MSU have not only gotten to the top, but stayed there.
Bell is one of the many players who contributed to, and benefited from, the success of the program. And just like the Michigan St. program itself, he’s raised his game in recent years. After playing 5 nondescript games in the NBA in 2001, Bell took his game overseas. Bell became a superstar in the Italian and Spanish Leagues. In March 2002, he signed with Benetton Treviso and won an Italian League title. In ‘04, he moved on to Leche Rio Breogan Lugo of the Spanish League where he was the top scorer and local hero. He then signed with Milwaukee in ‘05–‘06 and where he’s been a key contributor/occasional starter.
When Milwaukee traveled down I-94 to play the Bulls, I caught up to him for an exclusive chat about Spartan hardwood.
“I think the guys got a taste this past season, being runner-up. I think that’s just going to make them more hungry, and that’s how we were the first time we made it to the Final Four and we lost to Duke. We kind of came out in awe in the 1st half, of playing against the almighty Duke, and in the second half, we were like hey, we can play with these guys.
And that made us hungry in the summer time and made us want to come back and win it all, and we did. And I think that’s the mindset the current Spartans need to have. They got a taste of it, now it’s time to win it all,” Bell said about Michigan State making a run to the title game last year.
There are a few obvious similarities between the 1999 and 2009 Michigan State Spartans. Perhaps the 2010 group will have something special in common with the 2000 team? Bell was one of “The Flintstones,” the main contributors on the 2000 National Championship team who hailed from Flint, Michigan. Mateen Cleaves was the star, leader and face of the team, but Bell and Morris Peterson (now with the New Orleans Hornets) went on to represent the Flintstones in the NBA. Of course, the member of the title team who really became a star in “the league” is Southfield native and Phoenix Suns swingman Jason Richardson (three seasons of 20+ ppg, only back-to-back slam dunk champion in history other than Michael Jordan).
“I’m very happy for the program, and for coach Izzo building it up into one of the elite programs, so definitely look for them in Indiana this year,” Bell said about this year’s Spartans.
I then mentioned how Tom Izzo was the unquestioned rock star of Big Ten Media Day, as he attracted more journalists than any other conference figure. “He’s definitely one of the best coaches in the country right now. He’s got Michigan State up at the top; year in, year out. We finally got a Big Ten championship, something we haven’t done since I left and it’s big…Even with so many guys leaving for the NBA, he’s done a good job getting guys to stick around and improve. That’s one of the things about Coach Izzo, he pushes you to get better, year after year. As players, we see his work ethic as a coach, and you have to do the same- you have to bring it on the court,” Bell responded before mentioning that Izzo called him the same day I did this interview.
Charlie then told me about being a Spartan for life. “We all stay in touch, it’s difficult during the season, but we try to keep up as much as possible through email, texts, leaving messages, and in the summertime we all hang out together because we’re all back home,” he said.
Bell’s coach, Scott Skiles is also a former Spartan, and on the night I talked with both of them the icon of the program, the man whose bronze likeness graces the entrance to the Breslin Center, Magic Johnson coincidentally was in attendance. “I heard the crowd go a little crazy, and I looked up and saw it was Magic, and that made me want to go out there and play a little harder,” Bell said.
And because of that feeling of community within the Michigan State network, Bell will always cherish his 2000 national title as the best memory of his basketball career. “And everything that came with it- the parade, getting back there on campus and setting the city on fire,” he said about cutting the nets down in Indianapolis. Ten years later, the Final Four is back in Indy. Will the Spartans be back there as well?
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