Fridays with Izzo: Sports “Saving” a City Storyline


By Paul M. Banks

Welcome to a new quasi-weekly feature where we discuss some of the biggest topics in the Michigan State Spartan world, including the insight and observations of legendary MSU coach Tom Izzo. In this edition, we talk about the idea of a successful sports team becoming a battered city’s salvation.

Despite what ESPN, the Chicago Tribune and other corporate media outlets have told you this week, sports does not and cannot save a city in ruins. This week, we incessantly heard about the Saints’ rise supposedly redeeming the city of New Orleans. We’ve been told that the Saints’ winning ways are somehow accelerating the post Katrina rebuilding process. As if each Reggie Bush touchdown run somehow alleviates another unemployed individual out of crippling poverty.

Last April, the MSM wouldn’t leave us alone with their sappy, sentimental “Michigan St. makes the Final Four taking place in their home state, in Detroit; and a Spartans win can lift Detroit out of the economic rubble, as the financial crisis hit this area harder than any other place in the city.”

One man often at the center of those stories was Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo, who seemed to offer a very different viewpoint on this topic from mine. Therefore, his thoughts might offer the perfect test to the validity of my position. Like Friedrich Nietzsche said “the thinking man has no need for refutation- for that he suffices within himself.” So, I wanted to see if I could become a thinking man, and I gave Izzo’s arguments a chance to refute me.

This week George Vecsesy of the New York Times had a column that summed up my thoughts on the Saints, why I’m pulling for them, and all these silly human interest stories we’ve seen about the Saints’ relationship with the city of New Orleans this week.

New Orleans needs all the bons temps it can get. No foolish event like a football game will ever make up for Hurricane Katrina, which came roiling out of the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 29, 2005, and the governmental neglect that followed. It is not hard to root for New Orleans to survive. Even on a trivial level like sports, New Orleans has also suffered with its Saints, who have never been to a Super Bowl.

Aware of what my own thoughts were on this concept, I asked Izzo at Big Ten Media Day about the concept of sports “saving” a city. Specifically, the stories about what his Spartans would supposedly “do” for the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

“You have a million causes, whenever you’re doing something. We went to the Final Four in ’99 and the cause was Cleaves and Peterson stayed in school, let’s go win it for them. In 2000, it was in Indianapolis not that far away. Last year, as we all know the state of Michigan was hit harder than anybody, supposedly according to the stats.

With Kalin and Durrell that was part of the recruiting process, hey the Final Four is going to be in Detroit four years from now why don’t you come aboard and we’ll try and get there. Then it becane closer to reality, and it was a dream, something we had talked about and worked for four years. Not very often you can do that- the uniqueness of it being in your own state. Then when the economic crash occurred, it was: can we be some sunshine in an otherwise dark cloud? People asked me if that was a burden. It wasn’t a burden, it was a joy! Driving up to Detroit and to see people happy, the night we beat UConn and to see the streets- there was no rioting, there was no problems It was unbelievable- that did a lot for our state, our city. It wasn’t a burden it was a privilege,” he responded.

I followed up by asking if these stories and this overall message took basketball and made it way more important than it already is. Did it make him and his team feel extra, unwarranted pressure.

“I didn’t. Everybody said the last game wasn’t there the pressure of Detroit, all the families there. No it was North Carolina, who was really good and we didn’t play as good. Our preparations, our attention to detail was awesome. The distractions were probably less in that period of time than sometimes during the year, and that’s a credit to our guys how much focus they had,”

Ok. so I guess we all agree that sports doesn’t solve a city’s major problems despite what CBS was telling us back then in their God-awful feature pieces on MSU and the denizens of Detroit. But what about the idea of sports just being a good escapism from more serious and pressing issues?  A temporary “opiate of the masses” perhaps?

“Riding down there through some of the tough areas of Detroit, and I could say guys appreciate what you’ve got. Do this and that, try to help those people. The bottom line was Kalin Lucas. He’s from Sterling Heights, right outside of Detroit, but his grandmother is from Detroit, and when he got introduced at the big game he wanted it ‘from Detroit,’ to give them that and I thought that was pretty cool,” Coach Izzo stated.

Ok, I guess we can all agree on that!


  1. great article!

  2. thanks! I asked some tough questions…that really needed to be asked

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