Holiday Road: Michigan State Spartans Part one of two

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By Paul M. Banks

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On deck: Wisconsin Badgers
In the hole: Milwaukee Bucks

“SPARTANS, what is your profession?!?!” King Leonidas screamed during an iconic scene in the film ‘300.’ It was quite a coincidence that the Leonidas of the Michigan State Spartans, Tom Izzo, got his 300th win in the season following the release of ‘300.’ MSU markets the team in accordance quite well. Outside their home arena, the Breslin Center, you’ll see banners proclaiming “Spartans, Prepare for Glory!” Both head coach Tom Izzo and star guard Drew Neitzel dressed up as ancient Spartan warriors for Midnight Madness. It’s hard to not get into the conquering spirit while watching that movie; it must be even more emotional if you’re a member of a Spartan team. Spartans who have gone on to become big name professionals include Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson, Morris Peterson in basketball, one of the NHL’s most well-known goalies Ryan Miller, and a plethora of NFL receivers including Plaxico Burress, Andre Rison, Muhsin Muhammad, and Derrick Mason.

Ask the Spartan students what their profession is, and they might say “drinking and burning couches.” The campus is almost as well known for wild insurrections and binge drinking as it is for basketball. It might just be THE party school of the Midwest; like LSU is for the South or Arizona St. is in the Southwest. The most memorable Final Four of my life will always be 2000. I was a graduate student at Michigan State University, and the year I resided there was the one time this decade the students did NOT riot during March Madness.  That’s because the riots always occur after State gets eliminated, and that didn’t happen in 2000. The Spartans were on the ropes twice, against Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley’s Iowa State team and against Etan Thomas’s Syracuse squad, before they advanced to the Final Four. During that March Madness they always found a way to survive. In the final two, they beat an 8th seeded Wisconsin Badgers team for the FOURTH TIME that season and a 5th seeded Florida Gators squad in the final. Know how cool the celebration is when your home city wins an NBA Title? Compress that down 100 times to cover just a small town, a town with much more close knit citizens, and then you can try and visualize how fun April of 2000 was for me.

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Michigan State first won a national title under Jud Heathcote in 1979. They were led by Greg Kelser and the man with a statue gracing the West side of the Breslin Center, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. They beat Larry Bird’s Indiana St. team in the final game, considered a key game by most basketball historians. It wasn’t until the Heathcote era that State became a powerhouse. They didn’t even join the Big Ten (under the name Michigan State College) until the 1950s. In the early 90s, they were led by an exceptional backcourt duo of Eric Snow and Shawn Respert. The tandem was nicknamed “Fire and Ice,” for the former’s stone cold defense and the latter’s fiery hot shooting. Izzo took over the program in ‘96 and led the program to final fours in ’99, ’00, ’01, and ’05. State is just the eighth school to have appeared in four Final Fours during a seven year period and the only school to appear in four this decade! Also, every four-year player recruited by Izzo has played in at least one Final Four. Last May ESPN.com rated the best programs of the past ten years, and MSU placed tied for second. Writer Andy Katz rated them second in the nation. So you can “go tell a Spartan” that their recent tradition is quite rich.

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Sparty was once rated as “the most buff mascot” by some publication that rates such things. Here is next to the Spartan statue, a major campus landmark. It’s also a very important location for photo opportunities; especially if you’re a MSU grad and there’s a major turning point in your life coming up. On graduation day, lines for pics next to the Spartan are quite long…

Under Izzo, the program now has a national reputation. The winning tradition even brought a mention in Tom Wolfe’s most recent novel, I am Charlotte Simmons. He mentions Michigan State as the Final Four opponent of the fictional DuPont University (which we all know is Duke.) The bildungsroman also contains possibly the worst sex scene ever expressed in the entire history of human creative endeavor. Wolfe speaks about “mons pubis gyrations and the slither slither slither slither slither slither.”

It’s impossible to mention Michigan State basketball without giving a nod to the “Flintstones,” the star players from Flint, Michigan that pipeline to the program. Some of the biggest stars to come out of Flint include Kelvin Torbert, Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, and Antonio Smith. I will discuss this in more depth as well as my trip to Flint, Michigan when I feature Detroit and the Detroit Tigers next month.

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Game Day in Sparta:

I attended Senior Day at Michigan State, a day that usually ends with the seniors kissing the Spartan ‘S’ at mid court as they check out of their final home game. This floor was brought in from Indianapolis after the Spartans cut the nets down there in 2000. The two Drews: Neitzel and Naymick, kept the emotional tradition started by Shawn Respert, going on this day; and the moment was quite moving. Many people in the Breslin Center cried as the ritual took place. Of course, I wondered about what bacteria and germs you might get from kissing the floor. Down the stretch of the #19 Spartans 103-73 utter destruction of the hated #12 Indiana Hoosiers, I said out loud in all seriousness, “Suton for three” as he held the ball along the perimeter. Two seconds later, the 6’10” junior forward, with 11 career total 3pt attempts (all misses) released and drained his first collegiate trifecta. The middle aged woman sitting in front of me turned around and slapped me five. Then she asked me if I could predict the lottery numbers. I said “Sorry, my clairvoyance only applies to oafish Big Ten forwards.” The Michigan State marching band is well known for having invented the kick step; the dance team is reknowned for being filled with hotties and having a very sensual team name, “MSU Motion,” and the student section, “the Izzone” is one of the best in the nation. They are extremely rowdy and usually feature at least one young man dressed like one of King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors. On this day, they also featured someone dressed like a banana. The Breslin Center is perhaps the best venue to see a collegiate game; its got the rowdiness and atmosphere of Duke’s Cameron Indoor, but also has the modern conveniences that Cameron lacks. It’s a state of the art facility that even looks and sounds awesome on television. The best little quirk is when the band plays the fight song during a timeout, and play resumes and the band ceases, the crowd still sings the rest of the fight song acapella. Although the process might sound a bit quasi-Fascist, it still gives me goose-bumps. No wonder Sparty is so hard to beat here; the fans help provide the very definition of home court advantage. Refreshment wise, one thing you gotta try is the “Traverse City Cherry” cappucino. When you order one, the workers behind the counter yell out “TRAVERSE CITY!” like they are a 19th century locomotive conductor approaching the station. I’ve never seen the Spartans lose any game I’ve attended here; what makes those victories even better is the fact that Indiana has been the victim in most of those games.

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