Holiday Road: Michigan State Spartans Part two of two

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By Paul M. Banks

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Campus Atmosphere: East Lansing, Michigan

Take it from someone who was at ground zero when Michigan State won the basketball national championship in 2000, Spartys really party seriously! During my semester of graduate study there, I often felt like I was at a school full of Tara Reids. Harper’s is the classier place on campus town with great food and their own microbrewery. You gotta try the “Spartan Wheat” brew, of course. Club 131 is the adjacent “nightclub” downstairs. There are numerous other campus bars on Albert Street and the M.A.C. including Beggars Banquet (it’s not as lame as it sounds) where we went for wine night in the program. Ok, it is as lame as it sounds, or maybe even lamer, but you can’t go wrong at the Riv, a classic campus dive bar. Of course, you’ll probably do a lot of wrong after you leave the Riv. Speaking of dives, you can’t pass up the Land Shark or Rick’s American, the one bar in the world that dared kick me out. (story to follow below) I finally made it back there 8 years later…on the Sunday night when everyone had already left for spring break and it was completely dead.

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The West side of campus is where I lived. You can always hear the freight trains. Because the campus is so huge, you can often hear a freight train in the distance. Sometimes faintly, sometimes loudly depending on your location, but this fact of life reminds me of the theme song from the most well known Michigan movie of recent years: Eminem’s 8 Mile. The song has a freight train in the background, especially prominent in the beginning. The lyrics of the Detroit native state: “The city is no fun. There is no sun.” Marshall Mathers described winter in Michigan perfectly. Well, there is fun, just never any sun. (And I’ll be the first to admit that Chicago or Champaign-Urbana is not much warmer or sunnier.) Michigan is just always grey and overcast during basketball season. Part of the reason for 8 Mile’s commercial and critical success might be the fact that they shot the whole movie on overcast days. The grey skies accentuate the misery that they are trying to project in the areas of Detroit where Rabbit, his family, “Free World” and 313 reside.

Every year, more Spartan graduates and fans move to Chicago instead of Detroit. Among Big Ten schools, they seem to be the most dedicated when it comes to opening up sports bars on Chicago’s North side, as well as the most zealous in re-creating the college atmosphere. These bars are the best places in Chicago to watch MSU play. Located across the street from the historical Biograph Theatre (where former Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger was gunned down by the F.B.I.) and near the heart of DePaul University’s campus lies the Gin Mill (2462 N. Lincoln). On the outside of this saloon, you’ll see a huge white Spartan “S” over the green doorway; and on the inside, you’ll notice the décor has a Sparty theme. Just in case these signals are too subtle for you, a green neon light states, “Welcome to East Lansing” in a very central and visible spot. The Gin Mill is the most overt, but all of the MSU bars in Chicago are excellent at “staying on message.”  Other Michigan State bars include Higgin’s (3259 N. Racine), The Tin Lizzie (2483 N. Clark), which (in case you were wondering) is a nickname for the Ford Model T, and O’Malley’s West (2249 N. Lincoln).

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Quiet Riot

In the spring of ’03, I saw images of mobs looting and rioting through city streets on television. Twice. In both Baghdad and East Lansing. The anarchy occurs regardless of whether the Spartans exceed, meet, or fall short of tournament expectations when their final game is played. If they play beyond expected given their seed or get upset by a lower seed, you know what’s coming in March; a night of lawlessness that rivals Detroit’s infamous “Devil’s Night.” So when MSU falls behind late in a tournament game this March Madness, remember that quote in the Scorcese film “Gangs of New York” right before the Civil War draft riots: “get ready, this town’s gonna burn.”
The first MSU riot occurred in 1999 after the basketball team lost to Duke in the Final Four. That insurrection involved two police cars being turned over and over, $250,000 in property damages.

When Sparty won it all in 2000, there were no riots. Then pillages took place every year since then on the night State got eliminated. The level of mob action and destructions seems to recede some each year. The riots are not even headlines anymore. There’s mostly burning couches and breaking store windows, but sometimes a lot of people do get hurt. I met a guy on my most recent trip who said the police now fire tear gas pellets everywhere into any random crowd of people on this night. Another guy told me he is blind in one-eye for life because a tear gas pellet struck him in the face. He sued and won quite a hefty compensation. The balance of power has clearly shifted. When the Michigan State people took to the streets, it used to be that the cops were the ones in trouble, finding difficulty in trying to quell the student Sparticuses. Now the establishment is just way over-the-top in its behavior, taking pre-emptive strikes against the would-be revolutionaries. Probably the biggest party zone of MSU is a student populated apartment complex called Cedar Village; this is the exact place where the riots start almost every year. It’s also considered the cool place to live…especially if “you say you want a revolution” and you’re into being subdued by tear gas.

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Olympic Village

The university owns a few apartment complexes which supplement the dorm housing options for students. I lived in University Village and according to the village directory, Mateen Cleaves lived a few buildings over from me. However, according to the neighbors, he was never even seen there. It also said that Plaxico Burress lived in Cherry Lane Apartments, another university funded apartment complex. Of course, I met a few people who knew Burress and of his phat off-campus pad. From what I heard this is quite common, most of the athletes “live” in these apartment villages funded by the university. However, they actually reside in different and much more upscale abodes. We all know, but don’t discuss, what an utter cesspool the internal workings of college sports are, so I don’t feel like going into anymore detail on how and why athletes get compensation under the table. I also knew a girl at State who was in a sorority that supposedly provided a lot of the sexual “compensation” for the star athletes. She named specific future NFL names, specific sexually transmitted diseases and once told me “what whores the girls in my sorority house are for the jocks.” Of course, it’s the girls in her house that act this way, not her. Right. So we don’t need to go into too much more detail on any of those topics do we? Besides, my social network was quite far removed from this scene.

My little apartment village had a lot of great ethnic and racial diversity. By the end of the semester, if you knew my girlfriend, my two best male friends, my closest female friends and classmates, then you would see a lot of multiculturalism. My social life was truly a Benetton Ad, and this is the aspect of my Michigan State experience that I miss the most.

I was also there at a time when the U. got a lot of pop culture publicity. The campus was featured in the first “American Pie” film (a.k.a. the only funny and entertaining movie in the series) and it was mentioned in my favorite moment in the history of the MTV network. On one summer of 2000 weekend, Detroit rapper Eminem took over every show on the network. They called it “EmTV” and during an episode of the God awful reality series “Say What? Karaoke” he dressed up as “SCOTT from MICHIGAN STATE!!!!” He appeared as a cartoonish version of what soulless marketers think rich, preppy people dress like. (Think Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Air) He did a screaming rendition of his own song “My Name is,” horribly butchering and forgetting his own lyrics. Here was a guy whose whole career is based on playing a role every time he performs, now playing a role of a guy who buys his albums and then lampoons his own song, while acting as a man whose very existence is a lampoon itself. It was at this point that the pure existential pressure caused the entire universe to collapse and eat itself.

You can see it at the 7:10 mark in the clip below, it features Jimmy Kimmel and Mandy Moore at a time when their star power was much lower than it is today. The parodies of the Tom Green show in this montage are worth watching too

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