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Whether it was Michigan's football tradition or the overwhelming popularity of the Fab Five, the Michigan State staff started to see Detroit as a place where it could not win. When Izzo took over for Heathcote in 1995, he increased the program's presence in the city, but he lost his first five games to Michigan and three in a row to Detroit Mercy.
But even if Izzo did not have Detroit players, his teams evoked the city, rugged and relentless. When he won the 2000 national championship with a nucleus from Flint, he knew he was inching closer to the Wayne County line. "We took pride in having that Detroit attitude," said Cleaves.
On July 1, 2003, Izzo hatched a new strategy to invade Detroit. That was the day Ford Field was awarded the rights to the 2009 Final Four, and it so happened that Izzo was after a jitterbug point guard whose grandmother lived all of 1.8 miles from the stadium. When 14-year-old Kalin Lucas, then a high school freshman, heard Izzo's grand plan, that together they would take the Spartans back to Detroit in '09, he said to himself, "Yeah, right." But he ended up signing with the Spartans and so did Summers, a skywalker from Detroit whose civic pride is such that he refers to his Tigers hat as "my D crown." The coach's daydream became a collective mission. Before last season, Izzo wrote FORD FIELD DETROIT on a dry-erase board in the Breslin Center on the East Lansing campus. When Michigan State was routed by North Carolina 98--63 at Ford Field in December, Lucas and Summers pledged to shoot 400 jumpers every night until the Final Four. When the Spartans were knocked out in the Big Ten tournament, Walton called his pastor at Rivers of Life Church in Lansing and asked him to talk to the team without the coaches present. After Pastor Jesse Brown had gone around the room, forcing every player to vent, he ordered them all to stand up and hug each other. Walton believes the group hugs saved their season and spurred them to Detroit.
The Spartans spent six years working toward one weekend, and now that it's over and the Final Four is moving on to Indianapolis, what are they supposed to do with themselves? Try to save Indy? Lucas and Summers share an apartment in East Lansing, and they cannot count how many times they have watched the replay of the Final Four this summer, punishing themselves by reliving that horrible final against the Tar Heels. Lucas wonders why Izzo did not take a quick timeout as Carolina ran out to a 24--8 lead and why Izzo left him in for the end of the game, when the outcome was obvious. He guesses that Izzo wanted him to marinate in the pain—and he is correct.
In the moments after the game, as the Spartans tried to figure out if they were more devastated or proud, freshman forward Draymond Green asked Izzo if he could say a few words. "Just remember," Green told his teammates, "those guys over there were down 40--12 to Kansas last year in the Final Four and they just won the national championship." The Spartans were not out of their locker room and they already had their mission for 2009--10: to return, like the Heels, and finish what they started. "I'd still like to play for the state, for the city, for the economy," Izzo said. "But it will be a hard thing to duplicate. It was a moment in time. Do I think it will have an imprint? Yeah, I do. How big? Only time will tell."
Detroit is still a maize-and-blue town, but green is at least in vogue. The Michigan football team lost nine games last season; Michigan State won nine and is on the fringe of the top 25 preseason rankings. Meanwhile, the Michigan basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years, but that was lost in the shadow cast by the Spartans. Izzo has already secured a verbal commitment from arguably the best high school player in Detroit, rising senior Keith Appling, another decorated guard from Pershing High. "It used to be that kids in Detroit would look at Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, and they could relate to them so they would go to Michigan," says Pershing coach A.W. Canada. "Michigan State didn't have many city kids. But now they look at Michigan State and it's a team full of guys from here."
Izzo unwound from the stress of the Final Four in a most unorthodox way. Less than two weeks after the championship game, Greg Ganakas, a New York City theater director, showed up in Izzo's office and informed him that he would have to start memorizing lines, working on dance moves, learning to sing. Ganakas, the son of former Michigan State basketball coach Gus Ganakas, demanded that Izzo rehearse four hours a day for 10 days to prepare for the musical Izzo Goes to Broadway. Izzo had agreed in September to do the show at Michigan State's Wharton Center to benefit the American Cancer Society, but he thought he was just going to walk across a stage and shake some hands. "He was so committed to it," Ganakas says.
"No," Izzo says, "I was asking myself, 'What the frick am I doing?'" On May 6, Izzo took the stage with family members, players and a handful of Broadway stars. He did not flub a line, and the sellout crowd of nearly 2,400 cheered for six minutes at the end.
That was supposed to be the hardest thing he did this off-season. But on June 12, at the Tom Izzo Spartan Shoot Out, a tournament held every summer at Michigan State, Dorian Dawkins's heart stopped beating. Dawkins, a vaunted 14-year-old point guard and the son of Saginaw High coach Lou Dawkins, collapsed while shooting free throws. He was revived and sped to nearby Sparrow Hospital, where he died that night of a heart defect. Izzo and his assistant coaches were at Dorian's bedside until 3 a.m. "They were holding my hand, hugging me, supporting me," Lou Dawkins says. "Without them, I don't know how I would have made it through that night." At the funeral, Izzo and his assistants presented the Dawkins family with a number 3 Spartans jersey, the number Dorian planned to wear four years from now at Michigan State.
There will be plenty of causes to rally around this season in East Lansing: honoring Dorian, avenging the embarrassment inflicted by North Carolina and, if Lucas and Summers have their way, continuing to wear the D Crown to represent Detroit. Sure, Michigan State could be like any other top 25 team, playing simply for wins, NBA scouts and a title. But given what the Spartans were part of three months ago, that no longer seems like enough. As Lucas sits inside the Breslin Center, basketballs already bouncing on the practice court down the hall, a mischievous grin creeps across his face. "You know," he says, "Indianapolis is not that far from Detroit."