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Three months have passed since the Final Four, three months remain until Midnight Madness, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is wearing a T-shirt that reads JUST CHILLIN'. He got home an hour ago from a 10-day recruiting trip, his wife and kids are off to see the new Harry Potter movie, and he has adopted the posture of any suburban dad on summer staycation. He walks barefoot down to his basement—an upscale man cave with a fireplace underneath a flat screen underneath a row of commemorative basketballs in acrylic cubes—and sinks into an L-shaped leather sofa framed by a view of the pond out back, where his son's baby-blue paddleboat is parked among the lily pads. Izzo looks ready to have a piña colada, not to deconstruct the most taxing, thrilling, disappointing and ultimately uplifting weekend of his life.
The basement is filled with photographs of basketball players, but the picture that captures Izzo's attention is of a shopping mall. It's a place just outside Detroit, in the bedroom community of Troy, and the picture was taken on Friday, April 3, the day before the Spartans' semifinal game against UConn. More than 8,000 people had come to the mall that afternoon, exceeding capacity and prompting police to turn patrons away. All three floors surrounding the mall's interior were filled, and when there was no more space to stand, the crowd spilled into glass elevators, riding up and down, noses pressed to windows. Izzo entered through a back door, with no idea what he was getting into, and one of the mall's owners pulled him aside to say, "I've never seen anything like this." As the players followed Izzo, fans pawing at their sweat suits, they began to think of themselves less as subjects of a pep rally and more as headliners at a rock concert. Says guard Travis Walton, who's now playing on the Pistons' summer-league team, "We were like the Jackson Five."
Even now, in the still of the off-season, in a brick house 90 miles from Detroit, Izzo can hold that photo in his hands and feel Motown pulsating through him. Eight thousand people at a pep rally. Twenty-five thousand at a practice. Seventy-two thousand at a basketball game, with 60,000 of them screaming for the same team. The first time point guard Kalin Lucas walked onto the floor at Ford Field, the sophomore looked skyward and a Spartan-green canvas stretched as far as he could see. "Oh, my God," he said. Izzo was right beside him. "Holy s---," the coach said.
"It didn't feel real," says guard Durrell Summers, who was then a sophomore too. "It felt like we were in a movie." If it had been a movie, the Spartans would have won the national championship. Instead, it was real life, and North Carolina beat them by 17 in Monday night's final.
Every NCAA tournament has its sweetheart, its Davidson or George Mason, making a splash one year and vanishing the next. Michigan State was everyone's sentimental favorite not because it was an underdog but because in an era in which teams decline to take up even the safest social causes, the Spartans went out of their way to embrace Detroit and, by extension, anybody struggling to pay a mortgage or find a job. "They made us proud," says former Pistons star Dave Bing, Detroit's new mayor. When the team bus passed abandoned buildings, Izzo pleaded with his team to "win one for Detroit!" In the locker room, Summers talked about his mother, who had been laid off by a Detroit hospital, and his father, who'd been laid off by GM. "We wanted to make the city's struggle our own," Summers says. "But the best we could do was bring some entertainment for a minute. After that, people had to go back to the hardness. Everybody talked about us lifting Detroit. But it was really more about Detroit lifting us."
Summers's parents are working again, but the auto industry and the local economy are still in tatters. The Michigan State basketball program, however, is stronger than ever. The Spartans will be in everybody's top five this preseason, and even though they have no proven center, they are deep and fast everywhere else. When they have won national championships—1979, 2000—they were led by willful point guards with megawatt smiles. Lucas, the reigning Big Ten player of the year, is the latest toothy incarnation of Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
Izzo will give his players a DVD at the start of the season, filled with photos and television footage of their unforgettable weekend in Detroit. Different images play on a loop in Izzo's memory. He is standing on a wooden chair in Detroit's Atwater Block Brewery, before a crowd of 300 assembled by his old boss Jud Heathcote, and being serenaded with a song that has only one teasing verse: "You are special today." He is in the locker room after the 82--73 semifinal win over Connecticut, telling Magic that he wants his team to walk through the streets of downtown Detroit, though he knows what a mob scene that might create. Magic is leaving the court after the semifinal, telling Detroit policemen, "One more. One more."
Conventional wisdom says nobody ever remembers the team that finished second. But the '09 Spartans are the exception. A janitor told Walton that the guard had made him a Michigan State fan. A clerk at a Quiznos asked Summers to re-create his dunk over UConn's Stanley Robinson. Izzo went to Detroit to throw out the first pitch at a Tigers game, and guys on the grounds crew came up to congratulate him. He has received reams of letters with Detroit postmarks, from people who did not care a whit about Michigan State before the NCAA tournament and are attached now. "It makes you feel like you're finally accepted as one of them," Izzo says. "And, really, that's what I've wanted since the day I got here."
Izzo is from a working-class town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula called Iron Mountain, which is a lot like Detroit if you can get past outward appearances. "It's just that my people were white and the people in Detroit are black," Izzo says. "Everything else is the same." He started working in his family's shoe-repair shop when he was 12, and when he wasn't pounding leather, he worked laying carpet, installing doors, hanging siding. He played college basketball at Northern Michigan, and to make pocket money one summer, he jackhammered rock as a laborer at Tilden Mine. When the miners went on strike, he stood with them on the picket lines. He has spent his entire life in Michigan, save two months as an assistant coach at Tulsa in 1986. When another assistant's job opened that year at Michigan State, he came right back home, and when he bought his first house he put up the drywall himself. Because he had dirt under his nails, he thought he could recruit Detroit's public schools, and he set his sights on a silky shooting guard from Pershing High named Steve Smith. "I'd be playing a pickup game, a summer-league game, and there's Tom Izzo," says Smith, now an analyst for NBA TV. "He was everywhere."
Smith came to Michigan State in 1987, but for the next 14 years the Spartans did not land any player of prominence from a Detroit public school. "It broke Tom's heart," says Utah coach Jim Boylen, who used to be an assistant with Izzo at Michigan State. "He didn't understand it. There was a perception in Detroit that Michigan was the place and we weren't."