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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tom Izzo and the amazing Spartan empire he has built

The Michigan State basketball team is in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in the last twelve years (and as I come back to finish this blog, the Spartans are in the Final Four for the fifth time in ten years). This is quite an amazing feat and got me to ponder how these are really the glory years of MSU basketball and we'd better appreciate them while they last.

As anyone who has spent any time on this blog knows, I spend a good amount of time reading MSU sports fan sites as well as reader comments in various online local newspapers (Lansing State Journal, Detroit Free Press, etc.). For every excited and happy fan, there seem to be at least two others who complain about which player "didn't step up" or how "if the team doesn't cut down on the turnovers, they won't go any futher" or some such thing. Now, people have the right to complain and express their opinions (God knows I can get ticked off sometimes about MSU sports teams), but I do wish these people would take some time to put things into perspective.

I can remember the Jud Heathcote era. God bless Jud Heathcote, he was a great X's and O's coach, an excellent motivator, and mentor to a whole cadre of current basketball coaches. His greatest contribution to MSU may be his insistence that Tom Izzo be named his successor. Jud's main downfall was that he refused to play the modern recruiting game, and consequently he didn't always have the most talented teams in the world. When Jud was coach, it was a big deal if the Spartans could finish in the upper half of the Big Ten and maybe, just maybe, make it into the NCAA tournament if the team was lucky.

Tom Izzo has elevated this basketball program to a level I absolutely never thought was possible. His accomplishments during his 14-year tenure as head coach are staggering: Five Big Ten titles, two Big Ten tournament championships, five Final Fours, two more Elite Eights, eight Sweet Sixteens. The man has never had a losing season, and has NEVER had a losing record in the Big Ten.

I've heard people intimate that Izzo is not appreciated enough in East Lansing, and I have no idea from where or whom these rumors are coming. The only question now is whether a statue should be erected in his honor next to the Magic Johnson statue in front of Breslin Center, or if the court should be named in his honor. The man could run for mayor of East Lansing or Lansing and win in a landslide. Let me tell you that this 1991 MSU graduate, and lifetime Spartan fan, appreciates Tom Izzo more than you could even imagine.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Let the (March) Madness begin

Today is the beginning of the best and most exciting two days in the entire sports calendar year, the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. I wish I'd taken today and tomorrow off to watch it, but at least I get off work today at 3:30 and will be able to see at least half of it. I will be taking my lunch today at about 12:20 PM to see the opening tip of the first game. Woohoo, bring on March Madness!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Some fun video, books, and music that are currently making me happy...

These last few weeks, and extending all the way into April, have been a veritable cornucopia of interesting book, music, and video releases for yours truly.

On February 17, a DVD called "The Greatest Stories of Michigan State Basketball" was released. I had seen the program when it was broadcast on the Big Ten Network and thought that, for the most part, it was well done. There were a few minor errors here and there, but some of the old footage was great. When I learned that it would be released on DVD, I was ecstatic. I included in my "birthday wish list," and figured that if I didn't receive it from someone, I'd go out and buy it. I finally bought it yesterday and watched it again very late last night. It was a little pricey (with my Schuler Books employee discount, I think it came to about $22 and change), but it's Michigan State for crying out loud, so of course I had to buy it. Still, the program is only 74 minutes long and the extras are a little on the flimsy side. However, among the extras, there is a fascinating, grainy black-and-white video of Magic Johnson's press conference, wherein he announces his intention to attend Michigan State. It's amazing to see the eighteen year-old Earvin Johnson (before he was universally known as Magic) and the charm and charisma he already possessed at such a young age. Another great extra is a game of HORSE between Magic and Gregory Kelser at Jenison Fieldhouse. No date is mentioned, but it presumably took place after the NCAA championship game. I think it was some sort of fundraiser for the United Way, and it was "officiated" (and MCed) by MSU sports announcer Terry Braverman. Watching Magic and Kelser go at it is priceless. The affection they have for each other is obvious, and its really fascinating to see the contrast in their personalities: Kelser comes across as somewhat reserved and cerebral, while Magic just oozes exuberance and charm. The combination of those two personalities is what helped make those Spartan teams so great. (For what it's worth, Greg Kelser won the game, but only after Magic made a furious comeback to tie the game at "HORS").

Watching the 1979 HORSE game between Magic and Special K, I was again struck by how much different college basketball is now from what it was then. If those guys had done that in 2009, they'd have staged it in Breslin Center and opened it to the public, maybe even charged admission. Heck, the thing may have even been televised on the Big Ten Network or ESPN. In 1979, however, the HORSE game took place while college students were running around the indoor track at Jenison. Literally the only other spectators were a group of youngsters from Dwight Rich Middle School in Lansing, who were making a visit to MSU that day. (Coincidently, Magic Johnson attended Dwight Rich as a kid). The whole thing is amazingly low key and quaint by today's standards.

As you can see, I've been on an MSU basketball jag recently: partly due to the fact that this year's Spartans have clinched the regular season Big Ten title, and also because this year marks the 30th anniversary of the '79 national championship. This brings me to a book that has really excited me, and that I happen to be reading right now. It's called "When March Went Mad" and is written by CBS sports commentator and Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis. The book is a detailed look not only at that '79 national championship game, but the roads both MSU and Indiana State took to get there. As an MSU sports geek, many of the Spartan stories are ones I've already heard, but I've learned quite a bit about Larry Bird and Indiana State. For example, I knew that Bird had a bad time at Indiana University and had dropped out after being in school for about a month, but I had no idea how close Bird was to NEVER attending college again. The coaching staff at Indiana State had to plead with Bird to give college hoops another try--he had taken a job cleaning the streets and parks of his hometown in Indiana. If not for their cajoling, Larry Bird might very well be running the French Lick sanitation department today. So far, the book has been an enjoyable read, although my only nitpicking is with some minor errors with place names. Seth Davis refers to the town of "Grand Ridge" when he probably means "Grand Ledge." He also mentions a "Troll Bridge Road" in Lansing. I'd love it if we really had a Troll Bridge Road, but, alas, I believe Mr. Davis is referring to the more mundane "Trowbridge Road."

As far as music goes, the same day that "When March Went Mad" went on sale, the new U2 album was released. I'm a sucker for any new music U2 puts out, so naturally I had to pick up "No Line on the Horizon" along with the Seth Davis book. So far, I really enjoy "No Line on the Horizon." I read two reviews of the disc prior to buying it--the Pitchfork review, which was typically snarky and negative (they need to prove that they're way too cool to like anything by U2) and David Fricke's review in Rolling Stone, which was slobberingly positive (as would be expected from Rolling Stone). I figured the truth was somewhere in between those two reviews. (I also listened to the audio stream of the album on U2's web site, and liked what I heard. What can I say, I've been listening to U2 since "The Unforgettable Fire" era and have stuck with them through it all. Maybe some day I'll devote an entire blog entry to my fandom--on second thought, who really wants or needs to read about that?).

I'm looking forward to a few other things coming up in the near future. One of my favorite authors, Michael Zadoorian, has a collection of short stories coming out in April. It's called "The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit" and will be published by Wayne State University Press. If you're not familiar with Michael Zadoorian, check out "Second Hand" and his latest novel, "The Leisure Seeker." Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

Another exciting development is that my favorite Canadian rock band, and one of my favorite bands PERIOD--the Tragically Hip--is releasing their next album "We are the Same" on April 7. I have already pre-ordered it through Maple Music out of Canada. I LOVE the Hip and am anxiously awaiting this album's release.

Wow, that was a long post. I think that about covers it for now. Until next time...