The Power of Sports
The video below is an emotional piece that aired on the Big Ten Network about the impact MSU's trip to the 2009 Final Four had on Detroit, a city that has not recovered from the race riots during the 1960s.
The 2009 Final Four in Detroit
Before the first game of the 2008-2009 season, Coach Tom Izzo simply wrote "Ford Field" on a chalkboard. The Final Four that April was in Detroit. And everything about that team is worthy of a spot on my countdown. True to fashion, Izzo had MSU playing a rough non-conference schedule, which saw the Spartans annihilated 98-63 by #1 North Carolina in Ford Field in early December (ironically foreshadowing the National Championship Game). The team didn't fold, though, and instead began a remarkable run that earned MSU its first Big Ten Championship since my student teaching days at Holt High School in 2000-2001. With a slight "hiccup" and early exit in the Big Ten Tournament, MSU entered the NCAA Tournament with a #2 seed in the Midwest Region. I remember this particular tournament run because MSU was not favored to win ANY of its games – not even the opening round against #15 Robert Morris. Numerous ESPN and CBS pundits put MSU on "Upset Alert" against the Colonials. After a 77-62 victory, MSU was again picked to lose against #10 USC – but defeated the Trojans 74-69. This was followed by a predicted loss to #3 Kansas. In a spectacular game, MSU dropped the Jayhawks 67-62 (despite trailing by as many as 13 in the first half), which now brought them up against the #1 overall seed Louisville. The game was slated to be played in Indianapolis, so my Dad, brother Nate, sister-in-law Katy, sister Sarah, Cousin Dave, and Dave's daughter Lauren headed off to Lucas Oil Stadium. My brother and I had amazing seats only a few rows off the court – and we were certainly in the minority as 80% of the stadium was in red. For the next two hours, we watched MSU absolutely school the Cardinals. I've never actually seen a team give up in the fashion that Louisville did a few minutes into the second half of a 64-52 Spartan victory. MSU held Louisville to their second lowest point total of the season with their man-to-man defense, which kept Louisville out of sync all game. I remember the chants of "Deeee-troit Baaaasket-Ball" ringing out all around us. (This cheer is used at Pistons' games, and with the Final Four in Detroit, it was very appropriate.) With the Final Four practically in my backyard, my wife Molly and I decided to head to the game. This trip got off to an auspicious start when I got a speeding ticket on the back roads in Delaware County. (The officer didn't seem to care that we were heading to the Final Four!) Upon our arrival, Molly and I took it all in – the sights and sounds of a Final Four rank #1 in all of sports. This was my third Final Four to witness in person (having had the good fortune to go to the 2000 and 2005 Final Fours), and, perhaps, the greatest atmosphere of the three. We hung out in Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, since it was next door to Ford Field (home of the Lions), and met up with my Cousin Dave and MSU friends Kevin and Nick. All of us kept commenting (as had much of the national news media) just how "important" it was that MSU made it to Detroit. The city certainly needed it, and, if ever it felt great to be a Spartan, it was during this particular tournament run. MSU had become the saviors of the Motor City – and had captured the hearts of America with its amazing tournament run. All MSU had to do was win one game so their fans (and money) would stay in the city for a few more days. A half hour before the game was set to start, we went inside to walk around – Molly especially enjoyed the giant banner that read "The Road Stops Here" and the smaller road signs that showed the distances traveled by each of the Final Four teams (MSU, UConn, North Carolina, and Villanova). We settled into our seats as part of the largest crowd to ever watch a Final Four game and saw a very tense back-and-forth battle against #1 UConn (yet another team that MSU wasn't supposed to beat). The Spartans started the game with a 9-2 run, and Molly and I still talk about how loud the 90% pro-Spartan crowd got when State scored the first basket. Still, the Huskies came back to take the lead before MSU rallied to go up two at the half. UConn had the lead twice early in the second, but with under seven minutes left, MSU's Durrell Summers dunked over Stanley Robinson (on the basket we were sitting behind), and MSU took hold of the game. (I'm not exaggerating, but the entire building shook it got so loud after that dunk.) MSU finally took hold of the game, winning 82-73 to advance to the Championship Game against #1 North Carolina. I remember swinging Molly around until I was dizzy. To not only see this game, but to watch it side-by-side with my wife (who may be a bigger Izzo fan than I am!) made it even more memorable. I scalped a ticket on my way out (Molly wouldn't be able to attend) and made the trip back up for the Championship. Meeting with my Cousin Dave and MSU friends, we all said the same thing – this game had a different "feel" about it – not a positive feel like the UConn game. It felt as though the team had already "won" because it kept its fans in Detroit over the weekend, which means they might play flat – not because they were cocky or arrogant, but because they were exhausted from having to carry the entire city (and all blue collar workers) on their backs all season and all tournament long. Unfortunately, we were right, and the game went south from the start, with MSU falling 89-72 to the Tar Heels. Still, as I drove home late that night, I remember thinking just how unbelievable the entire experience had been – and how sports really are interwoven with society. For one weekend, the spot light was on the Motor City... and MSU helped point that light. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.