BIG AL HATES THE WHISTLES WHILE AT WORK

Iam waiting for Aloysius Anagonye to come to the phone. I am humming the popular reggae song by Shaggy. I am making up new words.

It wasn’t me!

But you fouled him as he scored now-

It wasn’t me!

But you pushed him to the floor now-

It wasn’t me!

Then you bumped him with your elbow-

It wasn’t me!

He was a really nice fellow-

It wasn’t m-

“Hello?”

“Hello, Al? How are you?”

“I am blessed,” he says.

He is blessed.

I wait. I listen.

I expect to hear a “tweeeeeet!”

Hmm. No “tweeeeet.” That’s odd. Any other time you hear the name Al Anagonye, you usually hear a whistle. Then a ref points at him. And he makes a scrunched face. And he walks a frustrated circle, puts his hands on his hips, looks at his coaches, and eventually takes a seat on the bench.

“I know, I know,” he says, laughing. “I get called for a lot of fouls. But when you are the biggest guy out there, all the eyes are on you, you know?”

They will be on him again today. The Michigan State Spartans play the Arizona Wildcats for the right to suit up for the last game of the college basketball season, the one that counts more than all the others. And most experts agree, the way to beat the Wildcats is to play them physical. Bang and defend. So the Spartans need their big men.

They need Al.

Minus the “tweet.”

From Africa to East Lansing

“Sometimes, I swear, I look at the tape and he really didn’t touch anyone,” Tom Izzo says of his 6-foot-8, 255-pound sophomore forward. “But they call a foul anyhow. You get a reputation and pretty soon, you have to be twice as careful.”

Twice as careful? Nah. That’s too much work.

I have a better idea. Get the refs together, have them sit down with Anagonye for a cup of coffee. By the time they’re done, they will not be thinking of him as some oversized thug.

Instead, they will come to know a kid who spent a good part of his childhood on a farm in Africa, kicking up dust, chasing chickens. They will see a kid who played soccer when he was younger — and goalie at that, the position with the least amount of contact! They’ll see a kid whose parents, one of whom holds a PhD in engineering, the other a master’s in library science, would much prefer he got a 4.0 grade-point average than a national championship ring.

They will see a kid who refers to himself as “a universal brother.”

“A universal brother?” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “If someone is different than me, I still feel comfortable around them.

“Like, if we have to take a long car ride together, I could listen to their country music, or I could listen to their blues music, or I could listen to their jazz music or their R&B. Whatever they like. I wouldn’t complain.

“I try to be flexible.”

Now, refs. I ask you.

Does that sound like a hacker?

Too many fouls, too much sitting

OK. It’s true. Anagonye played a little football at Detroit DePorres High. And it’s true, he is not exactly bothered by contact. And yes, in the Spartans’ famous War drills — in which everyone storms the boards — Anagonye actually seems to be enjoying himself. And OK, he has one of the most chiseled bodies on the team.

But that doesn’t mean he fouled the guy!

“It is frustrating,” Anagonye says. “You have to not take it personally.”

He averages 3.2 fouls a game while playing only 18 minutes. So he commits a foul every 5 minutes, 45 seconds. Although he begins games in the starting lineup, his fouls often make him the first guy to the bench. Better footwork and keeping his hands up would make his playing time last.

“I know that. I’m working on it. Meanwhile, if I get a bad call, I have to bite my tongue. I know the refs are just doing their job.”

When Anagonye is left to do his, he can be a tremendous force. In the second game of the NCAA tournament, against Fresno State, he collected a team-high 13 points and six rebounds.

“Without him in that game,” Izzo said, “we don’t advance.”

The same might be true today. Boxing Arizona will be important. Muscling the Wildcats is the best way to shut them down.

So MSU fans might want to practice that Shaggy song, and every time they hear the familiar “tweet!” they can launch into a verse.

It wasn’t Al!

But we saw him foul his man now

It wasn’t Al!

He hit him with his open hand now-

It wasn’t Al!

Well we gotta call a tall guy

It wasn’t Al!

Anagonye is the fall guy

It wasn’t Al!

Hmm. I’ll tell you what. Singing might not help, but if Anagonye can sit through those lyrics on a long car ride, he really is tolerant.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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