Mike Peplowski deserved better than this. He had the years. He had the scars. No way a guy like him should have to exit the greatest rivalry of his career not only on the losing team, not only after a crushing overtime defeat, but while two enemy players, Ray Jackson and Chris Webber — just toddlers compared to Peplowski — danced before him on the scorer’s table, shaking their hips and leading the crowd in a wave. Peplowski looked down as he saw this. He kept walking. That ain’t no way to treat a senior. But then, being a senior in college basketball these days often means only you didn’t go pro as a junior. Which is what made watching the tireless Peplowski play his last green-blue showdown Sunday, plowing his way to one desperate rebound after another, muscling inside, laying it in, trying to keep pace with the sleeker, supersonic talent around him, seem so unfair.
Once upon a time, four years ago, when he was a bundle of youthful hormones in a brickhouse body, a kid so happy to be alive he tattooed a Polish eagle above his ankle that read “Pure Bred” and talked breathlessly about riding a motorcycle across the world, once upon a time, back then, Peplowski figured senior year would be most excellent, the biggest blast of all.
It didn’t work out. Instead, senior year has been one narrow Spartan loss after another, like hanging on a ledge as someone stomps on your fingers and you slowly let go, one finger at a time, of all your post-season dreams. Six conference wins. Ten conference losses. This is Mike Peplowski’s introduction in the real world. Senior year. Big whoop.
“You want to win these games so badly,” said the 6-foot-11 center, sitting for the final time in the cramped visitors locker room under the seats at Crisler Arena, after MSU’s 87-81 defeat to Michigan. “If we could have won today, it would have made our whole year. It would have made our season. it would have been fun.”
Fun. You don’t often hear the word in big-time college sports anymore. You hear pressure, focus, effort, intensity.
But fun? Well. Mike Peplowski always knew about fun. He knew about it even when he dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broke his neck, and even when he rode his bike off a high ramp and wound up in the hospital, and even when he survived that awful knee surgery in high school, when doctors said forget basketball, you’ll never play again. All the time, the fun kept him going. He would talk about his next dream before the cast came off; he talked about sky-diving, big game hunting, deep-sea fishing, he talked with the wide-eyed zeal of a prophet just come down from the mountain. He read philosophy. He quoted “The Great Gatsby.” He wore short hair and the occasional earring and a grin and a motorcycle helmet and he kept on looking, for fun, for experience. He believed in the future.
He still does. Remarkably.
“You can call me nuts, but I honestly believe we’re going to end this season with a win. I just do.”
He sighed. “Every game we’ve lost has been so damn close.”
Like Sunday. The unranked Spartans had Michigan, No. 4 in the nation, reeling. They had the ball with 38 seconds left, score tied, 76-76. One basket would win it. One basket might put them into the NCAA tournament. They tried twice. Both shots were blocked. The game went to overtime. Michigan turned it up. End of story.
And yet, even in this most sour finish, Peplowski, 22, who has always had a keener eye than most college athletes, managed to take a mental snapshot. As he walked out for overtime, he saw a fan in the stands, angrily flipping him the bird.
“I just started to laugh,” he says. “I mean, what could get a person that mad except college basketball?”
He smiled again and stuffed his bag with sweaty clothes. Reporters began to gather. Someone asked about this fierce rivalry, which State has won four times and lost four times during Peplowski’s stay. He reminisced. There was the night last season when the Spartans came into Ann Arbor and wrestled those Fab Five to the ground. Peplowski had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Fun. And there was the night two years earlier, when the Spartans buried Michigan at the new Breslin Center, en route to winning the Big Ten. More fun.
On Sunday, his last basket, a lay-up, was the last time Michigan State led the game, 76-75. There’s something fitting in that.
He pulled on a shirt and tucked it in his pants. This week, he plays his last home game as a Spartan. By next month, he’s done altogether. There will be no Big Ten championship, no jewel to crown his senior season.
Except, maybe, the one he has created himself. I have seen Peplowski in many poses over the years. Triumphant, leaping like a refrigerator with legs, and despondent, angry, fighting tears that took over his huge face. I have seen him have good nights and bad nights, seen him hug his now-senior teammate Dwayne Stephens when they won a game in the NCAA tournament, seen him scowling and yelling at himself after a mistake. He is a wonderful player. Not the best ever, maybe not even NBA starting material. But he cares. He dives into the moment. And I have come to this conclusion: Mike Peplowski has been teaching a course out there all these years. This is the course: The Importance of Being Earnest.
You know what Steve Fisher, the opposing coach, spoke about after his Wolverines won Sunday and all but locked up a No. 1 seed in college basketball’s big dance? He spoke about Mike Peplowski: “Mike is a class and quality guy through and through,” Fisher said. “My only regret is that I didn’t get the opportunity to coach him for four years. We are going to miss him in this league.”
Maybe he plays pro ball. Maybe he goes to Europe. Maybe he finds a Harley and rides off into the sunset. But Peplowski, who will graduate this spring with a well-earned diploma and a duffel bag full of memories, did what more college athletes should do during his career. He sucked it in. He enjoyed every minute. He battled scars and demons and setbacks and exhaustion and he played as if every dribble meant something. He may not seize a championship in this, his final year, but he has done something more: He has seized the day. The world is his.