THE SPARTANS left for the Final Four on Wednesday night, most of them thinking glory and championships. One of them was thinking about the bus ride. And the plane ride. And the locker room.

And it makes him nearly as happy as hitting a winning jumper.

“I may run home and get my camcorder, just to film all the little stuff,” he says.

Mike Chappell belongs. Oh, he may not have had the greatest season this year. He may just now be finding his stride. But he’s part of it. He’s inside. Last year at this time, when Michigan State went to the Big Dance, Chappell went stag. Because he had transferred from Duke, he was forced to sit out the season — one of college basketball’s incredibly hypocritical rules — and was forbidden to participate in most team activities.

So, come Final Four time, Chappell couldn’t travel with the Spartans. He had to buy a plane ticket. And he couldn’t ride the team bus, so he and his parents shared a cab. He was allowed to hang out at the team hotel, but he couldn’t sleep there. So at the end of the evenings — when the fun really got started, when buddies like Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson were in their rooms, sharing the midnight talk, laughing at some stupid joke, throwing things across the beds, being everything college kids get to be — Chappell went back to his hotel room across town, like a tourist.

He was the insider, on the outside. A kid with his nose to the window. To make matters worse, MSU’s opponent in the semifinals was — who else? — Duke. Chappell watched his old teammates battle his new teammates — not from either bench, but from the stands.

Talk about a man without a country.

The road to East Lansing

“When I was a kid, I used to write lists of my goals and put them on my walls,” says Chappell, a lean, sleek-looking junior forward, designed for shooting, which is his specialty. “I knew what I wanted to accomplish when I was in eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade . . .”

And for a while, it seemed as if his roller coaster would never dip. Chappell grew to 6-feet-9 and became a big star at Southfield-Lathrup, good enough to not only be pursued by major universities, but to have his pick.

So instead of choosing nearby Michigan or Michigan State, he selected Duke. After all, only the really special players get to go there, right? “I was young and maybe I was caught up in the appeal of playing there,” he admits. “I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

For a while, he seemed correct. He was embraced upon his arrival at Durham, N.C. He even led the ACC in three-point shooting for a stretch. As a starter for Mike Krzyzewski, he was often praised by the coach. He seemed to be on the road to a Grant Hill/Christian Laettner-like experience.

Then things changed. His playing time diminished. His output dimmed. He was like a flashlight losing battery strength. Duke recruited Corey Maggette, who everyone knew was going to be a major star, and he could play Chappell’s position.

At the end of his sophomore year, Chappell decided he wanted out. He wanted to come home.

He transferred to MSU. Which, of course, meant a year of sitting around, not playing. NCAA policy. Never mind that college coaches can quit a team one day and be recruiting a new team the next day — and they get paid! Never mind. When you play college basketball, you work for the NCAA. Their ball. Their rules.

So Chappell sat around East Lansing, being part of the team but not on the team. Celebrating without contributing. During games — such as last year’s Final Four — he was dry and dressed, and, as any athlete will tell you, if you don’t break a sweat, you don’t feel involved.

The road to Indianapolis

All that, of course, was supposed to go away this season. A breakout year for the hometown kid. This being the state of Michigan, everyone remembered Chappell as a high school hero, and, well, if he could bring that talent to an already loaded team …

It didn’t work out that way, Chappell started slowly and never hit stride. For most of the season, he didn’t even average seven points, and his shooting — always his trump card — was off.

“I think I was my own worst enemy,” he says. “I set goals so high they were impossible to reach. I started feeling like I was letting everyone down around me, and then it feels like the weight of the world is on you. Then you start thinking too much, second-guessing yourself on the court.

“I lost my instinct. I would catch a pass and think, ‘Should I shoot or should I drive?’ By the time I thought, it was too late.”

Slowly, he has begun to emerge from that funk. His shooting has improved, with his confidence and attitude. The young boy inside of him has grown up, and has realized you don’t always hit the goals on that piece of paper. But you have to go on.

“Did I think when I came out of high school that I’d be a bench player in my junior year? No,” he says, being refreshingly honest. “But I don’t think anybody could have foreseen what happened to me these last few years.”

Nor can anyone foresee the ending. It would be something if the roller coaster finished on a high note, if Chappell somehow hit a big shot at the Big Dance. But he’s not thinking that way. He took no joy when Duke was eliminated (“I felt bad for the guys I know on that team”) and he has no “It’s my time” chip on his shoulder.

Instead, he wants to savor every little moment on this trip, because he knows what it smells like and looks like as an outsider.

Say, to quote the Monkees, here they come, Indianapolis, say hello to the Spartans, including the big names you know, and the one that sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t worry about Mike Chappell. He’ll be easy to spot.

He’ll be the one filming the bus ride.

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).

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