GRANGER EXPERIENCES NEW SPARTAN EXISTENCE

He still wears a Spartan on his chest, but it is not the Spartan it used to be. The truth is, as he looks around his apartment in Greece, and the concrete buildings that crowd his street, and the small shops serving feta cheese and baklava, and the cars parked hither and yon, on the curb, the sidewalk, wherever the engine died, and the people gesturing, waving, yelling in a different language — the truth is, nothing is as it used to be.

Back home, in America, his old college team, Michigan State, is getting ready to defend its NCAA crown, the crown he helped the team win one year ago. Remember those Spartans? They had three seniors, leading them to glory:

Morris Peterson, now a rookie all-star for the Toronto Raptors.

Mateen Cleaves, now a budding star on the Detroit Pistons.

And A. J. Granger, now starting for Milon of Athens in the A1 league in Greece.

“What’s the best part?” I ask Granger about his new life as an expatriate ballplayer.

“Well,” he says. “I have a lot of free time.”

That’s an understatement. His team plays once a week, Saturdays at 5 p.m. It practices 90 minutes a day, and when practice is over, it’s over.

There are no media demands. No booster club meetings. No film sessions.

“You can’t even take too tough an attitude in practice,” Granger says. “If you challenge one of your teammates here — if you say, ‘Come on, try and check me now’ — he’ll stop and look at you like you’re insulting his family.”

Reality wasn’t a shock

Fortunately for Granger, even back at MSU, he nicely balanced real life against the coddled existence of sports stardom. He grew up in small, neighborly Findlay, Ohio. He got engaged to his longtime girlfriend during his junior year of college, and married her after graduation.

And although he, Cleaves and Peterson were integral to the Spartans’ success last season — they all started, and Granger was a rebounding, long-range shooting force — A.J. knew the other two would likely have the NBA’s door swung open, while he would have to knock loudly.

He tried. After going undrafted, he was invited to a Vancouver Grizzlies’ camp in Utah. He went. He waited. He didn’t play for four days. Finally, realizing the futility, he asked to be sent home to explore other options.

His best one was in Greece. They would hire him — as one of two American players allowed per team — for a salary in the low six figures, plus an apartment and a car.

Hey. A gig’s a gig, right?

So A.J. and his new wife, Heather, went to Athens last August, and let’s just say if life is a Greek salad, they’re in the beet section right now.

“It’s so different,” Granger says. “There’s not much for us to do here. The city closes down for three hours in the afternoon. There’s nightclubs, but they’re real late. Mostly we stay home. I sleep a lot. My wife has read about 100 books.”

How far is this from where Granger was a year ago, riding police-protected buses into tunnels of giant arenas, where as many as 50,000 screaming fans — and a nationwide TV audience — hung on the Spartans’ every basket?

Now Granger, the best player on the Milon team, plays his home games in a small gym — “more like a barn,” he says — that seats 1,200 people. Fans are searched for batteries and coins when they enter. Seats come with plastic protectors. A drink was thrown on A.J. once. There is maybe one reporter to talk to after a game.

And, oh, yeah. His team is 3-17.

No pity, no complaints

Isn’t it funny? So many players are in a rush to get to the money part of basketball, they never realize the last gasp of fun and camaraderie they are leaving behind.

“There’s no comparison,” Granger says. “I tried at first to explain to these guys what it was like last year, to win the title, to make the friendships that we made as teammates at MSU. But I gave up. Nobody here can understand it.”

He sighs. “They think this league is the biggest thing there is.”

Granger does not seek pity. He’s getting paid to play the game. No complaints.

But he admits to missing the old green-and-white days, when he was bumming money for pizza and laughing on the bus. And I’ll bet, despite their big contracts, Cleaves and Peterson do, too.

Today Granger will try to watch the Spartans on satellite TV. And at least his team, Milon, has a Spartan as its mascot — not surprising, since the original Spartans were Greek, right?

“Any message to your old team?” he is asked.

“Wish them luck,” Granger says. “And remind them that it’s over in a snap of the fingers.”

And he’s not talking about the game.

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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