IF ONLY EVERYONE COULD FAIL LIKE THIS

Disappoint: 1. To fail to fulfill the expectations or wishes of others.

EAST LANSING – What a word to hang on a kid. And that was all Kelvin Torbert really was when he arrived at Michigan State four years ago, a kid – a big, strong kid from Flint getting his first splash of life away from home. He was still a freshman when he heard “disappointment” for the first time.

“Someone wrote it. They said I wasn’t as good as advertised,” he says. “It hurt. I thought, ‘Man, I just got here.’ “

Since then, to understand the frequency with which “disappointment” has been tagged on Torbert, go back to the newspaper photograph for his Mr. Basketball award of 2001. In that photo, the trophy – given to the best high school senior in the state – was placed on a rim, with Torbert posing above it.

Now imagine “disappointment” on the rim instead, and Torbert unable to jump high enough to knock it down. That’s largely what life has been like for the MSU senior guard.

And it’s not fair.

Were he someone who came to school as an All-America hero and flunked out, did drugs, pulled a gun, wound up in jail, then yeah, he would be a disappointment.

But Kelvin Torbert arrived at Michigan State as a motherless child (she died when he was 5) with a father suffering from life-threatening kidney ailments, and all he did was get decent grades, stay out of trouble, provide guidance for younger players, and make graduation a priority.

Oh, and he played some pretty darn good basketball. Maybe not the basketball some folks expected. Maybe not the basketball that matched the hype.

Then again, maybe hype was the problem.

Tough lessons in East Lansing

“I think hearing talk about me being able to go to the pros right out of high school – it puts your mind-set like you’re at the top, that you can accomplish anything,” he says. “I think that kind of hurts kids coming into school.”

Torbert, ranked by some as the No. 1 high school player in the nation, says he realized after two weeks of practice that college ball was not going to be a breeze, that other MSU players were Mr. Basketballs in their home states, too. He had a bone chip in his ankle that limited his movement and his explosive leaping, but out of fear of falling behind -“I was afraid of surgery and being redshirted”- he kept it to himself. Given the chance to do it again, he would have gotten it fixed.

Instead, he dragged through his first season and never rose to expectations – literally. His sophomore and junior years were improvements, but he never averaged more than 10.7 points, and his expected honors and accolades went to others. Torbert became a terrific defensive player and a solid teammate – things coaches love but that rarely get celebrated.

“Given the hype,” he is asked, “how long did you think you would play for MSU before you got here?”

“Honestly?” he says. “Maybe two years.”

Instead, he is finishing his fourth and final season and, starting tonight, in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, his next game could be his last. The NBA is a longshot. Hard questions await.

A final chance to dream

When Torbert was a toddler, his mother took him to preschool. The first day, as soon as she left, he began crying and acting up, until the teachers called and asked his mom to return. It is a natural instinct to hang onto what protects you. And in Torbert’s case, the security was fleeting. His mother died a year later. He can’t have her back now, no matter how much he acts up.

But what that taught him, before he ever dribbled a basketball, is that nothing is forever, and nothing is guaranteed. The last person who seems to be bothered by Kelvin Torbert’s career path is Kelvin Torbert. He seems secure in what he has done and what he hasn’t. Even coming off the bench – something Tom Izzo tried with Torbert this season – doesn’t faze him. “I’ve started so many games in my career, as long as I’m playing the minutes and being productive, it doesn’t matter.”

He takes pride in being “an all-around player” and in “helping teammates off the court if they have difficulties. I’ve been through a good deal of adversity, so I can help them out.”

Yes, he still dreams of his perfect game for MSU, “a triple double” he says, because so few Spartans have ever done it. But the odds and the clock are against him.

So tonight, in Worcester, Mass., he’ll play hard, off the bench, and he’ll scrap and he’ll defend and at some point in the next three weeks, the college chapter will close. Kelvin Torbert will be done.

This week, we named the newest Mr. Basketball, who posed for a photo that ran large on the sports front. Torbert is asked what he would tell this year’s winner.

“Enjoy the award,” he says, “and don’t take it for granted.”

Good student. Good guy. Hard worker. Soon to be college graduate. Before you tag the D-word on Kelvin Torbert, think about it. It might be fairer to recall him not for how he shrank, but for how he grew.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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