EASTLANSING — Even in paradise, the dark clouds managed to find A. J. Granger. He already had endured a long bout with mononucleosis that left him weak and depleted on the basketball court, haunted him his entire sophomore year.
Then, after getting over that, his mother was in a car accident, breaking five ribs and her wrist.
Now it was December, just before Christmas, and here was A. J., in Hawaii, thinking he was finally free of bad news. He was kicking off his junior season with his Michigan State teammates, an early tournament in the land of sand, surf and sunsets. Nothing but blue skies, right?
And then came the wave. A. J.’s father, Joe, a tire-maker from Ohio who had made the trip with his son, was bodysurfing in the Pacific Ocean, just having fun, when a powerful wave lifted him and slammed him headfirst into the sand. He felt a crack from his head to his tailbone.
Now the coaches were coming to A. J. after a game, with grim faces and lowered eyes.
“There’s been an accident,” they said.
Next thing he knew, A. J. was standing over a hospital bed, looking at his father, who was strapped to a board, wearing a massive neck brace that held his head still, lest he snap the damaged vertebra and cut off blood to his brain.
So long, blue skies.
A. J. stands for Aaron Joseph, Biblical names, although the way things had been going, maybe Job would have been more appropriate. A. J. and his mother flew home to their small town of Findlay, Ohio, and sat through Christmas pretending it wasn’t really Christmas, because without Dad, it wasn’t, was it?
“When he did get home, he had to wear a halo, screwed into his head, and he had to sleep in an electric bed,” Granger recalls. “They told us he was going to be all right, so we tried to joke around with him. My little cousin looked at his halo and asked if he could hang some tinsel from it.”
This is a story about a small-town guy from a small-town family who is about to step onto one of the biggest sports stages in the world. You might think a kid like A. J. Granger would be nervous.
Then again, nerves are relative.
The hot hand
He sits now in a food court on MSU’s campus, and other students shoot glances of recognition. The short brown hair, the dark eyebrows, the Vandyke beard, the toothy grin. His face has become instantly recognizable, thanks to the storm of three-point baskets he has drilled for the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. Granger is arguably the reason the Spartans survived to this Final Four. He hit three treys when Kentucky was threatening to run away with the game Sunday. He’s shooting 70 percent for the tournament, has made eight of his nine three-pointers and all nine of his free throws.
Unlikely? Here is a gangly kid who averaged 2.6 points last season, a kid who, after catching mono from a teammate, had to sleep twice a day and was groggy most of his waking hours. He couldn’t stay in shape. He had no stamina.
Then the accident involving his mother (their car was totaled). Then the bad news in Hawaii. Yet, somehow, rather than dive into self-pity, he found himself thinking of luck.
“Seeing my dad with the halo on his head, the whole accident, it just made me grow up. It made me realize how we’re all getting older. I’d never thought about losing someone I loved. You realize how vulnerable you are.”
Such thoughts can be dangerous to an athlete. He can grow tentative. Scared of contact. With Granger, it has been exactly the opposite. He seems to have calmed down, grown confident. He seems even less worried about the highs and lows of a mere basketball game.
“You know when I noticed it?” his father says over the phone from Findlay. “He had trouble shooting free throws earlier in the season. I thought it was his feet. But he said, ‘No, Dad, it’s because I’m nervous at the free-throw line.’
“Now that’s changed. He doesn’t seem to have any nerves at all. He’s shooting free throws great. His whole demeanor is different. He just goes out and does things.”
Granger confirms he feels calmer now. He likes coming off the bench. The four or five minutes there give him time to collect himself. When he gets the ball, he doesn’t hear the crowd or other players, he only hears an inner voice that says: “Stop the ball first, then shoot.”
In other words, don’t rush it. Savor things. The ball goes through the net easier that way, and life is better enjoyed that way. Granger, from a large, loving family, got engaged over Christmas. Last weekend, at the regional finals, he sat with his family talking for two hours about friends, the cat and her kittens, the old hometown. He admits “I’ve had my share of being pulled aside for bad news after games,” but he likes how things are going now.
Want proof? Before games, like a lot of players, A. J. listens to music on his headphones. Only instead of rap — the music of choice on the Spartans — Granger likes old heavy metal, groups such as AC/DC and Pink Floyd. Over the years, the other players have teased him about this.
But last Sunday, just before the Kentucky game, Mateen Cleaves came over and asked to borrow A. J.’s Walkman.
“Whatever you’re listening to,” he said, pulling on the headphones, “I want some of it to rub off on me.”
Now there’s a switch. The team’s star player searching for A. J. Granger’s luck. Clouds move on. Life does, too.
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