This is a college story. A young man named Bobby Madison arrived in Kalamazoo a few years ago. He came to play basketball. He came from Alabama, a small town with an elastic plant and a barbecue joint. He knew nothing of Michigan, except that it was cold. Snow? He’d seen snow. A few times. Near Birmingham. Down there, he says, if it snows three inches “we miss school for five days.”

He unpacked his bags and waited in the dorm room.

“Then this tall skinny kid comes in,” Madison recalls, “and I said, ‘Well, I guess this is my roommate.’ “

The tall skinny kid was, like Madison, a junior college transfer. And, like Madison, a basketball player. His name was Mike Williams. He, too, was far from home. Not as far as Madison. Williams came from Detroit, meaning he never left the state. But when you’ve grown up in the Motor City, Kalamazoo can seem a long way away.

“When I first met Bobby, I thought, ‘OK, this is a small-town country boy, with his little country accent,’ ” Williams remembers. “I couldn’t really understand half of what he said. But he helped me bring my stuff into the room, and we talked about basketball, and he was cool right off the bat. We clicked.”

Today, the two senior players are together in Orlando for their first and only run at the Big Dance, the NCAA tournament. It is a college player’s dream. Madison is a 6-foot-6 forward reserve who contributes with rebounding and defense for Western Michigan. And the 6-foot-8 Williams? Well, he’s a rocket. The Mid-American Conference player of the year, averaging 18.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, made the top 10 in eight different league categories.

“Mike is the most unselfish superstar I know,” Madison says.

He’s also the guy with the T-shirts.

Don’t forget the cereal

Oh, yeah. Forgot to mention. In the Madison-Williams household, T-shirts are fair game. You wear mine, I wear yours. Except that Williams, according to his roommate, “goes to the mall every week or so and buys 10 white T-shirts, so there’s always an extra one lying around. I borrow ’em sometimes. But Mike says ‘What’s mine is yours.’ “

And apparently, it goes both ways. Says Williams, talking on a cell phone:
“I’m wearing Bobby’s belt right now.”

OK. So they borrow each other’s clothes and they play the same video games and they share the same spartan sense of decorating — “There’s nothing on my walls,” Williams says, “and there’re nothing on Bobby’s.”

They also share one other thing:

They really like each other.

“When I first got up here, being from a small southern town, Mike would tease me, he’d say ‘Hey, our game is on TV. Is everyone in your town gonna come over your parents’ house to watch?’ “

“Well,” counters Williams, laughing, “did he tell you about his cereal eating? He eats cereal all day long. You’d think him being from the south and all, he might like some of that food. But he doesn’t eat collard greens. He eats Lucky Charms.”

Lucky Charms?

A lifelong friendship

On Friday, the Broncos, 24-6 on the season, will take on Vanderbilt in the first round of the tournament. It’s the first time in six years that Western has made the Big Dance. Before that, you have to go back 22 years, to 1976.

So Williams and Madison know they’re part of something special. But then, they already knew that. They have plans for the summer, visiting each others’ homes.

“Mike took me into Detroit a few times,” Madison says. “We had a good time. It’s a big city to me, but Mike kept saying, ‘This is my town!’

“Now I want to get him to come visit me in Alabama. I know what he’ll say when he gets down there. He’ll say ‘There’s nothing to do.’ He’ll see a cow and he’ll say ‘What’s that?’ “

Williams laughs when he hears that. “That’s OK. I need to put on some weight to try for the NBA. I need to gain about 15-20 pounds. I figure that won’t take me long the way they eat down there.”

It’s funny, isn’t it? Both of these guys took the circuitous route to the Big Dance. Junior College. Transfer. Go to smaller conference school. Hope for a big season.

But here they are, best friends, cogs in a team that set a school record for victories. Each of them knows Friday’s game could be their last together. Each of them says they’re “not thinking about losing.”

Each of them knows it could happen.

But if it does, only one story ends. Others go on. Both Bobby and Mike plan to graduate. Both plan to stay in touch.

“It’s been fun while it lasted,” Williams says. “If you meet people from different places, when you’re finished, you have a connection, you know? New people you know, new people to visit. That’s the cool part of going away to school.”

And that is a college story.

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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