SECRETLY, U-M FANS SHOW THEIR GREEN

EASTLANSING — Deep under the ground, in a secret laboratory hidden beneath the Breslin Center, the conversions continue.

A young fan in maize-and-blue colors, wearing a Jalen Rose jersey and long yellow shorts, takes his place on the surgical table.

“Is it going to hurt?” he asks, removing his U-M cap.

“Noooo,” say the doctors. “It won’t hurt a bit.”

Out comes a needle, filled with green fluid.

“Wait a minute!” the young man says. “What’s THAT?” …

Across the room, in the corner, a young cheerleader wipes the maize-and-blue butterfly from her forehead as she fidgets nervously in a chair.

“Just temporary, right?” she says.

“Sure, sure,” say the doctors, applying a green-and-white butterfly in its place. “Just temporary.”

Down the hall, a group of patients stand at attention, struggling with the song lyrics in front of them.

“Hail to the vict–“

“No, no!” says the doctor. “Let’s try it again. ‘Go right through for MSU . .
.’ “

The doors keep swinging open. More and more Michigan fans come tiptoeing in, looking over their shoulders, making sure they weren’t followed.

“My dad doesn’t know I’m here,” says one sweaty teenager, who wears a Wolverines sweatshirt. “He’d kill me!”

“We understand,” says the receptionist.

“You won’t tell him, will you?”

“Of course not.”

“He’s old school.”

“Don’t worry. Just step over there …and leave that sweatshirt on the counter.”

A time to change?

On and on it goes. This place has been steadily filling since early March, when Michigan State was seeded for the NCAA tournament and Michigan was seeded
— well, it wasn’t seeded for anything. At first there were just the stray basketball junkies, so desperate to root it didn’t really matter what colors they wore.

Then, as MSU began to win, more and more U-M fans began to sneak in. First round. Second round. Third round. Some were dragged in by friends. Others came wearing sunglasses and false beards. But now? Well, now that the Spartans have a crack at the national title, the waiting room is jammed.

“Look, you can’t tell a soul,” says a beefy young man, carrying a U-M megaphone. “But I used to tumble for Michigan.”

“Tumble?” the doctor says.

The young man puts down the megaphone and clears his throat. “And now, to quote Boy George, I’ll tumble for you.”

The MSU doctors are only too happy to make the conversions. After all, the more Spartans fans the state can muster, the stronger the support for the team when it travels to St. Petersburg, Fla., to take on Duke.

Of course, as the doctors assure their new patients, the conversion is only temporary. Just until next week, the end of the tournament. Michigan fans would never surrender their allegiance full-time. But for one glorious week, they want to feel the magic. Or should we say …Magic?

“Could you give me a new nose and lips while you’re at it?” asks a U-M alum, preparing to have the Sparty logo tattooed on her navel.

“Sorry,” the MSU doctors say, “this isn’t the Witness Protection Program.”

How unusual. For so many years, March was the glory time not for the Spartans but for the Wolverines. There were U-M’s Fab Five teams, which went to the championship game in 1992 and 1993. There was the magical Michigan team of 1989, with Rumeal Robinson and Terry Mills, that won the whole enchilada, the national title.

For so long, it’s been Michigan, Michigan, Michigan. And now, all of a sudden, there’s a tilt toward East Lansing. The Spartans won the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans were a No. 1 seed. The Spartans lived up to their billing, beating Kentucky. The Spartans are building legions of new fans

Even maize-and-blue ones.

“How long will I feel pain?” the Michigan alum asks, slipping the metal cap with the two wires onto his head.

“Not long,” says the MSU doctor. “I’ll just throw this switch . . .”

A time to gloat?

Now, there are other alumni who want to throw their support to MSU as well — UDM, Eastern Michigan, Western, Central. True, they would rather see their schools in the Final Four, but if that’s not possible, they’d prefer to see a state school win it all.

But for Michigan fans to admit there’s something compelling about a Michigan State team — to admit they actually like the smiling Mateen Cleaves, the quiet Morris Peterson, the bullish Antonio Smith, the sharpshooting A. J. Granger and Jason Klein, the charmingly intense coach, Tom Izzo — well, now that’s amazing.

“One more time,” exhorts the doctor in the singing lab. “‘Go right through for MSU . . .'”

“The victors valiant!”

“No,” the doctor sighs, “again . . .”

It’s quite a scene. It only goes to show you what exciting basketball will do. It could make a united state of us all. And it’s nice to see that the MSU folks aren’t gloating.

“Now, this may sting a little,” a doctor tells a frightened-looking Michigan fan, as he holds up the giant green syringe.

“Say, doc,” I whisper, “is that really necessary?”

“Not really,” he says, grinning. “We just like to see ’em sweat.”

OK, maybe a little gloating …

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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