SPARTANS’ BODY ETCHINGS A SIGN OF HIP HOOPS TIMES

My experience with tattoos began and ended with the kind you licked. Remember? They came in cereal boxes and were cartoon characters, like Mighty Mouse. You slurped one side with your tongue, then pressed it against your skin as hard as you could. When you peeled it away — ta-da! — you had a tattoo.

The bad part was if you stuck your arm under water, Mighty Mouse washed down the sink. Or maybe that was the good part. It was certainly less permanent than the markings on the Michigan State basketball team, which plays tonight in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Based on the words, names, animals, ribbons, religious images and family members etched into the skin of Spartans players, I thought they might have changed the name of the school: Tattoo U.

“My tattoos?” says Antonio Smith, the way we used to say “my pets?” or “my kids?” “Let’s see. I have Superman on my leg.”

Superman?

“Yeah. That was when my brothers and I thought we were invincible. Then I have a panther on my right arm.”

A panther?

“Yeah. That shows the wild side of me. On my left arm, I have a little boy praying to Jesus, with the words ‘Judgement Day.’ “

Judgement Day?

“Yeah. And I got ‘Flint’ on my arm to remind me of my hometown. And then on my back shoulder blade, I have my sister’s name.”

What? Nothing for Mom?

“I’m saving my chest for Mom,” he says.

Oh.

The good ol’ days

Now, I know I’m not as young as I used to be. But weren’t tattoos usually for Marines, ex-cons and guys who got really drunk in Mexico? When did they become a mainstream sports thing — especially in basketball? I’m depressed. I thought I knew basketball. I used to at least see basketball trends coming. I could even get with a few of them.

High socks? I remember them. I wore them. Big Afros, too. Couldn’t grow one, but I remember ’em. T-shirts under your uniforms? Inflatable sneakers? Baggy shorts? Saw it. Tried it.

And then, one day, I looked up from the scorer’s table, and I was at a bikers convention. Tattoo! Tattoo! De plane, boss, de plane!

Oops, wrong cultural reference.

“I got my first tattoo my senior year of high school,” says Mateen Cleaves, who now sports two: one that reads “Flint,” and the original, “Frances,” for his mother, which he admits was a calculated move. “I was a little nervous about what she’d think of a tattoo, so I figured I’d get her name and she couldn’t be mad.”

This is the logic most of the etch-a-fleshed Spartans employ. According to Smith — the unofficial team tattoo captain — he, Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and Thomas Kelley all have at least their mom’s name or “Flint” on an arm.

“I put my mom’s name on me because I want to let her know how much she means to me,” Kelley says. “Besides, if I’m gonna have something on me my whole life, I don’t mind having my mom’s name. It’s better than a dog or something.”

I hadn’t looked at it that way.

As the Worm turned heads

Now, it’s true, even years ago, Spartans center Mike Peplowski had a Polish eagle tattooed near his ankle. If you check out March Madness this weekend, you’ll see plenty of players with skin art, including animals, school names, cartoon characters or the popular “biceps-band” that looks like barbed wire around the muscle and suggests the kid is going straight from the game to a rehearsal for “Spartacus.”

“Athletes tend to follow one another,” says Greg Drake, a tattoo artist (hey, that’s his official job title) from Splash of Color Tattooing and Piercing Studios in East Lansing, where many of the MSU athletes get decorated. “One athlete will come in as the guinea pig. And if his friends see that he doesn’t come limping out in pain, then 10 of them come in.”

The process is cheap ($50 to $100) and pretty painless. And while tattoos are popular now with swimmers, football stars, even lacrosse players, basketball players provide the best canvass. For one thing, compared to hockey players, hoop stars are virtually naked.

There’s all those closeup shots at the free-throw line. And all those magazine photos of long extended arms. Bare flesh. Why it’s a marketing opportunity waiting to happen!

Dennis Rodman, cited by many as the catalyst behind the needle-and-dye explosion, has used every inch of his skin for tattoos. (At last word, Dennis was seeking to rent someone else’s skin for his overflow.) And according to one sports magazine, more than a third of NBA players now have tattoos, including Kendall Gill’s Egyptian warrior, Greg Ostertag’s Fred Flintstone and Stephon Marbury’s portrait of his daughter and him, under the words “Coney Island’s Finest.”

And here I thought that was a Nathan’s hot dog.

Which only shows how tragically unhip I have become. Tonight, I will watch the Spartans take on Oklahoma, and I will not only count points and rebounds, I will count hearts, panthers and mother’s names.

I will also listen to the cheerleaders. And if I hear …

T-A-T-T-O-O, HEY!

OUR INK LASTS

YOURS FADES AWAY!

I’ll know I need to watch more MTV.

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

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