You pick your colors in this state, green or blue, and once you choose, you’re supposed to be true to your school. But sometimes our college sports armies don’t realize how close their soldiers came to fighting for the other side.
Take Michigan’s Robert Traylor. He is a major force for the Wolverines’ basketball team. He plays with passion and heart. He waves his fist after menacing dunks and leaps into the air with a smile the size of a prairie, as if a Maize and Blue victory is the only thing in the world he needs to make him happy.
Yet he didn’t decide to choose Michigan over Michigan State, he says,
“until 15 minutes before I walked into the press conference in high school to announce it.”
“Wait,” I say, “you mean 20 minutes earlier you were thinking you might be a Spartan?”
“That’s right,” he says. “It was that close.”
That close. Take Michigan State’s Jon Garavaglia. He was Mr. Basketball his senior season of high school. Many people figured he was a lock for Michigan.
Steve Fisher loved him. Recruited him hard.
But in the end, Garavaglia looked at the loaded roster in Ann Arbor — which featured the Fab Five — and then he looked at the more depleted roster at Michigan State, and said, “I’m going to East Lansing.”
“I chose where I’d fit in,” Garavaglia says now. “It was an instinct thing. I knew I’d end up at either Michigan or Michigan State.”
“Could you see a scenario where you’d have played at Michigan?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says.
Mitchell picked U-M, then left
This year on the Spartans’ roster are Garavaglia and guards Mateen Cleaves and Ray Weathers, all of whom were chased by Michigan, all of whom could have ended up in Ann Arbor with a simple “yes.”
And then there are Traylor and Maurice Taylor, two Wolverines stars who could easily have been playing in green and white. All they had to do was say,
And then there are guys like Willie Mitchell. You remember him? Another Mr. Basketball, out of Detroit’s Pershing High. The Wolverines and Spartans battled long and hard for his services, sent coaches to his games, called him at home and told him why their school would be the perfect choice.
And in the end, as you know, Mitchell chose Michigan. Spartans fans were crushed.
But a few years later, Mitchell transferred to a school 1,000 miles away. Now neither U-M nor MSU has him.
Still, they prepare to do battle Saturday.
The soldiers come and go; the war goes on. And you start to realize how so much of this is timing, personalities, and luck of the draw.
“It would be easier if the schools weren’t in the same state,” says Traylor, who freely admits that had the Fab Five still been at Michigan when he came along, he’d have gone to Michigan State. “Everyone around here is either pushing for one school or the other, so you’re trying to please everybody. And you can’t.”
“For me, it was almost a coin toss,” says Weathers. “My mother said something to me about having a better chance to go to the next level by going to Michigan State. That was probably what pushed me over.”
That’s all? A mother’s comment? A coin toss? A phone call from a friend? A dream? On such things are college rosters built, and on such things do recruiting classes come apart.
There’s plenty to prove
Now, what makes all of this almost funny is how passionately these two teams will play against each other Saturday. You would think, the way they dive for balls, slap palms after baskets, glare at the opponents and urge fans in the crowd to whoop it up in their favor — well, you would think that these two teams had grown up in some civil war, where your family was born into one side or the other.
“When we play each other, we want to show our stuff for the other coaches,” Traylor admits. “We want them to know how good a player they didn’t get.”
“I still speak to Steve Fisher when we play,” says Garavaglia. “He’ll say something like, ‘I hope you score 30 points, but I hope we win.’
“I laugh. All those years of recruiting, you just don’t forget.”
No, you don’t. Ask Tom Izzo, the MSU coach. When he was working under Jud Heathcote, he put the greatest recruiting effort of his life into the best high school player in the country, a center from Country Day named Chris Webber. Izzo loved this kid. Spent time with him. Had long, thoughtful discussions with him.
Right to the end, Izzo was almost sure he had him.
You know the rest. Webber called a press conference at a Detroit restaurant. And 60 miles away, Izzo got a phone call. The chase was over. The kid chose Michigan, not Michigan State.
Izzo hung up the phone, sat on the floor, and wept.
It’s that emotional. But it’s that close, too. And it’s something you might want to consider when you line up on your side of the court Saturday.
Those kids you’re cheering could just as easily have been sinking shots for your opponent. Those kids you’re booing could just as easily been slamming dunks for your alma mater.
A coin toss. A dream. The thickness of a fabric and a little bit of green or blue pigment. That is all that separates them. That close. And that far.