Michigan will try to help bitter but grieving rival Michigan State heal, days after devastating tragedy

It was supposed to be an evening of nostalgia, the kind of thing sports does better than anything else in our lives: Hey, remember those athletes who conjured the memories you still talk about today, 10 years later? Well, they’re back in the building, and you can thank them, again.

The persistent national tragedy of random mass shootings will take much of the attention from Michigan’s reunion of its 2013 Final Four team Saturday night at Crisler Arena. UM will be honoring, in a variety of ways, the three beautiful young people whose unlimited futures were robbed from them and those who loved them, reminding us this is another thing that sports does better than anything else in our lives. And, lately, our games too often have been required to help us navigate the aftermath of senseless violence.

Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner were not yet born when the late Jack Buck, the legendary Cardinals baseball announcer, stood at a microphone in the infield at old Busch Stadium six days after 9/11 and asked a simple four-word question: “Should we be here?” He answered it himself: “Yes.”

There is no appropriate length of time to wait to resume normal life after a calamity of this magnitude, or that one. We pause, we grab hold of the closest person emotionally or geographically or both, and then we continue, still bewildered at how our society allows these things to occur.

Michigan State will play basketball Saturday at rival Michigan, six days after a man with a gun shot three MSU students to death for reasons that might never be genuinely clear. The schedule had called for a game Wednesday, but that was postponed along with all other campus events and classes. They could have called off this one, too, and the next and the next and the next, and it would never be enough time. Which is why playing this one makes sense.

The Michigan athletic department is underscoring this by adding several elements to the game presentation designed to acknowledge the horror and honor those lost. In warmups, the UM players will wear specially designed shirts, and special t-shirts will be distributed to the student group Maize Rage, both asserting UM’s support of MSU. The student fans will display a “Spartan Strong” flag. The pep band will play Michigan State’s alma mater. And there will be a moment of silence.

All of these are lovely gestures, particularly coming not long after the UM-MSU rivalry devolved into a bitter postgame confrontation in the tunnel under Michigan Stadium last October, which resulted in criminal charges against multiple MSU players and the university being fined $100,000 by the Big Ten Conference. The conference cited in its statement the participation of seven Spartans players in the brawl that included only two Wolverines. The MSU player who faced the most profound criminal charges, Khary Crump, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault/battery and was sentenced to a year’s probation and community service.

Wouldn’t it be so much better, though, if the artificial hostility that typically rules an athletic contest were all that needed to be considered during the Spartans-Wolverines game Saturday night?

Tom Izzo

In a speech delivered on campus Wednesday, Spartans basketball coach Tom Izzo revealed his son Steven, a walk-on playing for his dad, arrived at the site of the shooting 10 minutes after it occurred, and led him to a more intimate understanding of the events.

“Sometimes we don’t understand, because we haven’t been through it,” he said. “That little moment brought me a little closer to understanding.”

Izzo has been at Michigan State for 40 years, starting as a graduate assistant under Jud Heathcote, rising to his heir apparent and then to a Hall of Fame head coaching career that began in 1995, has included eight Final Four appearances and an NCAA championship and made him the most prominent individual on campus.

“I don’t like the place. I don’t love the place. I live the place,” he said. “I’m also a father of two Spartans of my own. I can’t begin to imagine what all of you are going through. But I do know that we as a campus community can offer our support both to you, and to each other. Look around. Look next to you. Shake somebody’s hand. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. That’s who we are, and that’s who we need to be at this time.”

Izzo was an ideal person to deliver this speech because he makes a living helping young people of college age to traverse obstacles and challenges and even heartbreak, but most often those elements are manufactured by a game the participants love, even when they lose. Not all of it has been about the agony of defeat, though. He has seen his players through the death of loved ones. One of the greatest Spartans, All-America guard Cassius Winston, lost his brother in the fall of 2020, when Zachary Winston committed suicide by walking in front of a moving train. The Spartans had to play after that happened, as well.

“We’ve come for many different reasons: to heal, to grieve, to honor our victims, to stand up to fear – which you’re going to have to do a lot in your life,” Izzo said. “Whatever you’re feeling, it’s all valid. Emotions are different for each and every person … We all process trauma in a very different way.”

Saturday night, the Michigan State community will process it through 40 minutes of basketball against the team Spartans love to beat the most. Whatever the result, it will not feel the same as it would have just seven days earlier. At least for now.


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