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December 14, 2012
Change for the Better
EAST LANSING - When it opened in 1940, Jenison Field House was one of the finest indoor athletic arenas in the world.
By the time Michigan State's basketball team moved out of Jenison in 1990 for Breslin Center, Jenison Field House had become a source of shame.
"Jenison was the only thing that we had to apologize about in recruiting," said former coach Jud Heathcote.
Now, 72 years after moving into Jenison, and 23 years after moving out, Michigan State basketball is fully secure in itself as an elite national program. And with that security comes the confidence to step back into Jenison, on one more occasion, for a time-capsule weekend, as MSU celebrates the 50th anniversary of "The Game of Change" by welcoming back some of the players and coaches who built Spartan basketball.
"The Game of Change" and the relevance of Mississippi State's decision to defy the orders of Mississippi's governor and state police to sneak out of Starkville, Miss. and come north to East Lansing to play Loyola of Chicago at Jenison Field House in the 1963 NCAA Tournament is recognized as a landmark in race relations and civil rights. Loyola had several African-Americans in its lineup. Mississippi State, from the all-white Southeastern Conference, broke ranks, broke orders and broke barriers when they put competition ahead of outdated social conventions to play Loyola in this building.
Loyola and Mississippi State were not available as opponents for MSU on this, the 50th anniversary of The Game of Change. So Michigan State is celebrating the anniversary of the event by play playing Saturday at 9 p.m. against Tuskegee University, an historically African-American college which headquartered the training of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of fighter pilots who helped bring about an end to World War II during the same decade when Jenison Field House opened. The Tuskegee Airmen National Museum is located in Detroit, hence the local connection.
Michigan State will begin a weekend of celebration by staging an Alumni Game tonight at 7 p.m. at Jenison Field House. As of Thursday evening a few hundred tickets remained on sale.
The 19th-ranked MSU men's team will play Tuskegee at 9 p.m. on Saturday.
MSU's women's team will play Indiana-Purdue/Fort Wayne at 2 p.m., on Sunday.
RELATED: Carlton Valentine Interview
On Thursday, Michigan State's team practiced at Jenison for the first time since 1989. Not counting Tom Izzo, more than five generational eras of Spartan basketball were represented in the building in an impromptu gathering.
At courtside were:
Terry Donnelly, the famed shooting guard from the 1979 National Championship team.
Gus Ganakas, who was MSU's head coach from 1969-76 and is still very much involved in the program as a member of the Spartan radio broadcast team.
Carlton Valentine, a member of the 1986 Skiles-era Sweet 16 team, and star player in the lean years of '87 and '88, during which he was team MVP. His son, Denzel Valentine, is a freshman starter for this year's Spartans.
Matt Steigenga, who came to MSU as the program's second Mr. Basketball award winner in 1988. He played at Jenison for one year, through the transition to Breslin and the Big Ten title in 1990, and graduation in 1992. He is MSU's radio color commentator.
Aloysius Anagonye, a power forward from the 2000 National Championship team.
They came to Jenison just to check things out. They couldn't stay away.
And once they arrived, they were blown away.
"This was amazing, walking in here," said Carlton Valentine.
Blown away by the dressed-up version of old Jenison for this one last weekend fling. With shiny temporary stadium seating rising from floor level, bright lights glistening onto a wooden court, the old school newness of Jenison returned the building to the dignity of its 1940 grand opening.
"I'm just kind of blown away, man," Valentine said. "This is all I knew, as a player here. I never played at Breslin. This is all I knew. And it's back.
"This place looks amazing. I love the colors. I love the updated green of the seats. I love it. It's beautiful."
Valentine looked around, and talked about the old days, about beating Michigan in the natural sunlight of a noon game in 1987 in front of Dick Vitale, and getting lit up by the Sarunas Marciulionis and the Soviet National Team earlier that season.
RELATED: Terry Donnelly Interview
"When I was here, they (the fans) had benches in rows," Valentine said, motioning up and down the sideline. "And for this they put in some custom seats.
"The lighting is great. Everything looks shiny in here."
Valentine has won two state titles as head coach of Lansing Sexton High. He comes back to Jenison every summer for team camps and scrimmages. They cram four or five courts onto the tartan floor for Izzo's team camp. There are no floor-level bleachers as part of the summer configuration.
"Today, it has a gameday look to it," Valentine said. "It's amazing."
Jenison hasn't looked like this since 1989. In fact, it might look better than ever.
"It looks a little bit better than when I was here 30-some years ago," Donnelly said, as he looked up at 4 p.m. sunbeams of light seeping through the wall windows on the west side of the building.
"When I was here, the sunlight used to come in there and you could see the dust from the windows all the way down the floor," Donnelly said.
There is no dust this weekend.
"The bleachers are green now," he said. "They used to be a rusty cream color. And they have the pictures over the windows. It looks great."
Even when empty.
"When you put the bleachers back in here and you get 10,000 people in here and you can smell the popcorn going, it's a whole different world," Donnelly said.
That world will return tonight - decades after some of these guys thought it was gone forever.
"It's very emotional," Valentine said. "I came in here, and I walked around and sat on the other side."
Away from everybody else. Valentine needed a moment.
"I couldn't believe it," Valentine said. "That's why I went and sat by myself.
"I had a chill up my back. It's incredible, man. Incredible. It gave me a big chill.
"My son is playing out here. I'm a guy from Washington D.C. That's crazy, man."
Valentine isn't playing in tonight's Alumni Game. But the fifty-something-year-old Donnelly will play, along with more than 40 other former Spartans.
"I'll get out there," Donnelly said. "I've never watched a game at Jenison, so why start now? If I can get out there and run up and down the floor and put a uniform on one more time, so be it. I'll be out there. Hopefully they have a couple ambulances sitting out front."
They almost needed one for junior guard Keith Appling on Thursday when he collided with Anagonye during practice. Anagonye practiced with the Spartans, serving as a scout team big man.
"Oh man, I bumped into him once," Appling said. "It's like running into a brick wall. It's crazy. He's a big, strong guy, man. We kind of bumped into each other and that kind of hurt my shoulder for a second. But it's all right."
When Appling staggered away from the collision, Izzo bit down on his whistle and smiled a little bit.
"You're with the big dogs, now!" yelled Spartan assistant coach Dane Fife.
And this weekend, most of the big dogs are back.
Among them: Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and six other members of the 2000 National Championship team, plus Ron Charles and Gerald Gilkie from the '79 team, and former NBA Spartans such as Kevin Willis, Mike Peplowski and Pig Miller.
Jud Heathcote planned to attend, but suffered a hip injury recently and will have to miss the event.
"That saddens me," Donnelly said. "I haven't seen Jud in quite some time. I hope he is doing well and we wish him all the best. We will miss him this weekend."
Izzo couldn't hang around after practice to speak with media about the day's events. He left practice 10 minutes early with assistant coach Dwayne Stephens to fly to Texas to attend Thursday night's high school basketball game featuring superstar recruit Jabari Parker. MSU and Duke are perceived as the top two contenders for Parker, who recently announced that he plans to make a college decision next Tuesday.
So it's MSU and Duke - two of the top programs in the country - battling for arguably the best high school player in the country. That scenario might have seemed unthinkable back in 1989 when the Spartans moved out of Jenison. But MSU basketball has blossomed a bit since then.
There were peaks prior to the move, of course. The '79 title run, led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson, eventually altered the course of basketball, worldwide.
Fittingly, a university that played host to a game that changed America in 1952, and fielded a team which changed the sport in 1979 is stepping forward again to commemorate both in 2012.
Magic will be at the game on Saturday. But he is planning to miss Friday's Alumni Game in order to attend a function at The White House with President Barrack Obama.
This weekend, for one of the most famous athletes on the planet, there is only one house that can upstage Jenison Field House, and that's The White House.
But not by much.