Photo: Magic Johnson at the Breslin Center
Five-star high school basketball recruit Zion Williamson’s surprise decision last month to join the crowd at Duke was yet another appreciation of Earvin “Magic” Johnson's Michigan State legacy. Johnson's own path established a long-lasting respect for the Spartans' basketball program felt in today's troubled days far beyond the recruiting trail and off the court.
More serious events surrounding Michigan State's basketball win at Indiana Saturday night served as a reminder far deeper than a teenager declaring his college future. The foundation Johnson left behind established integrity and trust in a basketball program clean of recruiting violations run for 19 years by Jud Heathcote before a smooth hand off the past 23 to Tom Izzo.
Before the Indiana game, the school's administration informed fans at Assembly Hall it needed to respect the victims of Larry Nassar, the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor convicted of child molestation. They warned heckling of Michigan State's coach and athletes was at the expense of the victims and would result in ejection.
A week earlier, there was scattered heckling when Michigan State played at Maryland. It was the Spartans' first road game following an ESPN report that conflated Nassar's conviction with the programs of Izzo and Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio.
Comparing Johnson's commitment to today's climate of college recruiting relates to Michigan State's image overcoming the Nassar scandal. That first building block to Michigan State's current program began with Johnson ignoring the siren call from the University of Michigan. He followed the tug of his heart from his hometown team despite Michigan State's downtrodden status at the time.
You might object to the comparison with college recruiting, but Magic's commitment wasn't as trivial as you might suspect.
As a high school senior in 1976-77 at Lansing Everett, Johnson was ranked one of the top three recruits in the nation (the other two guys, by the way, Albert King and Gene Banks). Michigan, only 65 miles down the road, had all the national cache that these days draws kids like Williamson to follow each other like lemmings to Duke or Kentucky basketball and Alabama football.
Michigan was the NCAA runner-up to Indiana in 1976 in an All-Big Ten final. The Wolverines entered the 1977 NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Wolverines were upset by UNC-Charlotte as Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell led the 49ers to the Final Four, but that didn’t dim Michigan’s national spotlight shining over the Spartans.
Michigan State had two other factors to overcome. Johnson grew up a fan of Michigan State Gus Ganakas from attending his summer camps over the years. But Ganakas was fired after the 1975-76 season.
Heathcote arrived from Montana in the 1976-77 season to rebuild the program. He had no name identity in the Big Ten in the days long before the rapid communication of ESPN and social media. The Spartans finished 10-17 (12-15 when two Minnesota games were forfeited over NCAA rules violations).
To find anything promising about Heathcote’s future at Michigan State, you had to look past the 10-17 on-court record. Johnson was a regular at the games played at Jenison Fieldhouse, and he noted Heathcote coaxed a six- or seven-win team to 10 victories. He mentioned it upon signing with the Spartans.
He also came to realize how demoralizing it would be to the Michigan State community if he left his hometown for the Spartans’ rivals in Ann Arbor. A conversation with Vern Payne, a Michigan State assistant who was leaving to take over as the head coach at Wayne State, helped him understand. He took it upon his shoulders to take a chance on Heathcote building a program.
Clemson’s fans weren’t so fortunate with Williamson, whose high school in Spartanburg, S.C., is 67 miles from Clemson's campus. Clemson was long considered the leader for Williamson. His stepfather, Lee Anderson, played for the Tigers.
Clemson eighth-year coach Brad Brownell has lifted the Tigers to Top 25 status this year, but he needs a big-time player to climb out from the shadows cast by Atlantic Coast Conference heavyweight’s Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. The opportunity was pulled out from under him and Clemson fans when Williamson surprised the recruiting world by following the crowd to Duke.
That’s not so much a criticism of Williamson as it is a sign of the times. Entitled athletes look for the easy path. Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s commitment is such a stark contrast from today’s climate of college recruiting among elite athletes.
But you don’t have to visit the East Lansing, Mich., campus to be reminded. Once March Madness approaches, TV promotions routinely include shots of Magic leading the Spartans over Indiana State and Larry Bird in the 1979 NCAA title game.
He was called Earvin “Magic” Johnson as a college kid, but his identity has been since shortened to his nickname as a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. He transcended the NBA to Hollywood to join that small class of one-name celebrities, although it should be noted his Twitter page is titled “Earvin Magic Johnson.”
Izzo and Michigan State are leaning more than ever on the trust Johnson helped establish. ESPN tried to compare Michigan State to Baylor, but the reputations of Izzo and Dantonio make that a leap to Paterno and Briles.
Magic's legacy at Michigan State can't be overstated.
Follow Tom Shanahan on Twitter @shanny4055