Photo: Michigan State advanced to the 1957 Final Four behind the play of Johnny Green.
Improbable describes Michigan State basketball's ninth NCAA Final Four with Sunday’s win over Louisville, but no Final Four run began with more exotic origins than the Spartans' first one in 1957.
Its seminal moments include Johnny Green gaining attention 60 years ago while he served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and earned All-Far East honors playing in military tournaments. Green, though, was anything but a basketball prospect when he graduated from Dayton Dunbar and joined the Marines.
He stood only 5 foot 11 and had not played high school sports.
“After I was 18 years old, I grew to 6-5 in the service,” Green said. “They put military chow in me and I grew up.”
Next he discovered he could jump.
“I didn’t know I could jump because I didn’t try,” he said. “But when I went into the service, I saw what guys could do. I tried to emulate them. I played basketball and started to improve.”
And that was the first leap to establishing the legend of “Jumpin” Johnny Green, who turned 81 last December and lives in Dix Hills, N.Y.
Two years after he was discharged from the Marines and had enrolled at Michigan State, he turned out to be the spark to the Spartans’ first Final Four as a 23-year-old sophomore in 1957. He ultimately earned two-time All-American honors in 1958 and 1959, was a New York Knicks first-round draft pick and a 14-year NBA veteran.
Just as Green had no idea he was destined for basketball stardom before he joined the Marines, Michigan State’s coaching staff was unaware of the untapped talent that had landed on their Jenison Fieldhouse doorstep. It’s true Spartans head coach Forddy Anderson received a tip from a Michigan State alumnus that coached football at a Japan military base, but Green said that story has been embellished over the years.
“I had access to other schools,?? he said, ??but I just happened to pick Michigan State.”
At the time, Michigan State was known as a good fit for military veterans. School president John Hannah realized the potential of building the Michigan State into a major university with veterans returning home to attend college on the G.I. Bill legislation that was passed after World War II.
Green wasn’t discharged from the service until the fall of 1955 and didn’t visit Michigan State’s campus until November. He’d missed the September start of the quarter system. He explained the coaches told him they didn’t have a scholarship available, so he enrolled in January, 1956 for the winter quarter with his own funding.
He soon dominated play in the upstairs gym at Jenison Fieldhouse. One of the legendary stories was Green jumping to tap the top of a 12-foot dividing wall.
“I went to up to the gym and the coaches were watching me at that point,” Green said. “I guess they decided they could take a chance on me and give me a scholarship.”
However, Green didn’t gain sophomore eligibility to join the varsity by the NCAA rules of the time until the winter quarter of January, 1957. Without Green, the 1956-57 season did not start out as a year suggesting unprecedented success was on the horizon.
The Spartans stumbled to a 4-3 record in December. They were still without Green for their Big Ten opener that took place before winter quarter classes began and dropped to 4-4 with a loss to Purdue.
With him, the Spartans still lost three straight to Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State to stand 4-7 overall and 0-3 in conference play.
“When I joined the team, we weren’t playing well,” Green said. “I had never played with any of the players on the varsity. We were like strangers; our timing was off. But after a few games we started to come together. Then we ran off a winning streak.”
The Spartans won 10 straight before a loss in the regular-season finale to Michigan. The loss cost them an out-right championship as they shared the title with Indiana. But they still advanced as the Big Ten representative to the NCAA Mideast Region at Kentucky in the days when only one conference member earned a bid.
Green led the Spartans in rebounding at 14.6 a game and Jack Quiggle in scoring at 15.3 points per outing. Green and Quiggle were both first team All-Big Ten.
Michigan State’s first NCAA Tournament was in the days when the field numbered only 23 teams, with six in the Mideast Regional. The No. 11-ranked Spartans and No. 3 Kentucky had byes to the regional semifinals -- a round now referred to as the Sweet Sixteen.
Notre Dame defeated Miami of Ohio to advance opposite Michigan State and Pitt beat Morehead State to earn a date with Kentucky.
Michigan State, which lost at Notre Dame 86-76 in January in Green’s second varsity game, beat the No. 17-ranked Irish in the regional semifinals 85-83. Then the Spartans rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to upset No. 3 Kentucky and head coach Adolph Rupp on its home court 80-68 and earn a Final Four trip.
“It was a lot different then,” Green said. “They didn’t talk about the Sweet Sixteen when you played in the regionals. But we were excited to be playing and excited to be going to the Final Four.”
- 1957 Final Four, Part I: The night Adolph Rupp met Johnny Green
- 1957 Final Four, Part II: Michigan State jump start to First Final Four
- 1957 Final Four, Part III: Michigan State first confronted Final Four perfection in 1957
- 1957 Final Four, Part IV: Sports crumbled prejudice before 1957 Final Four