Photo: Magic Johnson at Michigan State's NCAA Tournament East Region game at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. Below, 1) cutting down the nets at the NCAA title game, 2) with one of his three NBA MVP trophies 3) as a businessman opening a theater and 4) Jai Jai Shanahan outside the Breslin Center with Magic's statue in July 2014.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The “First” anything is usually a presidential designation -- but not at Michigan State, the alma mater of Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Michigan State’s “First Fan” traveled to Charlotte last weekend to urge on the Spartans’ basketball team throughout their two NCAA Tournament East Region wins Friday and Sunday that earned a berth in next weekend’s Sweet Sixteen.
Yes, Johnson is Michigan State’s colossal star athlete with eminence worthy of the statue of him outside the Breslin Center, the campus basketball arena. But make no mistake: He was first a fan growing up in Lansing, next door to the Michigan State’s East Lansing campus, before he was a mega-star.
Other schools’ star athletes may agree to appearances for alumni fund-raising events or write a check to the university. But Magic is around Michigan State basketball so much – his family still lives in Lansing – Spartans’ 20th-year head coach Tom Izzo joked he can’t use him for last-minute surprise motivational speeches. He ironically joked his presence is “boring” it’s so routine.
“The positive is I don't need to use him as a trump card,” Izzo said Sunday after the seventh-seeded Spartans upset No. 2 seed Virginia ed in the East Region. “He's here; sometimes making a phone call, sometimes doing this, trying to help the players out that went here. Boy, that's special, I promise you.”
Magic – his identity was shortened to his fitting sobriquet and replaced his given name once he found NBA stardom -- was seated in the Michigan State fan section as opposed to a celebrity suite both games at Time Warner Cable Arena. Long before tip-off on Sunday, he was bobbing with the music that blared, pointed to other fans he spotted and raised a fist to the team warming up on the court.
After a rousing play that brought the Michigan State fans to their feet, clapping and pumping fists, the 6-foot-9 Johnson rose with them, albeit his clapping and pumping with hands that reached closer to ceiling. He obviously stands out with his height and facial recognition, but his motivation to fly across the country to watch the Spartan isn’t to be seen.
“I've been blessed,” Izzo said. “I'm telling you, the greatest thing that's happened to me at Michigan State is he has supported us. He flies here from LA; he did it last year, he did it the year before, he did it when I first started. He's kind of got an annual thing now where he brings his dad, it's the coolest thing there is.”
Johnson spoke with the players briefly at their hotel on Saturday while preparing for Sunday’s game with Virginia, the ACC regular-season champion. He broke down the Spartans with such awareness Izzo couldn’t help but wonder if his players suspected he set them up.
“I said to my assistants, ‘They must think I had a meeting with him before and gave him all these things to say because he analyzed their team way better than I did,’ ” Izzo said. “So it's just special for me and I think it's special for my team that a man of his stature would take the time on a regular basis.”
Following the Virginia victory, Johnson dropped into the locker room and spoke to the team. He praised the players for their ability to adapt to Izzo’s altered defensive game plan on short notice.
“I think coach was right: the defense, helping each other, talking -- talking,” Magic said. “It was beautiful; it was beautiful to watch. And when they came back and made their run, you stuck to the game plan; you executed and stuck together.”
Then he addressed the senior leadership of guard Travis Trice, 23 points and three assists, and forward Branden Dawson, 15 points and nine rebounds.
“I just want to say when you’re in a battle, your seniors have got to step up,” Johnson said. “Trice, you stepped up baby; Dawson, you stepped up.”
Magic once wrote in a piece for the MSU Alumni Association that stated he had been attending Michigan State football and basketball games since he was 10 and was “Born to be a Spartan.”
Some sports stars come back to their alma mater in retirement seeking to re-connect with their alma mater after fame has faded. But Johnson’s relationship with the Spartans has never receded. His first couple of years in the NBA, it wasn’t unusual to see him in the Los Angeles Lakers locker room – in the shadow of tinsel-town glamour -- casually dressed in a green-and-white Michigan State basketball T-shirt.
From the first day Johnson committed to Michigan State as a high school senior and stepped on campus to play for Jud Heathcote, Izzo's predecessor and mentor, he has emotionally lifted the entire athletic program. At his commitment announcement before a full house of media assembled in the Lansing Everett High auditorium awaiting his decision in April 1977, he said: “Once you have that green and white inside you, you never lose it.”
Overnight, Michigan State basketball became a sellout at 10,000-seat Jenison Fieldhouse. But Magic filled a previously half-full Jenison before he made his college debut.
His senior year of high school, there was so much local interest over the Lansing Everett-Lansing Eastern showdown between Johnson and his friend and future Michigan State teammate Jay Vincent the game was moved to Jenison. It was sold out and broadcast live on local television.
By the fall of Johnson’s freshman year in 1977, with Michigan State football fans also optimistic about second-year head coach Darryl Rogers’ rebuilding effort, Rogers met with the media for a routine pre-season press conference at the MSU Union.
Rogers was asked about the palpable enthusiasm beginning to shine through the dark cloud of a three-year NCAA probation that began in 1976 for infractions under former coach Denny Stolz. The then-42-year-old Rogers could have accepted the praise for himself, but he deflected credit to the then-18-year-old Johnson. He offered a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats analogy.
“I think he’s excited whole campus,” Rogers said.
There’s an old saying about alumni returning to campus with faded connections as a result of new powers to be running the show: “Your alma mater doesn’t love you as much as you love it.”
That will never be the case with Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Michigan State.