Jack Ebling, DrivewithJack.com
(an early morning conversation with a ghost of Green and White glory)
We heard you loud and clear, Jud. Just like the old days.
It’s too bad you weren’t here last night. I mean really here. In Breslin. Where people could see you. And thank you.
Your protégé does that a lot. He did it again with an 81-63 drubbing of No. 5 Notre Dame, exactly the kind of pounding you wanted from the day you saw the schedule.
Remember when we did JUD: A Magical Journey in 1995, right after the Heathcote All-Star Tribute Game? You told me, “If you look up the word ‘loyalty’ in the dictionary, you’ll see Tom Izzo’s face.”
You still will. No one could pay homage to what you build any better than your 12-year apprentice. When someone starts to slobber over his 23 seasons of excellence, he always stops them. The way your matchup zone stopped Larry Bird.
He keeps saying, “It’s really 42 years now. Jud built this thing for 19. And Gus Ganakas did a lot before that.”
Yesterday was quite the day, Jud. Gus had major heart surgery in Detroit. He wanted you to know he has one. Then, Tom took over and settled some scores. His team might still be scoring.
You know the story about the ’74 game. It was two days after the Irish ended UCLA’s 88-game win streak. Mike Robinson, the one player you would’ve loved to coach, had 31 points on 16 shots. But he never got the ball at the end of the game. And Notre Dame escaped, 91-89, on a bounce-bounce-bounce-in at the buzzer.
That was the last time Digger or any other Irish coach brought a team into Jenison. Or Breslin. Until last night.
And it might be the last time. Mike Brey made that as clear as you did when you said you’d never play another game at Bowling Green. When someone asked how his team could do a better job of rebounding, he said, “Don’t schedule Michigan State.”
It was Izzo-ball at its finest, Jud. Even if it took 19 seconds for the script to be written, 16 more than in your greatest game, “The Massacre at Market Square.”
Remember when you put that play in the day before ’79 Mideast Final? You knew Kelser could win the tip from Orlando Woolridge. You were sure Magic would redirect the ball to a streaking Mike Brkovich. And you figured a layup in the first three seconds would send a massage to everyone. Including NBC, the Notre Dame Broadcasting Company, as you liked to call it.
The only thing you didn’t know was that Gregory and Earvin both told Brk, “Don’t lay it in. Dunk it! Just this once, don’t listen to what Coach said.”
Then, Terry Donnelly stole the inbounds pass. And that guy who lost a bet to the kid about the game’s first possession left to drown his sorrows on St. Patrick’s Day before the first timeout.
You told me the story about Danny Nee, the Irish assistant, who said, “Digger never swore on the bench. But I knew we were in trouble when he said, ‘Oh, shit!’ twice in the first 10 seconds.”
That’s the way it was in the league’s best moment in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and one of the best halves in Spartan history. If it wasn’t the 46-16 pounding you put on Michigan in the first 20 minutes in ’79 or the 46-17 clubbing of UConn 21 years later, it was damn close.
Tom’s team led 31-11 with 10:02 left in the first half and grabbed 13 of the first 14 rebounds. It was the old “War” drill without helmets and shoulder pads, though Notre Dame wished they’d brought some along.
And there was one play, a statement of Michigan State Basketball if ever you could’ve designed one. Jaren Jackson Jr., whose arms are as long as two of your centers combined, blocked a fallaway from Bonzie Colson, a nice player in a bad matchup. Cassius Winston picked it and sprinted upcourt. Nick Ward was there for the alley-oop slam, but the pass was too high. Too high for him but perfect for Miles Bridges, who soared like “Special K” at his finest and jammed on his own teammate.
Remember when Jenison was so loud your ears hurt? Like the time Earvin hobbled back to the court when you had to beat Ohio State or play in the NIT instead of in the most watched game in college basketball history? That’s the way Breslin sounded last night for a split-second.
Speaking of splitting, you know Bridges didn’t. Just as Johnson couldn’t after a spectacular freshman year. You saw the press conference at Sparty, the one when he said he liked college too much, that the NBA would still be there and that he had unfinished business first.
There’s no guarantee this season will end the way that one did 39 years ago in Salt Lake City. There’s no assurance this year’s team will finish the job.
But you’d love this group the way you loved taking everyone’s money at Walnut Hills. The year you played an entire summer of golf with one ball.
Tom’s deepest, most talented team works and plays. It’s as close as your tightest team ever was. And it has enough guys for two of your normal playing groups.
You always said, “It’s great when your best player is your best leader.” Tom’s best player is Miles. His best leader, one of the five best in program history, is Tum Tum Nairn Jr. If Tum had left after last season, Miles might’ve gone, too. Instead, they have a chance to give the school, your adopted one, its third NCAA title.
I’ll never forget that shot of you leaving the court after beating Notre Dame, smiling and shaking your fists over your head. Making a Final Four meant that much to you. And you never made it back, despite two clock-trocities in ’86 and ’90.
We were almost done with the book, in the last day of our 11 two-hour sessions, when I asked you to name your all-opponent team. The last name you gave me was “Larry Bates.” I wracked my brain, fried as it was, trying to figure out who that might be. The last thing I wanted to do was look stupid. But you’d seen that look a lot.
“OK! OK! I give! Who’s Larry Bates?” Knowing you’d won, with that classic deadpan delivery, you told me, “He’s the clock operator at Kemper Arena.” Very funny. . . . Actually, it was.
Whether this team goes all the way or not, it won’t be waylaid by anything internal. And if it gets to play Duke again in San Antonio, saddle up for one helluva game.
MSU could’ve and maybe should’ve beaten the Blue Devils in Chicago, Jud. Tom’s team led by a basket with four minutes left and couldn’t close the deal. It ran headfirst into one of your favorite players, Scott Skiles, this time wearing blue and going by the name of Grayson Allen.
The most hated Dukie since Dick Nixon _ and that’s saying a lot with Laettner, Redick and the like _ had 37 points and could’ve shot 40 percent from Skokie that night. But what really got the Spartans beat was surrendering 25 offensive rebounds, more than an Izzo team might do in two-week stretches.
Uh, one other thing. Krzyzewski played ZONE the entire game, a brilliant ploy with four freshman starters and MSU’s three best 3-point shooters a combined 1-for-10 from deep.
I know, I know. You’ve told Tom he needed to play zone as often as you said, “Be a guard, not a garbage!” Well, he has actually done that this season. You blinked and missed it? I hope you didn’t miss his facsimile of your old green jacket. The fashion police have banned the used of replay.
But I’m sure you’ve heard all about that. Seen it, too. You never miss a game, do you? You didn’t in Spokane. And you won’t from your skybox.
Just know that a lot of people miss you. Everyone but the officials. For one night, last night, we thought you might have snuck down and joined in the joy.
There was plenty to go around. Enough for you and Tom to share.