Spartans win as attendees reminisce at Jenison

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The fans walking into Jenison Field House on Saturday night had a glow on their faces. It had been nearly a quarter-century since their Spartans had played in this ivy-covered brick building, and they came to reminisce.

It wasn’t much of a game. Michigan State, the defending Big Ten champions, put a 92-56 licking on Tuskegee University, a small, predominantly black school from Alabama. But it was scheduled not as much as a contest as it was a trip down several memory lanes.

The Golden Tigers, coached by ex-Piston Leon Douglas, were a perfect match for the Spartans because this game was played in order to honor the civil rights movement’s “Game of Change” at Jenison in the 1963 NCAA Mideast Regional.

The last time the Spartans played here, Matt Steigenga did the jump ball honors. Steigenga sat near the MSU bench for this one, serving as a radio analyst.

“You know what got me?” Steigenga said at halftime. “It was the smell of the popcorn coming across from every corner. That got the sensories bringing back all these memories. The place was so special to me and I feel so much emotion. I remember (coach) Jud (Heathcote) yelling at me in here.”

Steigenga, 42, smiled and looked up to the rafters.

“All good memories, though.” he added, “Even the yelling. I remember very vividly the last regular-season game here with Wisconsin. We ended up beating Wichita State in an NIT game here that was the last one. But to me, that game was an afterthought. We had a celebration connected to that Wisconsin game.”

State beat Wisconsin 70-61 before defeating Wichita State 79-67 to finish 50 seasons at Jenison on March 20, 1989.

Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis scheduled the first game here since that one to commemorate the Loyola University Chicago-Mississippi State game 50 seasons ago, and 6,589 packed into the bleachers and folding chairs.

But the attendance seemed higher. There were ghosts in the place.

“Absolutely,” Steigenga said. “You bet there are ghosts here tonight.”

The ghosts of Breslin’s past.

Longtime fans felt the presence of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Greg Kelser, who led the Spartans to their first NCAA championship in 1979. It was here that Magic fired his no-look passes to Kelser for jams. You could close your eyes and picture it all again Saturday night.

Fans now into their retirement years thought of “Jumpin’ ” Johnny Green, the three-time All-America who led the Spartans to Big Ten titles in 1956-57 and 1958-59.

Scott Skiles, who led the Big Ten in scoring and won the conference’s MVP award in 1985-86, went crashing to the floor for loose balls here.

Fans got a chance to remember them because of the call to remember history.

All-white Mississippi State, forbidden by segregationist state governor Ross Barnett to play a school with four black starters, skipped out of Starkville before an injunction could be slapped on them to stay in town. They lost 61-51 to Loyola in a game in which the score didn’t matter as much as the core of its meaning.

Loyola captain Jerry Harkness, who fostered a lifelong friendship with Mississippi State captain Joe Dan Gold, said that the game, in his mind, ended up over-taking his team’s eventual NCAA championship that season.

Loyola’s current coach, Porter Moser, took his team to Jenison last Saturday night after his team’s loss at Breslin Center to the Spartans.

Loyola sports information director Bill Behrns said, “Coach Moser wanted our players to think about how difficult it had to have been not just for the Mississippi State team to worry about trying to get out of town to play the game and the reaction that was awaiting them back in Starkville, but also about all of the racial taunts that Loyola’s team had to face throughout that season.

“He also touched on the amount of pressure and adversity both teams faced and overcame that night in Jenison Field House, with the African-American community telling Loyola it couldn’t lose the game and those that backed segregation saying that the game shouldn’t be played at all.”

It was a “Hoosiers” moment, a time to wake up the ghosts and learn about something more than the pick and roll. Douglas concurred with that, saying, “Our kids are not students of the segregation times. This was a history lesson for them.”

Spartans coach Tom Izzo was thrilled with the ovation the Tuskegee Airmen, the World War II African-American unit, received during a timeout while sitting courtside in blue blazers and waving. Izzo addressed them before the game.

During the game, he drifted back to thoughts of coaching for Jud at Jenison, and agreed that the popcorn also had an effect on him.

“It was sitting on the bench and feeling the cold air when somebody snuck out the door to get outside,” Izzo said with a smile. “I caught myself staring at the upper deck and lower deck. It’s just solid people in this place.”

The smile stayed on his face all the way into answering the next question about the double-doubles from big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne.

It was a night to smell the popcorn.