Dec. 14, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
Jenison Field House never looked better.
Unfortunately, you can turn back a clock only so much with a fresh coat of paint and modern bright lighting, as the Michigan State basketball alumni found out Friday night in a contest doubling as opening ceremonies for the "Game of Change" weekend.
Despite the receding hairlines, graying temples and rounded bellies, there were enough Big Ten championship pedigrees -- mixed with some former high-level NBA talent -- to stir up the ghosts in the Old Barn, where an official game was last played at the end of the 1988-89 season.
Current Spartan coach Tom Izzo, who began his MSU career as a graduate assistant under Jud Heathcote at Jenison in 1983, grinned from ear-to-ear the entire 60 minutes while watching the Mateen Cleaves-led Home White team defeat Steve Smith's Away Green squad, 125-118, before a crowd of 6,500.
"Where's the ice?" Andre Hutson, who played forward from 1998-2001, gasped afterward. "My back is hurting."
To be fair, not every player was completely out of touch with his Spartan prime.
Matt Steigenga, who played his freshman season in Jenison, still has spring-loaded legs he showed off with a couple effortless dunks for the Green and Kevin Willis ('82-84) looked like he could still contribute a few meaningful minutes in the Association.
"It was great," said Smith, who played his first two seasons in Jenison from '87-89 and his last two in the Breslin Center, from '89-91. "I'm kind of the player who bridged the gap between young and old, so it was great for me to see players from so many generations. We have the best basketball fraternity in the country - by far.
"It made me feel like a kid again as far as the smiles go, but not the body."
Green squad guard Ray Weathers ('95-97) led all scorers with 20 points and Smith chipped in 15. David Thomas ('97-01) led the White team with 14 and Morris Peterson ('97-00) and Charlie Bell ('98-01) had 13 each.
"Seeing all the young guys and the old guys was a lot of fun," said Weathers, who after playing professionally overseas for 14 years, completed his degree last semester. "Putting on the green and white uniform for one more night means everything.
"Joining the old generations with the younger generations is just a lot of love."
Four members of the MSU's 1979 national championship team - Terry Donnelly, Gerald Gilkie, Rick Kaye and Ron "BoBo" Charles - also suited up.
Flint natives Cleaves, Peterson, Bell and center Antonio Smith, who comprised MSU's beloved "Flintstones," were joined by Hutson for the opening tipoff in a fitting tribute to the three Final Four appearances they produced from '99-01.
A long-time aficionado of Spartan history and tradition, Cleaves said playing a game in the same space where Earvin "Magic" Johnson led MSU to the 1979 national title and "Jumping" Johnny Green paced Michigan State to the '57 Final Four, represented another milestone in his basketball life.
"I was talking to Donnelly and asking him a million questions about what it was like to play in here," said Cleaves, who reprised his 2000 national title victory dance after making a layup. "I said I can imagine how this thing was rocking back in the day.
"I'm just so grateful to be able to share this moment with so many of the guys who came through this program. This is something I'll talk about for years. I'm so thankful my wife and two sons were able to see it. My life's complete now."
Donnelly, the former sharp-shooting guard, finished with two points, but they were as good as 20.
"This brings back a lot of memories," he said. "When Earvin was here and we had this place packed, you couldn't even hear the whistle blow, and to feel it again was very special.
"It's going to be a lot of fun to see the current team play in here."
The alumni showdown tipped off the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the watershed game played by Loyola of Chicago and Mississippi State in the 1963 NCAA Tournament regional semifinals at Jenison Field House.
In what was subsequently hailed as a victory for the Civil Rights movement, Mississippi State's all-white team defied state officials by sneaking out of state in the dead of night to play Loyola, which started four black players.
Izzo's Spartans will play Tuskegee University in Jenison Saturday at 9, and the women's team will close out the weekend against IPFW on Sunday afternoon.
"I was amazed that there were this many people here and they stayed," Izzo said. "It was so reminiscent of how it used to be and to see Willis, Darryl Johnson and Ralph Walker play again - those guys were here when I came.
"I'm not sure a lot of places could do this. I give (athletic director Mark) Hollis and our administration a lot of credit for stepping outside the box once again. This one here is for the most important people there are, our own."
Mike Peplowski, a fan favorite from '90-93, whipped his 6-foot-10 body into shape for the game by losing 120 pounds and sounded like a marathon finisher afterward.
"Listen, we're not getting any younger," Peplowski said. "None of us are. I couldn't believe 6,500 people wanted to watch us play. I mean we're just a bunch of old guys. It's amazing. Thank God we went to school here because I don't think this would happen to anyone else.
"This was my last chance to do this. That's it. So call it a mid-life crisis; it's a pretty good mid-life crisis. I did it. I'm with a group of men that, literally, I'd do anything for and that I love to death. I truly love these men and they love me back. It's the greatest fraternity in the world."