By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
Izzo had been teasing the first-year wunderkind about having to endure the tradition of Spartan freshmen schlepping the upperclassmen’s bags during road trips and how, unlike classmates Joshua Langford, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston as sophomores in 2017-18, would still be doing it next year as an NBA rookie kowtowing to the veterans on what many expected would be his next team.
Of course, nothing could have been more at odds with Izzo’s best interests than pushing the team’s best player toward the door.
However, Izzo felt compelled that every eventuality had to be addressed on behalf of someone who arrived at MSU with the most bona fide one-and-done credentials since Earvin “Magic” Johnson in 1977. Before Bridges made his decision, Izzo would even play the role of devil’s advocate if need be.
Had Bridges concluded that the time had come for him to turn pro, Izzo had to be certain it was the only choice to be made when it was all said and done. “And I’d be happy for him and proud,” Izzo said.
But if Bridges turned against the swift current that has swept so many in his enviable position into the lucrative business of basketball, Izzo had to be assured there will never come a time next season when Bridges says, “I should have gone.”
On Thursday evening, at a festive outdoor press conference the likes have which has never been seen at Michigan State, Bridges erased all doubt.
Standing at the foot of the iconic bronze “Sparty” statue located at mid-campus, beneath a blue-gray overcast with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees, Bridges made like Johnson and deftly delivered a no-look pass few saw coming before rumors of his intentions started leaking 24 hours, or so, earlier.
“I just want to thank all y’all for coming out man, you didn’t have to do all this,” Bridges told the thousand fans, mostly fellow students, surrounding him with a huge embrace. “I want to thank God for that, and I want to thank God for the opportunity I’ve got to either reach my dreams in the NBA or stay here with my teammates.
“But I’ve got some unfinished business here, and I’m just saying, I want to stay.”
And with that, the fans erupted just as they had so many times at the Breslin Center last winter when Bridges thrilled them with one of his trademark slam dunks or unflinching 3-point baskets.
In some respects, Bridges had already done more than enough to secure his Spartan legacy by leading Izzo’s most injury-addled and inexperienced team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and rebounding (8.3), and more importantly, willing MSU to a 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
Nevertheless, Michigan State’s improbable journey came to an end with a 90-70 loss to Kansas in the second round, just as Bridges and Co. seemed to be getting started. To Bridges’ way of thinking, there has to be more to the MSU basketball experience than a face-saving 20-15 record and fifth-place Big Ten finish.
“I can’t wait till next year,” Bridges said, to which a grateful member of the audience shouted, “We love you Miles!”
“I have personal goals here,” Bridges said. “I want to win a national championship. My teammates are a big part of it. I love my teammates. They’ve been supporting me and I know they’re going to have my back no matter what. I can’t wait until next year to spend it with y’all.”
And so, like Johnson, there will be a sophomore season in Bridges’ life. And while he’ll go into it fully knowing that nothing is guaranteed, it’s not a bad path to follow for as long as possible. After all, Johnson took it all the way to the 1979 national championship, Michigan State’s first, and unimaginably successful NBA and post-basketball business careers.
“It unreal for me,” Bridges said. “Growing up as a kid, I never thought it would be like this, especially coming from Flint. There’s something special about this team.”
It should be noted that another Michigan State team, loaded with talent Izzo harvested from Flint, won the school’s second national championship in 2000.
With a pep-rally-style gathering harkening back to another age on the banks of the Red Cedar, although instead of wearing bobby socks and raccoon coats the students were snapping selfies with their smart phones, Bridges is something of a throwback with values his contemporaries might regard as quaint, if not corny.
Izzo spoke often throughout the season of just how refreshing Bridges’ attitude toward basketball, school and life was. He made his case one last, clarifying time as Izzo drove him up and down nearly every street on campus a couple nights ago.
While Izzo hit him with all the reasons to go – not the least of which as one of the first dozen players selected in the NBA draft he would command a multi-million dollar contract – Bridges countered with all the reasons he needed to stay as the clock approached midnight.
Bridges wanted to improve his game before taking the next step, he has developed a brotherly bond with his teammates and he wants to win even bigger for the Spartans and their fans. To Izzo’s surprise, he wants to grow as a person and as a student, “getting one year closer to his degree.” And as hard as Izzo drives Bridges and his teammates, Bridges demands to be driven even harder.
“I told him, I need a better reason than to win a national championship because that’s so hard to do, and he just kept giving me those reasons,” Izzo said. “I asked him at the end, I said, ‘Are you getting tired of me?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m just tired of the same questions.’ I kind of knew then that he had really thought it out. It was something he thought about all year, and yet I don’t think he put a lot of time into thinking about it.
“There’s nothing wrong with being happy. You’re in a generation where you want it to come today. I think what I’m proudest of is he made a decision for himself. For all of us pulling him, there were a lot of people pushing and he had enough courage and enough wisdom and enough fortitude to do what he wanted to do. And tonight, we benefitted from that.”
Bridges said he had actually reached a peaceful juncture in the process about mid-season, to which Izzo howled, “I wish you would have told me that!”
Owing it to himself to at least find out where he stood at the next level, Bridges was shrewd enough to know there was no reason to tip his hand. Plus, he knew his mother would have to be gently persuaded to cheer for the green and white one more season.
“It has been hard for me,” said Cynthia Bridges. “I know I made the statement I would go to the NBA, but I’m not the basketball player, Miles is. I support him 100 percent. We prayed about it, I know God has this.”
Senior-to-be point guard Tum Tum Nairn and Langford were the first of Bridges’ teammates to learn of his impending announcement, but his decision came as no surprise.
“Let’s just say I knew before yesterday,” Nairn said. “It was a while back. He never talked about it. All he cared about during the year was winning and I knew at the end he was going to make the best decision for him and his family, which is what’s most important.
“All I tried to do is be a brother for him; didn’t put any pressure on him.”
Langford never sensed Bridges was leaning in a direction from which he had to pull himself back.
“To be honest, I never knew what he was thinking until he told me he wanted to stay,” Langford said. “Miles is the kind of guy you never know what he’s thinking. He’s able to just focus and really just hide what he wants to do, so he did a great job of making sure nobody really knew.
“I just let him be. I never told him to go out, I never told him to stay. I told him I support him 100 percent whatever he does. He’s a great player and has a great future in front of him. He told me he felt like he had a lot more to work on and he wanted to win a national championship with us.”
After the formal press conference was over, Izzo held court with reporters on the makeshift stage below Sparty and absorbed the appropriateness of the scene, which was suggested to Izzo late Wednesday night by former Spartan great and Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green.
“He doesn’t have an ego, and that’s the other reason why we’re in this setting,” Izzo said. “This is kind of a blue-collar setting and that’s what he is. I assumed, two-thirds of the year, he was going. I remember one time, Draymond called me in January and said, ‘Coach, he’s really good. He’s probably gotta go, huh?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’
“The inkling (that he was going to stay) came to me after the season ended. He just wasn’t caught up in any of it. He didn’t want to talk about agents, he didn’t want to talk about the NBA – everybody wants to do that, at least some. There just aren’t many of those guys around anymore. He wants to enjoy the journey.”