Dec. 12, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - As the new arena rose to the south, then-Michigan State head basketball coach Jud Heathcote confessed he never had recruits visit campus when he knew Jenison Field House would be, save for a few joggers ambling around the indoor track, empty.
But when the "Old Barn" was packed, it rocked in a way that transcended time and distance.
Carlton Valentine, a Spartans forward from 1984-88 and the father of current MSU freshman guard Denzel, was still a few years away from being on Heathcote's wish list when he decided where he was going to play his college ball.
"I was in middle school when I saw a game on national TV and I told my mother, `That's where I'm going to school,' " said Valentine. "It was during that '79 national championship season and I said, `Man, I'm going there.' "
Valentine lived in Washington, D.C. at the time, well before earning prep All-America honors at nationally renowned DeMatha High School.
Now the head coach at Lansing Sexton High, Valentine graduated from MSU two years before basketball operations relocated to the Breslin Center.
In the years since, Jension has hosted intercollegiate volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics and indoor track.
It will come to life with competitive basketball at least one more time this weekend in celebration of the 50th anniversary of "The Game of Change" between racially segregated Mississippi State and integrated Loyola of Chicago in the 1963 NCAA Tournament Mideast Regional semifinals hosted by MSU.
Former Spartans will play in an alumni all-star game on Friday night, coach Tom Izzo's MSU men's team will then host Tuskegee University, a Historically Black College, on Saturday night and Suzy Merchant's women's team will face IPFW on Sunday.
"So many people think this is such a great tribute to the Game of Change," Izzo said. "It's the game that really helped set the standard for the way college basketball is."
Valentine will watch from the shadows cast by the over-hanging upper deck with longing.
"I didn't know anything different, so for me, it felt like home," he said. "The crowd was right on top of you. I remember the Michigan game when Scott (Skiles, senior guard in 1986) got 40 and we beat them with no 3-point line.
"Back then, we didn't have the Izzone. We had the Spartan Spirits, and they were alive. It sat 10,004 people and their energy was just unbelievable. I remember another time we played Michigan in a day game on ABC with Dick Vitale, and the sunlight was coming in - Yeah, I loved those games."
What Jenison lacked in modern amenities it made up for with history, tradition and creakiness. It played host to more than 500 basketball games from its opening in 1940 to the final game in '89.
Some of the greatest ever to dribble a basketball - from Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who led the Spartans to the NCAA title in '79, to Purdue's Rick Mount to Jerry Lucas of Ohio State to Michigan's Cazzie Russell to David Robinson of the Naval Academy - played there.
In 1947, years before the fire marshal stepped in to limit crowd size for safety reasons, 15,384 packed Jenison to watch Michigan State play Kentucky, which was coached by Adolph Rupp. In 1956-57, Jenison Field House served as the launching pad for All-American center "Jumping" Johnny Green, who led the Spartans to a 16-10 record, a Big Ten championship with a 10-4 mark and their first trip to the Final Four.
It's been said that when Johnson emerged from the trainer's room with a severely sprained ankle, and limped back onto the court to lead Michigan State to a do-or-die overtime victory against the Buckeyes on Feb. 1, 1979, the sound generated by the crowd caused temporary blindness and loosened fillings in teeth.
Izzo's introduction to Jenison came as a youthful spectator, accompanied from Iron Mountain by his father, Carl, at a state high school tournament game. In 1973, and again in '75, Izzo played there as a member of Northern Michigan's Division II team.
"I dominated that place," Izzo joked. "Me and (current assistant coach Mike) Garland."
He took a seat on the Spartans' bench for the first time as an overqualified graduate assistant coach begrudgingly hired by Heathcote in 1983.
"I'll never forget my first game there," Izzo said. "We played Iowa and we were co-picked to win the Big Ten. I was standing in the tunnel and I remember just looking out and thinking there's 10,000 people out there, and there's 7,000 in my home town.
"It was just so exciting and I was probably like a kid in a candy store. To me, Jenison Field House was a Cadillac. It turned into a Chevette during recruiting, but I'd never been a part of anything like that. You could smell the popcorn when you walked in there, and that was awesome. You could hear it popping. I do miss that."
Jenison continues to be the bridge between MSU's storied basketball past and the Spartans' era of its greatest success.
With Izzo as his assistant, Heathcote generated momentum for the future with Skiles, Steve Smith, and the pivotal nationally acclaimed recruiting class of Matt Steigenga, Mike Peplowski, Mark Montgomery and Parish Hickman, which played its first season, 1988-89, in Jenison before moving to Breslin and winning a Big Ten championship.
"That place was special to him," Izzo said. "I wanted to move for recruiting purposes, 90 percent. But I think if it was up to Jud, he would have stayed there the whole time. That was his cup of tea. That was who he was and who he is.
"I think he liked Breslin, but I don't think he loved it."
Heathcote's immediate predecessor, Gus Ganakas, attended Michigan State from 1946-50 and knew Jenison when it was still a state-of-the-art facility. He served as an assistant coach under John E. Bennington from '66-69 and head coach from '69-76.
"As a student, I remember attending the Michigan State-Kentucky game with Adolph Rupp's No. 1-team in the country," said Ganakas, who is a member of MSU's radio broadcast team. "We lost 47-45. Then there was the Johnny Green era and Magic's Ohio State game.
"Then, the biggest thrill for me, of course, was walking in for that first game (against Western Kentucky) as the head coach, being an alumnus and all."
Izzo is looking forward to the reunion of so many former players from bygone teams, including some of his own he hasn't seen for years.
"It will be interesting to see who shows up," he said. "A proud day, an exciting day, a fun day - so many words to express what this day will mean to me. The biggest one is that players care, and they want to come back, and they appreciate where the program is at, or at least where it's heading towards, and want to be a part of it.
"That's the best part of all."