In one of my most vivid childhood memories, I am climbing the stairs to my Grand Rapids, Mich. bedroom, crying because my beloved Michigan State Spartans were trailing at halftime of their Sweet Sixteen game against Syracuse. I was certain that, if I wasn’t in front of the television, there was no way Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson could reverse the deficit. What, were they supposed to do it on their own? They needed me, and parental tyranny was about to derail their season. In the end, the anecdotal evidence bore me out—my parents grabbed me out of bed in the midst of the Spartans’ game-ending 22-2 run that carried them over the Orangemen, and the team ultimately went on to win the 2000 national championship.
In one of my most vivid college memories, I am dressed in a red bodysuit in the student section at Lavietes Pavilion (a time before I was confined by the bounds of journalistic objectivity). Then-junior forward Kyle Casey catches the ball at the baseline in front of us, pump fakes, drives, and humiliates Princeton right down to the Slavic Languages department with a one-handed, and-one dunk. A bunch of Crimson-hued stomping later, and the students are charging the court at Lavietes Pavilion, celebrating Harvard’s first Ivy League title since whenever-it-was.
When this year’s brackets came out on Selection Sunday, I wasn’t particularly thrilled—I had been dreaming of following the Harvard team to a San Diego beach getaway, and Spokane was just in front of Gary, Ind., on my list of basketball-watching destinations. Then, in the same group of four teams, I saw that the Spartans were also traveling to eastern Washington to play Delaware. Well, at least I’ll get to see State, I thought.
Then Harvard beat Cincinnati, the Spartans took care of business against Delaware, and well…we had Harvard-Michigan State. The lead-up to the game was a personal thrill for me. One of my co-writers noted that I was beaming after I asked Spartans coach Tom Izzo, who might as well have been President of Earth for much of my life, questions at the pregame media conference. And about Harvard, no less! I resisted the urge to reveal my Michigan roots, even after Izzo made a reference to “our neck of the woods.” There were journalistic standards to maintain, after all.
But for a moment, let’s enter the theoretical, unthinkable world where those standards don’t exist. The matchup between these two teams was a prospect I had been asked about since entering college, discussing respective hometown loyalties with my sports-minded friends. “Who do you take in the tournament, Harvard or Kentucky-Michigan State-Duke? You can’t go against your school; you go to Harvard.”
I didn’t know where I would stand—remember the crying—but I was also pretty certain it wouldn’t matter. This was the legendary Tom Izzo and Michigan State we were dealing with; they don’t really do upsets. The man has brought his teams to six Final Fours in 12 seasons. For the Spartan fan, excitement in March was an inevitability, not a privilege—if Kansas and Louisville could do nothing about it, Harvard certainly couldn’t. This was a bit of armor to protect me from the question. Harvard or Michigan State? There’s one possible outcome; it doesn’t make a difference.
The first half of the game did nothing to prove me wrong. The Crimson was the Tune Squad playing the Monstars. If a Harvard fan closed his eyes in a moment of despair, there was a good chance he was missing a Branden Dawson dunk. Even the famously grouchy Izzo looked at ease as his team took a 12-point lead into halftime. Having your worldview confirmed is comforting.
The second half was the most bizarre 20 minutes of my life as a sports fan, not least because I literally had a front row seat for all of it.
The period opened much the way it had closed, with a Spartan dunk, this one a monstrous tip slam by Adreian Payne. But then there was a Harvard huddle during a timeout early in the second half, punctuated throughout by the shrill bark of the hyper-intense sophomore point Siyani Chambers. I couldn’t quite make out any of the words—not that I really needed to. The tone said all there was to be said about “not going out this way,” “we’re better than this,” etc. A little too late, I thought, but hey, at least there’s no quit in Cambridge.
Out of the timeout, Harvard couldn’t stop scoring, and Michigan State couldn’t stop turning the ball over. Co-captain Brandyn Curry knocked down a couple of threes. Junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi dunked right in Denzel Valentine’s face. Junior wing Wesley Saunders pulled the classic older brother move of stealing a backcourt pass—one employed in the first half by Michigan State’s Gary Harris—for an easy lay-in.
It refused to stop. And when a cross-court pass just cleared the outstretched hand of a lunging Spartan defender and found Laurent Rivard in the corner, now totally unguarded after making a cumulative two feet of space for himself all game, all I could muster was an “Oh my God…” and a laugh of disbelief. Harvard was winning, and Michigan State was losing. Your brain comes up with some pretty kooky acrobatics when someone tosses a grenade right into the middle of its worldview.
Ultimately, the Rivard three was as good as it would get for Harvard. On the next possession, Michigan State’s Travis Trice buried a three of his own—with a “calm down, we got this” gesture to his teammates—and the Crimson never led again. Harris hit a three, Valentine hit a three, a Saunders lay-up spun out, and just like that, it was over. I felt like I had just spent an hour in a laundry machine.
It was hard to really say what I had felt—a basketball game is zero-sum, with one winner and one loser. Yet I distinctly recall a sensation of pulling for two teams at once, that one team’s success somehow did not detract from the other team’s. This crazy game had redefined mathematics for me.
The texts from home started cropping up on my phone during Harvard’s run—“The Harvard dogs came to play,” “Unreal,” “Who the hell is your radio announcer?” This was undeniably cool. In West Michigan, Harvard is not a topic at the forefront of people’s minds (“they’re pretty liberal out there, right?”). Real or imagined, I have always felt like my college choice created some separation between my hometown and me—something I suspect is true for a lot of people that didn’t come here from East Coast prep schools. Harvard basketball, now mounting a serious challenge to the eminently respected institution of Michigan State basketball, was bridging that gap. Grand Rapids had no choice but to connect with Harvard.
This game did not prove, as one of our former beat writers wistfully asserted, that Harvard could be a big-time sports school; I grew up around big-time sports schools, and I am not delusional enough to believe that. But what it may have done, for a few hours, is make Harvard a little more relatable to the rest of the country.
In the end, I am happy that Michigan State gets a shot at another Final Four, and I am happy that Harvard showed it was more than a Wall Street breeding ground. If kicked around, it could kick back. And I hope everyone who watched the game takes away the same feeling I saw on display in the postgame handshake line, with the future NBA stars taking a couple of extra moments to talk to their dispatched combatants: mutual respect.
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mooneyar.