Ballin' The Family
Denzel Valentine follows father to MSU, prepares to face brother Drew
It was supposed to be a surprise.
But when he was confronted with the question, Denzel Valentine found he couldn’t lie to his father.
Carlton Valentine — a former MSU basketball player and Denzel’s head coach at Lansing Sexton High School — had just asked his son, a freshman guard for the Spartans, what number he’d be wearing this season.
“He just came up and said, ‘What number you wearing?’” Denzel Valentine recalled. “And I couldn’t lie and tell him a different number, so I just told him, ‘I’m wearing 45, Dad.’”
For a moment, Carlton Valentine was speechless.
Freshman guard Denzel Valentine dances on the court Oct. 12 during Midnight Madness at Breslin Center. Adam Toolin/The State News
The number 45 had special meaning to him.
Not only was it the number stitched on the back of his uniform while he was a member of the Spartans, it was a family connection at an even deeper level.
“I wore 45 because it was the year my mother was born,” Carlton Valentine said. “It’s not a popular basketball number, but I didn’t care.”
So for the second time in MSU history, the number 45 carries the name “Valentine” above it. And the gravity of the gesture certainly was not lost on the elder Valentine.
“I was overcome with emotion,” he said. “To have your son wear your number, play at the school you play at — what more can you ask? He didn’t need to say anything else. I knew how much he respected me.”
In only the fifth game of his collegiate career, Denzel Valentine finds himself presented with an opportunity many athletes might never see.
On Friday, he’ll face the one player he grew up idolizing: his brother Drew Valentine, a senior forward for the Oakland Golden Grizzlies.
It will be the first time the brothers play against one another in a competitive atmosphere, save for pickup games played in the Valentine family driveway.
It presents Denzel Valentine with an interesting challenge, as his brother might know him and his skill set better than anyone else.
Drew Valentine remembers a time during his senior year at Sexton when his father asked him for advice regarding Denzel, then a freshman who had moved up to play varsity basketball for the Big Reds.
Drew Valentine had injured his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and was unable to attend a team practice. When he asked his father how the team looked, Carlton Valentine expressed a frustration that Denzel wasn’t locked in.
“And I stopped him and just said, ‘Dad, chill,’” Drew Valentine recalled. “‘(Denzel will) listen because, at the end of the day, he just wants to play.’”
And Denzel Valentine did, eventually working his way into the starting lineup as a freshman, an accomplishment made even more impressive by Carlton Valentine’s desire not to favor his sons over other players.
And when he went on to play under MSU head coach Tom Izzo, Carlton Valentine knew his son would be all right.
“He always says, ‘Drew, you’re right,’” Drew Valentine said. “He’ll do whatever he can to play.”
Like father, like son
When Denzel Valentine first came to MSU, he already was no stranger to Breslin Center.
Playing under his dad at Lansing Sexton, Denzel Valentine notched two MHSAA Class B state championships.
But this time around, he’s finding his new coach to be a bit less stressful.
“It’s actually better getting yelled at by (Izzo) than my dad,” he said, laughing. “It’s harder to get yelled at by your parent when he’s your coach at the same time and you have to hear it at home too. At least I get a break from Coach Izzo.”
For Carlton Valentine, his son couldn’t be in better hands.
As a four-year letterwinner at MSU from 1985-88 and team captain and MVP his senior year, he formed a relationship with Izzo, then an assistant for the Spartans.
Although Denzel Valentine has a much different skill set from his father, Izzo said he’s glad Carlton Valentine was able to impart some of his knowledge to Denzel Valentine.
“Even though I’m glad he doesn’t have his father’s athleticism, I’m glad his father raised him to understand the game, because he has an incredible basketball IQ,” he said.
Carlton Valentine agrees with Izzo’s assessment that the younger Valentine isn’t quite the same player as his father athletically, but for different reasons.
“He’s so much better than me, it doesn’t compare,” Carlton Valentine said. “Denzel thinks like a coach. Even though I led MSU in scoring and rebounding, Denzel is much more of a player.”
Stuntin’ like my daddy
Denzel Valentine could not be more grateful for the experience of having his dad as a coach.
Passing and knowledge of the game have become the cornerstone of Denzel Valentine’s game, which he largely attributes to his dad’s presence on the sidelines throughout his career.
But that bond also translates to his relationship with Carlton Valentine as a father.
“Whenever I (need) him … I can just call him up and ask for advice as a dad or as a coach or as player because he’s been all three,” Denzel Valentine said.
But as Carlton Valentine will be the first to say, Denzel and Drew Valentine aren’t the only ones who benefited from having their father on the bench.
“It was challenging, (and) it was rewarding,” he said. “I learned a lot about me, and I learned a lot about our relationship as father and son.”