Spartans ready to return to Jenison Field House in historic game
Freshman guard Denzel Valentine celebrates with senior center Derrick Nix to celebrate a favorable foul call against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Spartans take on Tuskegee Saturday night in a game inside Jenison Field House. Justin Wan/The State News
When Keith Appling thinks of Jenison Field House, three people come to mind: Jud Heathcote, Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser.
The iconic trio helped the MSU men’s basketball team capture its first national championship in 1979, with a stadium the Spartans will, for one more night, call home.
“It reminds me of a big high school gym,” Appling said. “It makes me feel like I’m back playing in my (Detroit Public School League) days. … We know who’s played here and some special things have happened in this building, so we just can’t take it for granted.”
The junior guard and the rest of the Spartans (8-2) will return to Jenison Field House to square off against Division II Tuskegee (1-4) tonight (9:00, ESPNU) in what might be the last men’s basketball game to take place in the arena.
The event is commemorating the “Game of Change,” where East Lansing hosted a basketball game between Loyola-Chicago and Mississippi State, when Mississippi State snuck out of town during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement to play a game against a racially integrated team.
Returning to the Spartans old stomping grounds will be nostalgic for head coach Tom Izzo, who learned from his mentor, Heathcote, along the Jenison Field House sidelines.
“You could smell the popcorn. You walk in there and that was awesome,” Izzo said.
“I do miss that. You could hear it popping for God’s sakes. There’s nothing like if you’re getting tired on the bench, as Jud got older, that door would pop open as people waked in and you get that freezing cold. There were a lot good things about that place.”
It also offers a special opportunity for freshman guard Denzel Valentine to play on the same court his father, Carlton Valentine, used to star on for the Spartans.
It’s a chance Denzel Valentine didn’t know he’d get.
“Not everybody gets to say they played in the same gym one time as their dad,” Denzel Valentine said.
“It’s going to be a fun experience. My dad’s going to be sitting here and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be pretty happy, it’s going to be really fun.”
In talking with people from around the country about the idea, brainstormed by MSU athletics director Mark Hollis, Izzo said the impact of the tribute and everything the Game of Change represents is far reaching.
“I am proud to work at a place that is willing to look outside the box,” Izzo said. “So many people think that it is such a great tribute. The Game of Change … helped set a standard for what the game of college basketball is. It’s bigger than we think.”