The Long Road Home
In hostile territory, Dawson finds his energy, a career high and, stunningly, silence
He stood at the bench with Tom Izzo, and after a brief conversation, headed to the scorer’s table, checking into the game for the final time.
“Now entering the game for the Spartans, number 22, Branden Dawson.”
The announcer’s call echoed throughout Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., but it was the following sound that left the greatest impression — a deafening silence.
The boos, the chants, the insults were gone. There was nothing left to say. Dawson already had said it all.
Spurning his home state school for MSU.
It all led to this moment, and in hostile territory, Dawson produced arguably the best game of his young career.
With at least 16 friends and family members in attendance, Dawson scored a career-high 20 points to help carry the No. 12 MSU men’s basketball team (20-4 overall, 9-2 Big Ten) to a dominant 78-65 victory over Purdue (12-12, 5-6) on Saturday, propelling the Spartans into first-place in the conference.
“Our team is a whole lot different when him or (junior center) Adreian (Payne) plays with the amount of energy that they’re capable of because it just allows other guys to play off of them,” junior guard Keith Appling said.
“He always has a big game playing here because everybody knows the circumstances and situation he was in. But, at the same time, that’s just that competitor in him. He knows what he’s up against, so he goes out there and plays as hard as he can and, in the end, it always helps us out as a team.”
A friendly rivalry
It was supposed to be Robbie Hummel’s night.
The former Boilermaker addressed the crowd at halftime as his jersey was raised to the rafters, recognizing the accomplishments of the former three-time First-Team All-Big Ten honoree.
But as he watched the game unfold, Hummel couldn’t help but be blown away by the speed, athleticism and proficiency of Dawson less than a year removed from tearing his ACL.
“It’s incredible to watch him athletically, just the way he gets off the floor, how explosive he is,” Hummel said. “He could definitely be a very good player and definitely play for a living.”
Dawson’s recovery is especially meaningful to a man who knows all too well the grueling pain and heartache that comes with a torn ACL.
It’s what motivated Hummel to pick up the phone and call Dawson after his injury, reaching out to former Spartan Draymond Green for Dawson’s phone number, hoping to offer words of encouragement as someone who had traveled down that painful road before.
For Hummel, Dawson isn’t just a Spartan.
He’s the kid he knew since he was 14 years old with a natural talent for basketball.
He’s the friend going through something few others can relate to.
“I knew what he was going through,” Hummel said. “Being both from north Indiana, I felt like it was almost something I needed to do. … It’s an injury that it’s hard to understand because it happens when you do something simple, like a jump stop, and your knee just blows out.”
The unlikely friendship is one many in West Lafayette don’t understand. Online message boards were filled with messages encouraging Boilermakers to take out Dawson’s surgically-repaired knee this past weekend.
“I understand Purdue’s disappointment in him not coming here, but he picked Michigan State. I think at Purdue, you want guys that want to come to Purdue,” Hummel said. “I don’t fault him for making that choice. I’ve liked Branden since he was a kid, so I think it’s just something you’ve got to separate.”
“Pay him back!”
“Send a message!”
“How’s that money they paid you Dawson?”
“Punch him! You won’t get suspended!”
The taunts came from every corner of the arena.
The boos rained down loudest upon Dawson during the opening introductions.
Even though his teammate, fellow Indiana-native Gary Harris, also elected not to play for Purdue — the school where his mother’s number hangs in the rafters as a former All-American — it is Dawson who is public enemy No. 1, and that’s exactly how he likes it.
“I’m less popular than Gary,” Dawson said with a smile before the game. “That kind of motivates me.”
The motivation was on full display from the opening tip, when Dawson knifed through the lane, scoring a layup for the game’s first points.
But the energy quickly spun Dawson out of control, where trying to make the big play resulted in back-to-back turnovers and an emotional Dawson being subbed out of the game.
“When he lets the game come to him, I think he’s a lot better than when he tries to just go one-on-one,” Izzo said. “The one part of his game that he’s improved on a lot is his ball handling. That’s been a blessing and a curse because he thinks he can take everybody.”
Minutes into the second half, Harris and Appling were both sent to the bench with foul trouble, prompting MSU to turn to the Boilermaker’s ultimate villain.
With a newfound calm, Dawson scored eight of the team’s first 10 points as part of a 10-1 run to open the second half, helping MSU to a 15-point lead that would never shrink to fewer than 10 points.
After erupting with the night’s loudest cheers every time he was knocked to the ground, one bucket after another hushed the crowd to silence.
With each fall, Dawson bent his surgically-repaired knee and got up.
Again and again.
It might not seem like much, but the ability to get up always has been the one attribute separating Dawson from the rest.
Now, it’s the one skill capable of determining the heights MSU will reach.
“My teammates (and) coaches tell me I need to start playing with more energy and just bringing more,” Dawson said. “(Izzo) just said if I keep playing the way I played tonight and all the other games then we’ll be a great team.”