“Shut up Day-Day, you’re a freshman,” Izzo said, referring to then-freshman forward Draymond Green’s now well-known nickname.
Izzo turned his back on Green, but as he walked away, glanced back at Green through the corner of his eye. That glance told Green all he needed to know: He was right.
It was shortly after that meeting that Izzo began directing all his questions toward Green.
“I always said what I had to say, never scared to say it,” Green said. “That was the turning point, where everyone understood I could be a leader or I wasn’t afraid to say what I thought or afraid to hear myself talk.”
That meeting marked the beginning of Green’s leadership within the MSU program — he’s a three-time captain and a major factor in this season’s success — but his leadership stretches back as far as his youth.
Now a senior, Green will take the court at Breslin Center for one last time on Sunday — his birthday and Senior Day — for a chance to claim an outright Big Ten title against No. 10 Ohio State and put a cap on his historic career.
Almost four years later on an unseasonably warm evening this January, the team was going over defensive assignments on the main court at Breslin under Izzo’s watchful eyes.
The Spartans, nearing the end of a 15-game win streak in a season that has turned out to be a surprising success, had irked Izzo during the drill. The coach blew his whistle.
But before he could lay into his team, Green stepped forward from his position with the rest of the starters at midcourt and began to explain the errors as though he was the 17-year head coach with six Final Fours and a National Championship.
Izzo nodded his head and practice resumed. It’s not an unusual sight, Green explaining Izzo’s concepts and fundamentals at practice or in games.
And with Izzo’s approval this season, Green has relinquished the coach of duties on and off the court.
Following last season’s championship-or-bust turned 19-11 disaster, Green has stepped up and kept the team in check.
“I have something that you don’t get very often, even with other (great) teams,” Izzo said. “I’ve got a guy that is my voice.
“What he’s done a better job of is last year he spoke it but didn’t always act it. Now he’s growing up, and he’s speaking it and acting it and holds guys accountable, demanding more. If we have a bad practice, I just call him up, ‘Come on in 15 minutes early.’ I talk about what I saw and what I didn’t see. That’s what great leaders are. They’re the coach on the floor, they’re the coach’s voice, and it’s been heaven.”
Former Spartan point guard Mateen Cleaves helped lead MSU to a National Championship in 2000, and countless comparisons have been made between Green and Cleaves. There have been more talented players than the two, but the leadership is what sets them apart.
“A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team,” Izzo said, explaining the importance of vocal leaders. “Those guys, as Jud (Heathcote) said, they come around every 20 years. Well, I’ve had one (Mateen Cleaves). Maybe I’m trying to up it. Maybe it’s every 11 or 12 years. But the case in point is it’s not every year.”
Green has been this season’s glue, bringing together a hodgepodge of young players and preaching the staples that built MSU into a national power: defense, rebounding and unselfishness.
And with what Izzo calls one of his best teams chemistry-wise, the Spartans outperformed even their own expectations, with much of the credit going to Green.
“I would honestly say (I thought we wouldn’t be in this spot),” junior center Derrick Nix said. “Coming into this season, we were young and immature. He doesn’t (just) play a role in that maturation process — that’s his job.”
For that reason — and his averages of 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists a game — Green is a near shoo-in for Big Ten Player of the Year, in the National Player of the Year discussion and has MSU as a favorite to go deep in the NCAA Tournament.
‘Be a leader’
It’s a phrase Green heard repeated throughout his childhood from his mother, Mary Babers.
“(She) always used to tell me when I got in trouble, ‘Be a leader,’” Green said. “I heard that so much — ‘Don’t be a follower, be a leader.’”
Babers didn’t want Green to follow the wrong crowd and encouraged him to look up to his older brother, Torrian Harris.
But even Torrian took a backseat when the house went to just Babers and two boys following divorce.
“One of the boys had to be the man of the house, Draymond wanted to be the man of the house,” Babers said, noting to do so you’d have to do household chores. “To take out the trash, you have to get up in the morning. Draymond thought he could do it.”
Green the leader flourished in high school, as he led Saginaw High School to two state championships before he was off to MSU. Still, he struggled to put it all together, but with the help of his mother and his high school coach, Lou Dawkins, he turned into the player he is now.
“It wasn’t gravy everyday with Day-Day, he was a teenager, he had his bad days and his good days,” Dawkins said. “I truly believe with the guidance from all three or four entities, we made him become Draymond Green.”
That leadership has transformed into a quality young players desire to have, Dawkins said.
“When you have somebody doing everything right in the classroom, in the public, on the court, the younger guys say, ‘Oh, if I do this that way, I can have the success Day-Day is having,’” he said.
‘The ultimate Spartan’
Izzo has called Green the “perfect Spartan.”
And for everything he brings to the basketball team, it’s seen in everything he does. From supporting every team on campus to even recruiting for other MSU teams, he does it all.
“He cares about Michigan State, he cares about the other sports and he cares about people,” Izzo said. “He takes ownership in this place. To me, that makes him the ultimate Spartan”
He embodies the qualities of all of MSU’s greatest players, and it’s not by accident.
“I like to pick people’s brains,” Green said. “I just like to learn different things; you can never know too much. I like talking to guys like Mateen, like Magic, talk to guys like (Shawn) Respert and (Steve Smith).
“So you may hear stuff about perfect Spartan, because when you put together all those people up there,” he said, pointing up at the retired numbers in Breslin, “and I picked stuff from all of them and just tried to get it all together.”
Cleaves said it reminds him of when former players would come back and talk to him.
“I love talking to Draymond; he appreciates it, takes it in,” he said. “He always has 100 questions because he wants to learn and wants to win.”
Green’s freshman stats of 3.3 points and rebounds a game won’t wow anybody. But four years of steady contribution allowed him to become just one of three Spartans to reach the 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds marks.
But it’s not just the stats and leadership that vault him to Spartan Great status. Dawkins said Green has a trait needed for success.
“Day-Day is a winner. He always wanted to win, from checkers to basketball,” he said. “He shows the type of passion that develops leaders. Without that drive, he wouldn’t be the person he is today. Without that type of passion the LeBron James, the Kobe (Bryants) of the world (have), they wouldn’t be the people they are if they didn’t have that drive, and that’s the same drive (as Green).”
If he can finish out his career with a memorable postseason, Green has a chance to sit above most.
“There’s no doubt he’ll be one of the greatest leaders Izzo has,” MSU assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said. “At the end of the day when you compare numbers, he’ll be one of the best players. He’ll have a chance to sit at the table.”
The table Stephens refers to is an image Cleaves likes to use to explain where the Spartan Greats such as himself, Steve Smith and Magic Johnson sit.
“I jokingly say stuff like that. I use that to motivate Draymond, because I know that gets him going,” Cleaves said. “Just looking at what he’s accomplished and the leader he’s been for Michigan State, I’m so proud. He’s up there already.”
For more on Day-Day and what didn’t make the cut, check out this Hoop, There it is! Blog
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