Sunday, August 9, 2020

My journey to find the ultimate Mike Garland story

April 6, 2019
Michigan State assistant coach Mike Garland, left, jokes with freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) during Michigan State's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four open practice at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 5, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News)
Michigan State assistant coach Mike Garland, left, jokes with freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) during Michigan State's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four open practice at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 5, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News) —
Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Garland is so known for his stories, his true-life tales, that both players and media members had the same reaction when asked about them.

“You gotta hear an OG story,” one longtime beat reporter told me. “It’ll totally warp you.”

OG is Garland, short for “Original Gangsta,” a nod to his age — 64 — and his wisdom. Before the Belleville native was an MSU assistant under Tom Izzo, he was his teammate at Northern Michigan University in the late 1970s. He carries a treasure trove of fables, from every stop of his life.

So, with MSU in town for the 10th Final Four in school history, I went in search of the OG story that would change my life, the way it had changed countless players and media members before me.

My journey began at U.S. Bank Stadium, where I found Garland in an extra side room reserved for the assistant coaches, talking with Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg. Perfect, I thought. He’ll talk to Rosenberg for a few minutes, and then I’ll get my chance to listen to him.

Unfortunately, Garland’s penchant for longtime speaking worked against me. He talked to Rosenberg for the entirety of MSU’s open locker room period. I was chased out of the locker room by a school official before I had the chance to talk to him. He apologized and said he’d talk to me as soon as MSU’s open practice concluded.

In the meantime, I talked to players on MSU’s Big Ten championship team. They all had the same idea when it came to the wise old sage.

“OG’s been my man since I stepped on campus,” senior forward Kenny Goins said. “He was honestly the first person who told me, ‘you’re gonna be a great player here someday.’ Just to actually hear one of your coaches say that out loud was big for me.”

For freshman forward Aaron Henry, Garland’s importance came not in building up his confidence but by staying firmly on top of him.

“He’s always been in close quarters with me and my father,” Henry said. “My father asked him to stay on me ... to hold me to the higher standard of an upperclassman, and not cut me any slack.”

Practice ended and after he stops conversing with others, Garland turned his attention to me. 

Now was the chance for a story.

“I grew up like three-quarters of them, I grew up without anything,” Garland began. He was raised by his grandparents in the 1960s and 1970s, not the safest time for an African-American in any major city, let alone Detroit.

He credited his grandparents for his sharp attention to detail, something that has served him well in his 19 years as an MSU assistant. 

“The one thing that they always made sure of was that anything I did ... whether it was right or wrong, they made sure that I knew exactly how to get back to that outcome or how to avoid that outcome,” he said. “That’s big, because a lot of times, people have success in life and they can’t tell you how they did it. ... My grandma used to always say, ‘Watch what you’re doing, so you’ll be able to do it again.’”

Garland is something of a point guard whisperer — teaching Spartan ball-handlers that the result of a play is less important than the process by which it came about. Junior guard Cassius Winston has flourished under his tutelage.

“He kind of took me under his wing last year as a point guard coach and I just come into his room and we just talk,” Winston said. “Sometimes, it’s not even about basketball. ... It’s an open space, where we’ve really grown in our relationship … it’s grown to more than just coach-player.”

The U-D Jesuit product trailed off. But there’s something special about Garland. He even looks the part of a wise owl, with tight horn-rim glasses framing his intense brown eyes and graying goatee substituting for a beak.

He is a true raconteur — former players have told him they haven’t forgotten his stories, even after 15 or 20 years away from the program.

“The stories that I tell these guys, they’re stories, yeah, but they’re life experiences,” he said. “The people that I’m talking about are people that I grew up with ... I tell them those stories to bring about whatever point that I’m trying to draw on.”

The one thing that stands out within seconds of talking to Garland is how reflective he is. He is not the single-minded obsessive unaware of world politics. He was instrumental in designing MSU’s Black History Month t-shirts, making sure the team took note of the sacrifices of those who came before.

I asked him how he discusses social issues with players.

“That’s how you build a society,” he said. “You don’t run away from those issues, you don’t run away from the racial problems that we have in this country. You learn from me, I learn from you, and we do what we have to do to resolve those issues.”

I was just in the middle of the good stuff — a true OG adventure about a neighborhood bully during his formative years — when I was cut off by another MSU staff member whisking him away to the team bus. Just my luck.

He thanked me for my time, which seemed backwards, and promised to continue the anecdote another day.

After all, when your whole life is a collection of stories, you never really run out of time.

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