At the request of his coach, Tom Izzo, starting guard Joshua Langford threw a basketball as hard as he could across the court. Something had gone awry at practice and Izzo could see the frustration growing on his young player’s face.
Despite the obvious discontent he was feeling, Langford remained silent until Izzo brought practice to a halt and put the ball in his hands. In an attempt to get him to express the emotions he was feeling, Izzo gave him the instructions to throw it.
As the ball flew through the air, Langford thought his coach had gone crazy, but years later said this was the moment that “the seeds were sown” in his journey to find his voice.
Langford didn’t need to use his voice very often early in his college career. His on-court leadership abilities spoke for themselves, allowing him to stay within his comfort zone and be a nonverbal leader.
“Sometimes it's easy to hide behind your gift and how people see you, and it never gives you the opportunity to really begin to speak out and to communicate and to really step into more of your voice,” he said.
Everything changed his junior season. After the first 13 games of the season, the starting guard who averaged 15 points per game went down with a season-ending foot injury.
This meant he could no longer stick to the status quo and be a leader on the court. Langford had to reflect and learn to build off lessons from Izzo and others to become a vocal leader from the sidelines in order to remain a part of the team.
Although being vocal was outside of his comfort zone, being a leader certainly wasn’t. When Langford became injury plagued, he was able to mimic the leadership skills his mentors Tum Tum Nairn Jr. and Eron Harris utilized just off the court. And once those kicked in, using his voice didn’t come too far after.
“You see how Michigan State Spartans operate, and if you buy in, it just becomes who you are, and you naturally just step into that role being a leader,” Langford said. “ Even if you may not be a captain on the team, you still step into a leadership role because that's just how Coach Iz (Izzo) set up the program to develop you into not just a great basketball player, but a great leader.”
In fact, the family atmosphere and leadership values that MSU preaches is why Langford chose to come to East Lansing. He took an official visit in September 2015 to watch the football team play Oregon and met former Spartans that would make up MSU Mount Rushmore, should it exist.
He recalled a particular conversation with former player Mateen Cleaves that made him feel welcome as a young recruit and effectively sealed his decision.
“A switch kind of flipped on the inside of me,” Langford said. “I was like, this feels like home and so I actually made my decision to be a part of Michigan State the next day on my way back home. Even though I hadn't committed to Michigan State yet, they treated me like family.”
Langford was learning the MSU basketball ways of leadership before he even stepped foot on the practice court. Forced to sit out his junior and senior seasons with unexpected injuries, he would need to not only recall this wisdom and become a vocal leader, but also figure out who he was outside of basketball.
All he had ever known was playing the game that he loved. Langford was a McDonald’s All-American with NBA dreams in sight, so when basketball was no longer possible for him as a long term goal, he found a new love: school.
Upon returning from injury, Langford was no longer a sophomore, but a graduate student at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others, his interests changed within those two years and he decided, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in advertising and a religious studies minor, to enroll in a master’s program in the College of Education.
“I told myself before the master's program that I want to actually put 110% into this master's program,” Langford said. “I'm just gonna be honest, I was smart enough to not give 100% in school and still get good grades, but I told myself in my master's program, I really wanted to try to give my best.”
It was ultimately a career altering decision that required much deliberation and guidance, but after it was made not only did Langford begin learning about topics that interested him, but he also began to see who he was outside of basketball for the first time in his life.
“I just began to really try to lock in and focus,” Langford said. “I was like, man, I really like to learn. I like the stuff that I'm learning. I'm enjoying it. I'm digesting and I'm comprehending it. It's making sense to me. It's not just going in this ear out the other.”
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Langford was enjoying his program so much that not only was he seeing himself differently, but he was also seeing a possible future outside of basketball. However, he had a choice in front of him.
“The next step for me at that time was to choose to not pursue basketball, and so that was super scary, because, I mean, it’s like somebody telling you how you've been tying your shoe your whole life, it hasn't been wrong, but you can't tie it another way,” Langford said.
After being forced to sit out for nearly two seasons, Langford admitted it was hard to get back in the swing of basketball, and the pandemic didn’t help. His production was impressive considering what he had been through, but his numbers weren’t what they used to be before his injuries.
After graduation he did have plans to sign with an agent and look to become an undrafted free agent or play overseas, but after discussing with those closest to him, he decided that it was time to close the door on his playing career.
“I just felt like I needed to make a change," Langford said. "I felt like I could tie my shoe a different way, and so I made the decision not knowing what was going to be next."
After reaching out to the director of the MSU Multicultural Business Program who he previously knew, Langford found himself applying for his first job.
“I went through the interview process, which was nerve wracking, because, like, mind you I've never had a job.,” Langford said. “This is my first job ever in my whole life, so up until this point, my only job was basketball.”
After a waiting period plagued by post interview nerves, he was ecstatic to learn that he got the job as the program coordinator, where he still works a year later.
In his role, he has been able to help students who are dealing with the same struggles he dealt with, such as switching to different paths and encouraging them to follow their passions. He created “Multifarious,” a program that literally means “many and of various types.”
“Honestly it was birthed out of my own experience of going through college and then choosing to not do what I thought I was going to do,” Langford said.
The program helps not just students, but everyone to see their value doesn’t come from work or school, but by being a good person. It also helps them to follow their passions without being confined to whatever is holding them back from them.
“The vision behind that is to really help students see that their purpose isn't just unilateral, but it's multilateral, meaning that there's more to them than just what they see,” Langford said.
For Langford, helping others learn to do what makes them happy at the university that welcomed him like family has truly been a full circle moment. His coaches helped him find his voice, his injuries helped him find out who he was outside of basketball, and now he helps the newest generation of Spartans find their calling.
As for basketball, Langford isn’t completely out of the game. He still likes to pop in and out of the Breslin Center on his lunch breaks to catch up with players and coaches. Sometimes he even shows recruits around campus.
Even though he didn’t take the path he thought he would, Langford has still managed to keep things he’s passionate about at the forefront of his life, as well as helping others to do the same.
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