Thursday evening, Michigan State Head Men's Basketball Coach Tom Izzo approached the podium to do something he’s done many times during his career: address the press ahead of a rivalry weekend matchup vs Michigan.
Typically, this sort of interaction with the media would be almost formulaic: Izzo would offer some respect for the school down the road but emphasize that he does not mean he likes them. He would talk some hoops, give some quippy answers, the usual.
But basketball was not the focus of this presser. Discussing game plans, player health, roster decisions - none of that. Nothing is normal about this meeting.
In fact, “Normal” is a word that can’t describe much of what has occurred in East Lansing since late Monday, Feb. 13.
A mass shooting took the lives of three Spartans - Brian Fraser, Alexandria Verner, and Arielle Anderson - and sent five more to Sparrow Hospital.
It has upended the lives of thousands, connected and unconnected to those victims of the senseless act of violence, an act of chaos that has become all too familiar in the United States.
Amidst the chaos, athletics have slid to the bottom rung of things that need addressing - and rightfully so. The university canceled MSU’s men’s basketball game against Minnesota, scheduled for Wednesday evening, as well as a few other athletic events in the immediate aftermath.
For the last 48 hours, it wasn't even clear whether or not Michigan State would play against its rivals from Ann Arbor.
Then, Thursday morning, the university revealed that the game would go on. MSU would still face off against its rivals just a few days after the tragic events of Feb. 13.
It was always going to be a tough choice for the university to make. On one hand, there were still students in shock, traumatized and not fully recovered - was this the time for a rivalry game? On the other hand, some could argue that it is a distraction from the horrible events of the last few days was a necessity.
For Izzo, the choice seemed clear. Sports, the great unifier, would have another opportunity to show what it can do for a community in grieving.
“We can’t do anything about what’s happened," Izzo said. "Except hopefully do a better job of making sure it doesn’t happen again. But we can do something about moving forward. Because there's probably a brother or sister of one of those three that has to live. There’s a mom, and a dad, and hopefully a smile on your face, whether it’s a Michigan fan being mad at me, or a Michigan State fan being happy, hopefully, it just brings everybody together.”
Izzo was not involved in the decision-making. That was left up to the upper levels of the athletic departments and administrations of Michigan State and Michigan.
However, the administration kept the interests of the student-athletes in mind throughout. Mental health counselors talked to players and the staff, and it quickly became clear that the players wanted to return to the court.
“They felt that if they played it would help not only themselves, the team, but maybe help the campus heal a little better,” Izzo said. “So we agreed that that would be our battle cry.”
Michigan State’s roster has to go from an active shooter situation on Monday to a prep and a game Saturday. It hasn’t been easy.
“Yesterday’s practice, which we did practice, was awful,” Izzo said. “It was not very good. No blame for anybody, we just didn’t have it.”
According to Izzo, Thursday’s practice went better. However, come game day, those emotions are sure to reappear. Izzo and his players will have to face their rivals with the events of the previous week weighing heavy on their shoulders.
“I’m going to have to do a good job of holding my emotions, their emotions, everybody’s emotions,” Izzo said.
However, the host of this Saturday’s game is trying to do all they can to help the Spartans sift through those complicated emotions. The “hated” rivals down the road, the Wolverines, have handled the tragic situation with immense class, respect and empathy.
UMich hosted a candlelight vigil Wednesday night to stand in solidarity with the victims of the shooting. Various teams from the Michigan Athletic Department adorned their gear with decals honoring the victims. Head Michigan Basketball Coach Juwan Howard and his staff each reached out to Izzo after Monday’s shooting.
“I greatly appreciate the support I’ve gotten from the University of Michigan,” Izzo said. “The texts I’ve gotten from people. The way their university has stood up.”
Historically, entering Crisler Arena, and Ann Arbor in general, has been like entering the viper's den for Michigan State. This Saturday, MSU enters an arena and a community that wants nothing more than to nurture and send its support to its historic rivals.
Emotions will be high. But everybody will be on the same page this weekend: remember those who have suffered at the hands of the tragedy and lift up the survivors, the students and the community of East Lansing.
“We know everybody grieves a little different," Izzo said. "Everybody processes trauma in a million different ways. But like I said last night, whatever you’re feeling is valid.”