A Night for the Only Colors
Last night, Michigan State's men's basketball team played its first home game since last week's mass shooting killed three, injured five, and vaulted a community deep into public tragedy. Fifteen thousand people assembled at the Breslin Center to watch the Spartans take on Indiana and to search for some sort of normalcy.
A hard-fought and convincing 80-65 victory took place against a backdrop of a student section that wrapped its arms around their neighbors in remembrance first and then in the type of unbridled energy only college kids can possess. They jumped around, heckled and cheered as they always do. But there were stark and important reminders that this is something the Michigan State has never done. From the eight empty seats reserved for the victims, to a warning that lights would be dimmed for player intros, to the absence of the traditional popping of bags after the first home team bucket, painful reality was never far from the surface. There's an edge that won't soon be dulled.
Afterward Izzo joined Scott Van Pelt on SportCenter to speak about the emotional night and continued to be the exact right person for this leadership job no one should ever want or be asked to do.
"It was hopefully two hours of joy because there's a lot of sadness here," Izzo said. "That's one thing sports can do for you. It can exhilarate you and make you all come together. There were 15,000 people there tonight and I felt like I could give a hug to every one of them by how my team played."
Van Pelt asked the ultimate Spartan what it means to be one.
"We're the blue-collar place and damn proud of it," Izzo offered. "We're the grinders, you know? We just grind our way through it. I think we stick together and we fight through some things. It's why I've never left here. I love what we stand for. We're Spartans, we're fighters, we're survivors and we're going to keep on trucking."
I was one of those 15,000 people in the building. It was extremely important for me to be there in ways I can't fully explain, though the need to spend time with a family that claims 650,000 alums was near the top of the list. Second was to feel whatever was there to be felt.
And honestly, it's complicated. On any other night dispatching a team of the Hoosiers' caliber would be cause for universal celebration. Sports can mean nothing and can also mean everything. At times like these that line is more blurry or confusing. The normalcy felt good and was welcomed. Yet it's profoundly bleak that Michigan State is not charting any new territory. It should be cause for rage that there's a playbook for this type of tragedy. Every place upended by senseless gun violence is forced to endure it, and the most forward-facing example of that cycle is often reflected through athletics.
So there are shirts like the Spartan Strong ones worn by the coaching staffs of both teams and ubiquitous in the crowd. There are moments of silence. There are gestures large and small.
Too often, though, it feels like the view an outsider gets wraps things up with a bow too tidy and clean for the moment. Leaning into the positivity obscures the fact that things are not okay. That people are not okay. And most alarmingly, one could believe that constantly hammering home the idea of moving forward can leave memories and proper respect in the past.
That's why the normalcy, even if it returns in brief windows, can be heartbreaking. The idea that communities all over the country do this with regularity is a sobering reality for now, and sadly, will likely remain one for the rest of our lives. A person can feel guilty for erupting in joy after a three-pointer or breakaway dunk. They can ask themselves if they should feel guilty.
Finding answers to all the questions was never going to happen. Certainly not in two hours. But I think I did find two.
First, no one even has the answer key. There is no one-size-fits-all way to go about picking up the pieces. Or even defining what that means. Izzo himself, speaking at the first vigil after the violence, smartly stated that whatever anyone is feeling is valid. Grief differs from person to person. And dealing with it is not some sort of linear endeavor. Judging others does no good and, in fact, is detrimental to the process. Respecting others in their differences and allowing them to negotiate their own road may be the best and most human thing to be done.
More importantly, the macro obscures the micro. Conversations about our national epidemic and awful newsbreaks about the latest mass shooting location have become part of the cultural fabric. So much so that the abject horror is blunted because we've seen it so often before. People become statistics and towns become news-cycle tour stops until the next one emerges.
But in reality all of this is so painfully personal. Work outward in concentric circles to feel the damage. The kids who lost their lives. The kids who are fighting for their lives. Those who loved them. Those who knew them. Those who will never shake the memory of a near-miss. Those who saw what should be a safe space transformed into a hellscape. Those a bit further removed who are devastated for everyone more impacted.
A basketball game isn't going to change or even marginally impact any of the real-world stuff. Yet playing and observing it felt like something. Being a part of it in some way, even to escape, felt like doing something at a time where it feels hard to do anything. These rituals can feel painfully inadequate and a bit paint-by-numbers from afar. Get closer to it, though, and one understands the importance of little things. The importance of them adding up to feel like something bigger. The importance of thousands of people working through some things to work through them together.
It's impossible to quantify or explain. Yet it's impossible not to feel.