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Izzo’s Magic Works for Michigan St.

March 31, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS _ Tom Izzo grew up watching men carry lunch buckets on their way to work in the ore mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Few images had a more lasting effect on the man who went from point guard at Iron Mountain High to head coach at Michigan State.

Izzo’s special relationship with the Spartans’ ballplayers is the result of his ability to mesh a blue-collar background with a fine-tuned sense of humor. He knows when to crack down, and when to crack a joke. That way, his kids know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to have fun.

``My players have a partnership in this team,″ said Izzo, who has guided the Spartans to three straight Big Ten championships and their second straight Final Four berth. ``It’s not a dictatorship.″

Far from it.

Last week, for example, in the Midwest regional championship game against Iowa State, star forward Morris Peterson stepped forward in the huddle at the most crucial moment. He suggested an alley-oop play.

Izzo didn’t blink. ``That sounds great,″ he said.

When play resumed, the Spartans set it up. Mateen Cleaves flipped the ball high above the rim and Peterson jammed home the decisive basket in Michigan State’s quarterfinal win. That set the Spartans (30-7) on a collision course with Wisconsin (22-13) for the fourth time this season, the first ever in the national semifinals, on Saturday night.

``I think a lot of coaches, they don’t really let their players get involved in some of their plays,″ Peterson said Friday before the Spartans final practice. ``I think that’s what kind of separates coach Izzo. He can really relate to his players.

``He’s always willing to listen to them and get some of their input.″

This week, Izzo brought the Spartans to Indianapolis on Wednesday night, long before they needed to be in town. A sign he was getting a little nervous, right?

Not at all.

After a light workout at a nearby college gym, Izzo turned his players loose. On a senior-dominated team, he had little to worry about. Instead of going out to party, Cleaves and a few of his teammates wound up downtown at Conseco Fieldhouse watching the Slam Dunk and 3-Point contest.

Even Cleaves, who is closer to Izzo than any of the Spartans, can’t define Izzo’s magic. He only knows that it works.

``We have a great coach-player relationship,″ Cleaves said. ``He lets his players have input on what we need to do. He’s not one of those coaches that thinks it’s just his way or the highway.″

Izzo even values his players’ observations off the court.

``His door’s always open,″ Cleaves said. ``He’s always available to us. If you have a suggestion, he lets you have your input on that.″

That unity of purpose helps explain how the Spartans erased deep deficits to win their last three games in the tournament. Izzo said his willingness to listen to others began with the way he was raised.

``I am what I am, and I can’t hide that,″ he said. ``I’m honest with my players about that. I’m honest with them when I recruit them.″

But it doesn’t mean Izzo can’t be a dictator when he feels it’s warranted. Peterson was such a slacker as a freshman that Izzo left him home while the rest of the team traveled to a tournament in Hawaii. Even the fun-loving Cleaves has felt his lash.

``Adversity sometimes brings you closer,″ Izzo said.

And at the moment, few people are closer to him than Cleaves. Cleaves grew up in Flint, Mich., another lunch-bucket town. He was Izzo’s first big-time recruit, groomed to play the point _ as Izzo did once _ and to be the coach on floor.

``For all those reasons, I think the relationship has grown,″ Izzo said. ``And it’s like all relationships _ not always perfect. But I have great respect for him.″

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