Spartan for Life

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One night early on during my freshman year at Michigan State, my teammates and I decided to hit the movies. I was new to the team so I wanted to prove my worth by working my tail off during practice, but I also wanted to show that I was a quality dude to chill with off the court. I figured this would be a good chance to bond with some of the older guys on the team.

I don’t remember what movie we saw, but trust me, the movie wasn’t the most memorable moment from that night.

As we walked into the theater, our usually chatty group got suspiciously quiet. I knew something was up. My teammates had kind of scattered and I turned to see what was up, and when I did, the theater erupted in laughter.

“Ooooooooh, snap!”

Derrick Nix, our six-foot-nine, 270-pound senior center, who had somehow hidden himself from plain view…got up right behind me…and pantsed me in front of everyone.

Yup.

I got pantsed in front of a packed movie theater.

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I’ve never heard a group of people laugh so hard. Yeah, Derrick got me good. But I played it cool and laughed with the rest of ’em. I was a freshman — what was I supposed to do? I never got Derrick back for that. (But I haven’t forgotten, bro. All I’m saying is, you should watch your back next time we’re together.)

Talk about making a first impression. Strangely though, getting pantsed made me feel like I belonged, as if I were a younger brother to all my teammates. That was fitting, because while I was at Michigan State I always felt like our team was family.

Before I ever started playing ball in East Lansing, I had green and white running through my veins. In fact, my parents say that on November 16, 1993, I came out of the womb in a Michigan State jersey.

To me, MSU was always more than a college. It was a home. I grew up about 15 minutes away from campus, so as a kid I spent a lot of time hanging out there.

Man, I can’t even tell you how many State games that my brother, my father and I caught at the Breslin. Probably somewhere in the hundreds. In the Valentine household, Spartan basketball was a proud family tradition: My dad played four years of hoops at MSU in the 1980s. I even rocked the same jersey number that he did. That’s something I’ll always be proud of.

To me, MSU was always more than a college. It was a home.

Growing up, I always associated Michigan State basketball with excellence. When I was five, six and seven years old, Michigan State made back-to-back-to-back Final Fours. They won the whole thing in 2000. When I was in middle school, Shannon Brown was the Dude on the ’05 Final Four team. A few years later, we made back-to-back Final Fours in ’09 and ’10 with my man, Draymond Green.

During the summers when I was in high school, I’d go to State’s campus to play pickup during open gym. I wanted to spend every waking moment on that basketball court. It felt like I belonged there.

Sometimes I’d match up against guys who started on the team. Man, they could ball, but their skills weren’t the only thing that caught my attention. Coming from a high school without a sponsorship deal, I couldn’t help but notice all the swag the players had: the caps, the shorts, the T-shirts. I was like, Damn, this stuff is legit. That green and white looks crazy nice. I need to get some of this gear.

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When it came time to decide on what school to attend, it was the simplest decision I’ve ever had to make. Sparty all the way. Why would I go anywhere else?

At my first practice in 2012, coach Izzo and my teammates confirmed what I already knew: Michigan State was about winning. Coming off a loss in the Sweet Sixteen a year earlier, the guys were pumped to get back on the court and begin a new chapter. The best part was that my teammates weren’t worried about playing time or stats. They just wanted to get those Ws.

To be completely honest with you, I wasn’t expecting to start my freshman year. I figured that if I scrapped and hustled, I could maybe see some garbage minutes early in the season. So when I saw my name pencilled in against Boise State for only our fourth game of the season, I was pretty shocked.

But at the same time, I knew I was ready for it.

This was what I’d been working toward my whole life. I’d put everything into following in my father’s footsteps at Michigan State. And now was my time to make a name for myself. I was starting for the Michigan State Spartans, the No. 15 team in the nation, in a packed Breslin Center. What could possibly be better than that?

I’ll never forget when they announced my name over the loudspeakers. I never knew 14,797 fans could be so loud. It felt like the entire state of Michigan was packed into the arena. In that moment, I felt so powerful, as if the Izzone had transferred its energy into my body — it just felt like straight adrenaline.

I remember looking up into the stands thinking:

They got my back. I gotta make them proud. This is for them.

Man, thinking back on it gets me pretty nostalgic. It’s difficult to summarize how much my life has changed since my first start. My four years in East Lansing were … surreal. To thank everyone that made my time in here special would be so hard, but I’m going to try.

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I’ve already mentioned the Izzone, but it deserves a little more love: From day one, everybody there has been amazing to me. Thank you for all the support you’ve given me. Without you, we wouldn’t have been able to pull out some pretty important wins. I had gotten a sense of how much the Izzone loved this team when I saw the tents everybody had pitched outside the Breslin before signing up for season tickets. It gets pretty damn cold here in October, but y’all would do anything for this team. I appreciated that so much.

If you ever caught me smiling on the court during an opponent’s free throw, it was because you were doing your job. I loved it when you guys had some inside information about the team we were playing against, and then used it when their players were at the line. That was so funny, man. We had to have some fun out there, baby — y’all brought the party! You’re the heart and soul of this university.

It’s difficult to summarize how much my life has changed since my first start. My four years in East Lansing were … surreal.

To my teammates: Thank you for loving the game as much as I do and for being a friend off the court. Every single one of you — whether it was a walk-on pushing me in practice, a stud who left early for the NBA or someone in between — have molded me into the man that I am today. I am so grateful for you, even if one of you did pants me in public.

And where do I begin with coach Izzo? That man is a cool, cool dude. I always tell people that if you had never seen a game of Michigan State basketball, and you were to hang out with Coach for a bit, you would never know he was such an intense figure on the court. He’s a caring, loyal man who wants the most out of every kid he coaches. More than that, he’s incredibly genuine, even to the random people on the street who ask him for a photograph.

Coach, I’ll never forget two things that you taught me.

One is that I should treat each person the same way. I’ve never seen a more generous man than you. I don’t even know when you get the chance to sleep ’cause you’re always helping other people out.

The other is that I have to have success on my mind every single day, even if it means pushing through pain. Remember our 2015 run to the Final Four? I get goosebumps thinking about it now. I will never forget you in front of that whiteboard, scribbling away and saying these words:

“Two hours. Can you sacrifice, reach down and give me two hours, so that you can have a lifetime of memories for you, your family, your kids and your kids’ kids? That’s the memories I’m talking about!”

How could I not run through a wall for someone like you?

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Obviously, the way this season ended was not the way my teammates and I wanted to go out. Y’all didn’t deserve that, but we ran into a team that played great on a particular night. All the credit to Middle Tennessee.

But one thing’s for certain: I gave you all I had, Spartan Nation. You did so much for me, and I did all I could do for you. I wish so badly that I could’ve brought a championship to East Lansing, but even though I never did, I won’t ever forget this amazing journey we’ve taken together.

On Senior Day, the other seniors and I got the chance to kiss the Spartan logo at midcourt. That was an emotional moment for me. When I looked up into the crowd, I felt the same energy I that I had four years ago when I started my first game. It was pure love, man. Always.

I’m not sure where I’ll be going next, but I know that my heart will still bleed green and white, just like it always has.

Victory for MSU,

Denzel Valentine

Thank You, Kansas

I’m going to miss having KANSAS stitched across my chest.

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