Monday night, in front of 72,922 people at Detroit’s Ford Field, the North Carolina Tar Heels fulfilled almost every preseason prognosis and became the NCAA men’s basketball hoops champs. The Heels dominated this tournament, leading by double digits for a staggering 154 of the 200 minutes they played.
But shed no tears for their vanquished foes from Michigan State. The Spartans finished a surprise run to the finals that singed every nerve ending in the state. They played two games in three days in front of tens of thousands of adoring hometown fans and millions around the country rooting for them to cut down the nets.
Michigan State, the team from East Lansing, ninety minutes from Detroit, may have lost to a better and more experienced North Carolina team. But this isn’t the story anymore than the story of Jackie Robinson’s first baseball game was that he went hitless but scored the winning run. The buzz about how much the ascension of the Spartans meant to their state has added a sobering note of class politics to the usual commercial trappings. This has been seen perhaps most dramatically in the comments sections of mainstream sports websites. Normally these corners of the Internet are allergic to introspection. But not for this game and not now.
On Sports Illustrated’s Fan Nation site, one person wrote, "I’m an MSU alum living in Michigan, working for a struggling company and praying that I keep my job…….but those guys put a smile on my face every time they go out on the court." Another posted, "I live in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan and the whole state needs this championship. We are hurting bad…. This means tons to the people of Michigan. Go State!" Even North Carolina fans were caught in the moment. "Born and raised in Chapel Hill, naturally a Tarheel fan, ..Obviously I’m pulling for the Heels, but a Spartan victory would not upset me in the least."
Something more substantial than a basketball contest was taking place. It was rooted not in the economic insecurity and hardship of one state, where unemployment is listed conservatively at 12 percent, but an entire country. Michigan for most of the last two decades, was viewed and discussed as a remnant of this nation’s past: high unemployment, an aging infrastructure and an auto industry whose best days had passed. Unless Michael Moore was pointing his camera in the state’s direction, few noticed the rust. But now when looking at Michigan we don’t see a nation’s past but its present and maybe its future. The banks haven’t been nationalized, but Flint sure has. We empathize because we sympathize. But as difficult as things are nationally, and as inspired as many have been about Michigan State’s run, Detroit, still stands at the vanguard of pain.
I was in the Motor City when the news came down that the government had fired General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner. It was a good thing there was CNN within earshot because that Monday was the day the Detroit Free Press ceased home delivery to save a few bucks. Wagoner walked away with millions. But a city can’t walk away from itself. Even some of the surrounding suburbs on the other side of 8 Mile are in tough straits. That could have been said any time in the last twenty years. What makes now different is that the pockets of gentrification that developed in the 1990s also seeing shuttered boutiques, coffee shops and galleries. For working people, it’s been a generational journey from union jobs, to service jobs, to no jobs.
The people of Detroit reminded me in some ways of the people from New Orleans and even a friend I have who is Vietnamese. Just as those from NOLA resent being defined by Katrina, and my buddy from Vietnam says , "We’re a country not a war," people from Detroit don’t want to be defined by crisis, abandoned factories, and unemployment. But at the same time, as in each case, it’s impossible to talk to anyone not affected by disasters both natural and man-made. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone hates having a story to tell. In Detroit, autoworkers are being told that the bankers’ bonus contracts are sacrosanct, while their union contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. People in the city get on a boat to go to across the border to Windsor, Ontario to buy prescription meds. The many casinos that flash their bright lights at the blight across the river seem like a realistic road out of poverty. But the Spartans aren’t just another shining bauble of success out of people’s reach. They matter.
As Jemele Hill wrote, "I know some journalists inevitably will write the traditional Detroit is a disaster zone" columns. And if any crime happens during the Final Four, the media conveniently will forget that crimes occur in the background of every major sporting event in this country — not just in Detroit. I just ask that people be fair to Detroit and understand what this means for the entire state. Sports won’t bring new industries to Michigan or solve its enormous unemployment problem. But this week, no one in Michigan will be feeling blue. Just green."
She is right. In hard times, sports can play a role that’s both positive and progressive. On Monday night, the Spartans shot enough bricks to rebuild the motor city and turned over the ball as if they were just leasing it from Carolina. But still, they fought tough, cutting a 24-point North Carolina lead to 13 and banging away until the last minute of action.
As the game ended, and Michigan State players began to hang their heads at the inevitability of their loss, play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz said , "This state has been hit especially hard. They are trying to find a way to make so many people happy." They did, and as long as we can keep our heads up, we have a chance to see the bigger problems and demand solutions. The Spartans this week had a lot of people who had become accustomed to limping walking tall.