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December 16, 2012

Experience at Jenison 'tops them all'

EAST LANSING - Michigan State gave its players another opportunity to relish.

Keith Appling matched a career high with 25 points to lead the 19th-ranked Spartans to a 92-56 win over Tuskegee on Saturday night at Jenison Field House, where the "Game of Change" was held during the 1963 NCAA tournament.

Michigan State opened the season on an Air Force base in Germany, a year after playing on an aircraft carrier in San Diego.

The Spartans (9-2) played their first game in their former home for hoops since 1989 - a decade after Magic Johnson called it his home court during a championship season - to celebrate an historic event staged in the same venue nearly a half-century ago.

"We've done a lot of neat things, but this kind of tops it all," Appling said. "I'm glad we were able to be a part of it."

Mississippi State, whose team had only white players at the time, defied an unwritten state prohibition against playing against integrated teams to face Loyola of Chicago, which had four black starters, in East Lansing during the 1963 NCAA tournament.

Loyola won the game en route to winning the NCAA title that year.

Those teams played for the first time since that NCAA tournament matchup on Saturday night in Chicago, where Loyola won 59-51, and players from the game that helped to change race relations on the court were honored at halftime.

Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said he had a verbal agreement from Loyola to play Saturday night at Jenison, but let the school out of the commitment when it had a chance to reunite with Mississippi State on the court.

Hollis then lined up Tuskegee for the game and gave Tuskegee Airmen and their families courtside seats. Some of the first black aviators in the U.S. military, who trained in Alabama at Tuskegee Institute, were given a standing ovation during the first timeout.

Many of the Tuskegee Airmen were from the Detroit area. Two of the three who were introduced to the Jenison Field House crowd on Saturday night had ties to Michigan State University. The Tuskegee Airmen National Museum is located in Detroit.

"It was kind of hair-raising on your arms," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of the reception the Tuskegee Airmen received from the Jenison Field House crowd. "Thank God those fans gave that ovation to those men that deserve so much. I really appreciate our fans doing that."

Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, a 91-year-old Tuskegee Airmen, was thrilled to be among those honored by Michigan State officials, coaches, players and fans.

"They treated us exuberantly well," Jefferson said after the game.

Hollis said the idea for the event was hatched when he saw the documentary "Game of Change" during the 2009 Final Four in Detroit. Hollis figured this season would be a good time to do it, nearly 50 years before the game was played at Michigan State.

Tuskegee coach Leon Douglas, a former NBA player, said both he and his players were unaware of the significance of the 1963 game until the school was invited to celebrate it and he educated himself and his players.

"It was really a milestone," Douglas said.

Calvin Thomas scored 14 points and Javier McKinney had 12 for the Golden Tigers (1-5).

Michigan State uses Jenison for volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics and indoor track. It was converted back into a basketball venue, with the court and baskets brought over from the nearby Breslin Center, for an alumni game Friday night, Saturday's game that followed a concert by The Commodores and a Michigan State women's basketball game Sunday.

The Commodores, an immensley popular funk/soul band from the '70s and '80s, attended Tuskegee University and recorded with Detroit's Motown Records. The Commodores once played a concert at Jenison Field House in the early 1980s - and Hollis admits that he snuck into the concert for free. Hollis said he planned to pay the band back during this weekend's event, in signing them up to be part of the festivities.

Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, stars from the 2000 national championship team, and Steve Smith were among the former Spartans who played in a game Friday night that was expected to include Johnson as one of the coaches. Johnson didn't make it because he accepted an invitation to visit with President Barack Obama at The White House. Johnson apologized to his "MSU family and friends" for not attending the alumni basketball game on his Twitter account.

"We will open Jenison for another basketball game if Magic wants to play in a reunion game," Hollis said.
Perhaps because the game was a side show of sorts, the Spartans got off to a slow start against Tuskegee. Michigan State led by two late in first half because the Spartans had 12 turnovers and made just 10 of 23 shots.

"I was worried about how we would perform and my worries came through in the first half," Izzo said. "Thank goodness we bounced back."

The Spartans, who led 33-26 at halftime, pulled away with a 17-4 run early in the second half to take a 53-35 lead.

Michigan State's Adreian Payne had 12 points and 10 rebounds, Derrick Nix had 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Gary Harris added 10 points.

The Golden Tigers, a Division II program, were eventually overmatched after playing teams such as the University of Montevallo and Saint Leo.
"Division I teams play fast and physical," Tuskegee's Jacob Pettway said. "When we were on, we could stick with them."

SpartanMag.com's Jim Comparoni contributed to this report.

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