When he was 2 years old, Draymond Green declared his intentions.
Barely able to talk, he’d sit in the stands and watch his aunt, Annette, play basketball for Michigan State. When he wasn’t hiding in fear from the scary Spartans mascot, Green would look at his mother full of earnestness and in toddler mumbo-jumbo, announce:
“I go Michigan State and pway basketball.”
Thus began a love affair between a boy and a school that shows no signs of abating.
Sadly it doesn’t come around anymore in college athletics, either.
Sports, like everything in this fast-twitch life, is in too much of a hurry to appreciate the now. The pull of professional riches too often turns a university campus into little more than a convenient layover, a rest stop on the way to bigger and better things.
Being true to your school is cool, but it has an expiration date.
Not for Green.
You get the feeling if they still made letterman sweaters, he’d wear one proudly, and if you cut him, his blood would ooze green.
Day-Day, as he’s known to his friends, could double as an alternate mascot, the goofy-smiling and teddy bear-cuddly antithesis to the stoic-looking Spartan.
When other sports teams have recruits on campus, the coaches bring them to meet Day-Day. Need someone to visit a hospital? Call Day-Day. Want someone who can charm alums? Day-Day could make a Wolverine think about donating to State.
Now this love affair is about to go fairy tale. Green, who could become the first player from a power-six conference since Tim Duncan to average 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists in a season, has launched himself into the Big Ten Player of the Year conversation and the Spartans into at least a share of the conference crown.
Thanks largely to his versatility and leadership, Michigan State has survived the challenges of a merciless nonconference schedule to emerge, as Tom Izzo teams often do, as one of the best teams heading into March. Winless after crisscrossing the country to play North Carolina and Duke on land and on sea to start the season, the Spartans are now 24-5 and making the short list of Final Four contenders.
“It’s a pretty good love story,” said Izzo, who calls his senior the “perfect Spartan.” “It’s going to have a good ending no matter what happens because this has been a helluva year.”
Outside of Hollywood, love stories rarely follow a convenient story arc and neither did Green’s. It was not boy meets school, boy falls in love with school, school loves him back, and they all live happily ever after.
No, no, not by a long shot.
Road workers revved up by an overextended coffee break laid Green’s path to East Lansing, leaving more potholes than smooth pavement.
Before he could bask in the glow of adoration, he first had to cower at the glare from his mother, Mary Babers.
Green was in ninth grade, a happy-go-lucky kid, bordering on class clown. His life needs were ranked simply — “It was basketball one through four, then school five and then basketball six through 10,” he said.
He was bright, maybe not as naturally gifted as his big brother, Torrian, but smart, and more, he was competitive. There was nothing Torrian could do that Day-Day couldn’t do better. If Torrian raked leaves, Day-Day’s pile would be higher. If big brother shoveled the snow, little brother did it faster.
If Babers needed someone to take the trash out, they’d practically brawl to earn the honor.
And on the court? Forget it. He’d go up against guys twice his age without fear.
Then he’d walk through the doors at Saginaw High, and all those competitive instincts got stuffed into his locker.
“To him, school wasn’t a challenge,” Babers said. “He didn’t want to work hard. He figured you’d pass with a C or an A, so why do you need to work for the A?”
Green was plodding along, doing just enough to get by, not hurting himself, but not helping himself either.
Then one afternoon not long before the school year was out, Babers’ phone jingled.
On the other end was Green’s science teacher, who called to say he had cheated on his science test.
There is no ire quite like a mother’s. Babers was beyond furious, mad at her son’s insolence but more so at his laziness. She knew he could pass the test if he’d tried.
Her punishment was swift and harsh. First she took away his electronic gidgets and gadgets — television, PlayStation, all of it gone for the summer.
Then she went to his bedroom and hauled his bed out the door, explaining when he got home that no child of hers would have the luxury of a bed if he was going to take the easy way, not while she was holding down two jobs to keep him comfortable.
And then Babers went for the jugular.
Mary Babers took away basketball. For the entire summer.
Mind you this was not a no-hooping-it-up-in-the-driveway punishment. This was between Green’s freshman and sophomore seasons, a pivotal time for a rising player to earn national exposure, especially with an AAU team as good as The Family.
And Babers said no, he would not play.
They all told her she was crazy. Saginaw’s coach and athletic director came to the house and told her she could not do this, that she would mess things up royally.
Her own parents said she’d gone too far.
And her son? Oh the tears Day-Day cried would have melted most any mother’s heart.
Not Babers’ heart. When she shut the door on the friends and family pleading for her son’s cause, when she turned away from his crumpled face, she shed a few tears of her own. But not once did she let go of her conviction.
“They were all on me — you cannot punish him. This is totally different than a normal extracurricular. This is his life,” Babers said. “And I said I’m his mother. Understand what you’re talking about is winning. What I’m talking about is life. If he fails, no one will say his basketball coach wasn’t there. They’ll say, where was his mother? Well I am not going to fail him, and he is not going to fail.”
Green kept waiting for his mother to cave. He’d beg for pity when she made him find a ride or walk to those summer school classes. He’d call practically in tears from his job, sweltering in the heat planting flowers at a rec center.
And she’d just ask for his supervisor, tell him not to give her son a break by letting Day-Day inside and to send him back out to work.
“I really didn’t think she’d stick to it,” Green said. “Then after a while I realized, wow, she is really not going to let me play.”
Great leaders aren’t necessarily born with some sort of superhero DNA. They’re carved out of life, out of struggles and failures as much as successes and triumphs.
Green grew up that summer, grew up into a man who would be more than another player on a lengthy all-time roster at Michigan State.
“I never got less than a 3.2 [GPA] after that,” he said. “That summer, it really made me look at things. If it wasn’t for that, if my mom didn’t do what she did, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be playing at Michigan State because I wouldn’t have had the grades.”
Babers did agree to one deal that fateful summer. If Day-Day aced his summer school class and he met face to face with his science teacher to apologize, she might let him take the last trip of the AAU season with The Family.
Green passed the class with ease and apologized to the teacher.
And on his own, he wrote a letter to his mother, apologizing for what he did and thanking her for what she’d done for him.
Love stories always have hiccups. The guy falls for the wrong girl; the girl mistakenly thinks the guy is a jerk.
The villain turned hero in this epic tale is one Orlando Smith — Tubby, to his friends.
Well, actually what happened wasn’t really Smith’s fault. Technically it was Izzo’s.
Like a lot of coaches, Izzo wasn’t completely sold on Green. He liked his game, but he wasn’t sure how it would translate to the college courts. The kid was good, if a little doughy, but he was a positional square peg in a round hole.
Day-Day would exchange all of his points, rebounds and assists for wins. A lot of people say that publicly, but they don’t really feel that way. He feels it. There’s not a question in my mind that Day-Day is all about winning.
— Tom Izzo on Draymond Green
And while Izzo was thinking, Smith was offering. Then the head coach at Kentucky, Smith put his faith in Green’s high school coach, Lou Dawkins, who was part of Smith’s Sweet 16 team at Tulsa.
He extended a scholarship offer to Green and, well, the kid might have grown up with a mad crush on Michigan State, but this was Kentucky after all.
It was all news to Babers, who learned of her son’s decision on television.
“I couldn’t believe he didn’t include me,” she said. “We didn’t speak for a week. I was so mad at him and I told him, if the Lord’s not in it, it’s not going to happen.”
Apparently Babers has a pipeline to the man upstairs. Before Green finished his junior year, Smith was rerouting his own career, opting to leave Kentucky for Minnesota.
Green reopened his recruitment and there, first in line, was Izzo.
He sat down with Babers, recruited her as hard as he did the son, and eventually Day-Day decided to follow his 2-year-old destiny and “pway” basketball at Michigan State.
“Tubby always reminds me of that now,” Izzo laughed. “He’ll say, ‘How did I let that happen?’ I just say, ‘Thanks, Tub.'”
The fine line between love and hate can, it turns out, be breached and then redrawn.
Izzo would rather dine on jagged nails than lose. He does not back down from a fight and isn’t afraid to share his viewpoints. Forcefully.
Green would rather dine on jagged nails than lose. He does not back down from a fight and isn’t afraid to share his viewpoints. Forcefully.
Green meet Izzo, Izzo meet Green. It was like two identical forces rolling downhill toward one another, one embodied in a squat Italian from the Upper Peninsula; the other in the form of a 6-foot-7 teenager from hardscrabble Saginaw.
Izzo pushed. Green pushed back. Izzo said do this; Green asked why.
Izzo made Green mad. Green exasperated Izzo.
The real root of their battles: hold up a mirror and they’re looking at each other.
“Coach told me when I was a freshman, ‘I get into it with you because you remind me of me,'” Green said. “I didn’t understand it then. Now I do. We have the same goals, the same work ethics and we want the best out of people. At the end of the day, what we want most is to win. When you can meet up on all those things, it says a lot about you.”
To get to that meeting place, though, took compromise — the secret to any good marriage.
Green learned to accept and to his credit, Izzo listened.
That’s not unusual for the Michigan State coach. Unlike many of his peers, he doesn’t believe he runs a dictatorship and will, on occasion, allow for a little democracy.
Twelve years ago, Izzo entrusted Mateen Cleaves with the reins to his team. Cleaves rewarded Izzo with his only national championship.
Along with himself, the coach saw a lot of Cleaves in Green and gave him the same leeway he afforded Cleaves.
“Day-Day would exchange all of his points, rebounds and assists for wins,” Izzo said. “A lot of people say that publicly, but they don’t really feel that way. He feels it. There’s not a question in my mind that Day-Day is all about winning.”
Even in the rich annals of Michigan State basketball, there aren’t many players who have been asked to do as much as Green — to score, to rebound, to dish and to lead.
Izzo knew that earlier in the season, Green was feeling the heat. If he wasn’t caving under the extraordinary amount of work he had to shoulder, he certainly felt the burden.
“Even Mateen, as good as he was, he didn’t have to do all the things Draymond has to do,” Izzo said. “There aren’t a lot of multidimensional players who have been, especially when you add in the off-the-court stuff.”
But Izzo knew of one, and he had that one call Green.
When Green walked into a practice, a smile spread as wide as his face, Izzo knew the two had connected.
Magic Johnson didn’t have anything outlandish to say. He simply told Day-Day to be himself, to play to his strengths and not worry about what outsiders said or thought. He reminded him how critical all of the little things were.
And then the player whose Cheshire grin could brighten a tunnel reminded Green to have fun and to smile.
“That meant so much to me for him to take the time to call me personally, not about the team, but about me,” Green said. “It definitely helped me focus. I mean he’s not only one of the greatest players of all time. He’s the greatest Spartan.”
No argument there, but Magic does have some competition.
Dana O’Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.