Player Resource: Michigan State Basketball Leadership – Denzel Valentine

Dana O’Neil, ESPN (

Draymond Green is a busy man. As part of the merry band of Golden State Warriors barnstorming across the country, an NBA championship in the rearview mirror and a first loss nowhere on the horizon, Green is making his way through a seven-game road trip while grabbing the attention of sports fans everywhere.

And yet no matter where he is, when the phone buzzes or chirps and a certain 517 number appears, he answers. Better yet, if the phone hasn’t made a peep in a while, he picks it up and sends a message himself.

“How are you?”

“Good job tonight.”

“How’s practice?”

A few words, a simple question. But a strong message: I got you.

That’s what Travis Walton did for him. That’s what Mateen Cleaves did for Walton. That’s what Steve Smith did for Cleaves.

And that is what Green now does for Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine.

“That’s only right,” said Green, a former Spartan, from Indiana — where the Warriors extended their record-setting winning streak to 23-0 to start the season. “Guys were available to me. I have enough time in my day to talk to him. Always. It’s my turn.”

So how do they do it? Credit Izzo, for sure. The man has a knack for squeezing every last bit of talent out of a team. But don’t overlook the importance of that phone chain.

Every team worth its salt searches for leaders, placing a C, figuratively or literally, on the jersey of the person deemed strong enough to be in control.

Michigan State bequeaths its leadership like a family heirloom, and ex-players not only pass the torch but also ensure that it remains properly lit year after year.

“I truly believe one of the reasons we’re still in the conversation as one of the top programs is, your time here is never up,” Cleaves said. “You finished playing? No, that doesn’t mean you’re done. You keep talking to the guys who come after you. It’s nothing for these guys to get a text from Draymond or me. It’s what we do. It’s why we are who we are.”

The Spartan Way isn’t for everyone. Players leave or are asked to, done in by the withering criticism or demands of Izzo or by their own misdeeds.

But it is a “way” now, ingrained into the fabric of the Spartans. Players aspire to be the guy in charge as much as, and maybe even more so, the team’s leading scorer. They want to be in the fraternity, or “at the table with the big dogs,” as Cleaves sees it.

Valentine never really thought he could be that guy, and he still can’t grasp that he is now. There are days, in fact, when he wishes he could somehow observe himself, fly overhead and spy on his own life. Appreciation — real understanding — he figures, will come some day after he takes off the jersey.

It’s more about what happened after the Kansas game than during it. After a wild celebration in the locker room, spurred by Valentine’s return after a TV interview, Izzo started to speak. He got about three sentences in before Valentine interrupted him.

“Hey, y’all. Man, way to come back in the second half through adversity,” he said. “That’s exactly what I wanted to see — how we’re gonna respond when we have adversity. That’s what I wanted to see. It wasn’t pretty, but we’re gonna get better.”

“That’s what matters,” Walton said. “Holding your teammates accountable, doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said. That’s it.”

So what magic leadership beans are they feeding guys in East Lansing?

Well, “magic” is the right word.

Except it’s Magic.

Because like most everything associated with Michigan State basketball, it starts with Magic Johnson.

Johnson is an NBA legend, but he’s an everyman sort of legend, available and accessible. He shows up at Spartan games — big ones, ordinary ones, road games, home games and NCAA games — usually wearing the same sort of green sweatshirt a 50-year-old accounting alumnus might pull out of the closet. His parents, Earvin Sr. and Christine, still live in Lansing, so Johnson is in the area frequently. And whenever he is, he pops by practice.

“Who wants to watch practice?” Izzo said. “But he does.”

Not long after Valentine notched a triple-double against Kansas, becoming just the fourth Michigan State player to do so, athletic director Mark Hollis called him over in a hallway outside the locker room. Someone was on the phone, wishing to speak with Valentine.

On the other end of the line was Johnson, calling to offer his congratulations.

The message delivered is always simple: If someone like Magic Johnson can make time for the Spartans, surely everyone else can.

And so they all come back. Not just in the sense of physically showing up, though they do that in droves — such as in a reunion game three years ago, when nearly 200 alumni attended and 50 guys suited up to play. But also in the sense of being connected.

Smith is more than 20 years older than players on the current roster. He knows all of them. Two years ago, in fact, after Adreian Payne was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks and before he was traded to Minnesota, he lived with Smith in Atlanta.

Cleaves hasn’t played for the Spartans in 15 years. Anyone who asks for his number can have it.

Walton still hosts a camp in East Lansing; Green started one last year.

“It’s not spoken,” Smith said. “It’s just sort of done.”

What is “it,” exactly?

Be accountable. Speak up. If there’s a problem, if practice is running too long, if a teammate isn’t working hard enough, say something. Do something. Don’t leave it to Izzo to figure out or handle.

“It’s definitely an honor, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility,” Green said. “When things ain’t going right, just as much praise as coach will give you, don’t expect to not hear about it when things aren’t going well.”

Things are going pretty well right now for the Spartans, so Valentine has had a pretty smooth ride. Izzo, though, is much more of a realist than an idealist. He knows things rarely go perfectly for an entire season, and so he’s searching now for the weaknesses, where Valentine will have to get better when things get tough.

His biggest issue? He’s too nice.

Izzo remembers Cleaves grabbing fellow Flintstone Morris Peterson and giving him an earful. That’s what he needs out of Valentine. A little nastiness.

“[Cleaves would] post up his mother if she wasn’t playing well,” Izzo said. “That’s the one area that Zel has to get better at. I guess that’s the final step at being a leader for me. You’ve got to be able to call out your best friend.”

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