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, any more 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 in the economic insecurity and hardship not of one state, where unemployment is listed conservatively at 12 percent, but of 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.