Commentary

Michigan's prep players often choose to stay in state

Updated: March 18, 2009, 4:04 PM ET
By Jeff Arnold | Special to ESPNRISE.com

Earvin Johnson used to sneak unnoticed into Michigan State's Jenison Field House, risking the consequence of getting caught just to catch a glimpse of his hometown Spartans.

At the time, the local high school basketball phenom who later became known simply as "Magic" hadn't imagined that one day, a statue would be erected nearby, honoring his legacy in East Lansing.

He was just a kid who wanted to watch boys from his neighborhood play the game that meant everything. One day, Johnson was convinced, he would be one of the guys playing inside a beloved old barn of a gym where the world would discover him.

"I don't think as a kid you dream of winning an NBA championship," Johnson said in February at a reunion of Michigan State's 1979 NCAA national championship team. "What you dream about is going to the Final Four and winning an NCAA championship."

For Johnson, who went from winning a high school state championship at Lansing Everett to winning a national championship at Michigan State to helping the Los Angeles Lakers capture an NBA championship during his rookie season, the dream quickly became a reality.

All without leaving home.

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The Great State Debate pits the country's best boys' basketball states against each other to determine which among them is best. In the final, No. 5 Michigan takes on No. 3 Illinois. Vote!

"A local kid goes to the local college, and we did it," said Johnson, who chose to play at Michigan State after being heavily recruited by rival Michigan. "I just had so many great memories [of going to games as a kid] that when it came down to being recruited, I knew where I wanted to go."

Throughout the years, Johnson wasn't alone.

Twenty-seven Mr. Basketball awards have been handed out to Michigan's top high school performer. Of the honorees, 20 have elected to remain within the state's borders to continue their playing careers.

[+] Enlarge1979 Michigan State basketball team
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State basketball won the 1979 championship thanks to in-state talent.

The vast majority have played at either of Michigan's two top collegiate destinations in East Lansing and Ann Arbor. The list reads like a Who's Who of basketball heroes: Sam Vincent. Glen Rice. Jason Richardson. Drew Neitzel. Manny Harris.

But the award winners are not alone in helping establish Michigan's brand of basketball. Both Michigan State's 1979 national championship team and Michigan's 1989 NCAA champions were imprinted with in-state kids.

Later, 1991 Mr. Basketball Chris Webber (Detroit Country Day) and Detroit Southwestern's Jalen Rose were part of the famed Fab Five at Michigan that led the Wolverines to two straight NCAA tournament title games in their first two seasons in Ann Arbor.

Of this year's five Mr. Basketball finalists, three will elect to stay close to home, a choice that often comes down to convenience as much as it does to wearing the same uniform as the household names whom many teenagers in the state grew up admiring.

[+] EnlargeChris Webber
Allen Einstein/Getty ImagesChris Webber had his jersey retired at Detroit Country Day.

Count Eso Akunne among that group.

At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Akunne averaged 20.5 points and 10.8 rebounds during his senior season at Ann Arbor's Fr. Gabriel Richard High School. After leading the Irish to the Class C state semifinals as a junior, Akunne attended a Michigan summer team camp.

There, he opened the eyes of Wolverines coach John Beilein, who pursued Akunne immediately. Although Akunne had standing scholarship offers from smaller-conference schools out of state, Beilein offered him the chance to be a preferred walk-on at Michigan while keeping open the possibility of earning a scholarship in the future.

Akunne, who hadn't considered staying home a viable option, considered the proposition.

Not only would he be a part of Beilein's rebuilding plans, he also would become the first Ann Arbor native since 1999 to be a part of Michigan's roster.

"There's a lot of pressure on me to make a lot of local people happy," Akunne said. "But I'd also be lucky to be able to play in front of a lot of people who have watched me grow up as both a person and a basketball player."

Beilein, who inherited a team last season led by a pair of Detroit natives -- Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims -- said he often uses the comforts of home as part of his sales pitch to recruits.

In dealing with in-state kids, Beilein discovers that many of them grew up with an allegiance to either Michigan or Michigan State. And although Spartans coach Tom Izzo has established Michigan State as a perennial national powerhouse by building around local talent, Beilein -- who came to Ann Arbor from West Virginia -- is still feeling his way around the state.

[+] EnlargeManny Harris
Bob Donnan/US PresswireManny Harris is one of the recent prep stars to stay in-state.

In addition to his team and individual camps, Beilein hosts an annual coaches' clinic, bringing high school coaches to Ann Arbor to give them a firsthand glimpse of Michigan basketball. The clinic is as beneficial to Beilein as it is to his audience, allowing him to put faces to names and opening the doors to the prep programs from which he seeks talent.

"That's one fortunate thing about being in a place like Michigan," Beilein said. "You just have so much homegrown talent around you."

Harris, Michigan's star guard who led the Big Ten in scoring this season as a sophomore, relishes being able to maintain a connection with his nearby hometown of Detroit.

Harris captured the state's Mr. Basketball award in 2007 after a stellar senior season at Detroit Redford. The 6-5 guard drew recruiting interest from both Izzo and then-Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, eventually choosing to attend school in Ann Arbor.

And although he didn't grow up closely monitoring either school like many recruits, the chance to stay at home and compete in the Big Ten was too much to pass up.

This year, Harris has the Wolverines earned a NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1998, an accomplishment he can't help but take notice of after finishing 10-22 as a freshman.

Harris has done so without leaving the comforts of home.

"There's definitely a sense of pride," Harris said. "It's like this is still your home, and it's almost like playing at your high school. It's big -- you're from here, you get to go to Michigan and to be able to have your name associated with what we're doing this year is kind of huge."

Jeff Arnold is a sports writer in Michigan.