Michigan's prep players often choose to stay in state
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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"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.
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.
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.
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.
GREAT STATE DEBATE
The Great State Debate poses a simple question: Which state has the best high school basketball? We narrowed the field to six. SportsNation selected the final two from a group of six. In the eight team bracket, Michigan was crowned champion. MORE
California// California, Illinois boast impressive résumés
// Flores: Debate within a state
// Golden State advances to Round 2
// California edges past New Jersey
// Round 1: California vs. New Jersey
// Watch: California legends
Georgia// Georgia legends
// Winklejohn: SW Macon still remembered
Illinois// Michigan, Illinois vie for title
// Peoria, not Chicago, boasts best high school hoops
// California, Illinois boast impressive résumés
// Illinois advances in Round 1
// Bush: Pingatore sets high bar in Illinois
// Round 1: Kentucky vs. Illinois
// Watch: Illinois legends
Indiana// Indiana legends / Highlights
// Giuffra: Half man, half amazing // Indiana faces tough test in New York
// Indiana, Kentucky voted in
Kentucky// Bluegrass State eyes upset in Round 1 // Bluegrass legends // Indiana, Kentucky voted in
Michigan// Michigan crowned Greatest State
// Watch: Jemele Hill states her case for Michigan
// Michigan natives star in-state
// Michigan, Illinois vie for title
// Michigan takes a bite out of New York
// New York, Michigan clash in semifinals
// Flint's blue-collar mentality produces top-flight talent
// Michigan muscles out Pennsylvania
// Michigan meets Pennsylvania in first round
// Watch: Michigan highlights
New Jersey// Round 1: California vs. New Jersey
// Watch: New Jersey legends
New York// Why NYC is best place for high school hoops
// New York advances in Round 1
// Kitts: Dan Buckley Gym a treasure
// X's and O's with Jack Curran
// Indiana faces tough test in New York
// Watch: New York legends
North Carolina// North Carolina legends / Highlights
// From Worthy to today, North Carolina produces hoops prodigies
Pennsylvania// Philly gives Pennsylvania hoops its clout
// Michigan meets Pennsylvania in first round
Texas// Texas legends / Highlights
// Texas stakes its claim as basketball state
Virginia// Virginia legends / AI's two-sport beginnings
// Rapoport: Virginia is for ballers
BOYS' BASKETBALL RANKINGS
|Rank||School (City, State)||Rec|
|1||Oak Hill Academy|
Mouth of Wilson, VA
Jersey City, NJ
Flower Mound, TX
|See the full boys' basketball rankings »|