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EAST LANSING, Mich. — The entryway to Breslin Center had been transformed into a Draymond Green monument.
A massive Michigan State Spartans logo was emblazoned with his No. 23. Pillars holding up the ceiling were adorned by LED displays projecting pictures of his college years. A wide banner in the “Tom Izzo Basketball Hall of History” suggested the reason for all of the hullabaloo: “23. Draymond Green.”
On display was the mutual admiration between Green, 29, and Michigan State, the school he grew up dreaming to play for, before becoming the rare four-year college athlete who used his lessons learned to string together an even more impressive NBA career. On Tuesday, Michigan State raised his jersey to the rafters.
Green tried to suppress his emotions when he walked into the arena Tuesday morning. To combat the novelty of the upcoming night, he went through a routine workout, then held a meeting with his brand team at the facility.
But, later, as he buttoned up a pristine white dress shirt matching his signature smile, and slipped on a pointed-black-lapeled jacket fit for the Oscars, it was clear this was no ordinary day.
“That’s when it got real for me. To see Coach Izzo, he wrote me a hand-written letter, to open that and read that,” Green said. “That’s what gives me chills, more so than ‘Oh, I accomplished this.’ It’s the love from all the people.”
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Green has been out of college for seven years, and can’t help but still refer to Izzo as “Coach,” but they are close friends. When Green was going through a tough time at the beginning of last season — built up by the drama of the Kevin Durant fallout and the wear and tear of four-straight Finals appearances — Izzo took a flight to the Bay Area and visited Green at his Oakland-area home. They sat and talked for hours. Then Izzo got on a redeye back to Michigan.
“That’s why I’ve got so much love for him,” Green said. “It’s not just about ‘Oh, you come here for one, two, three, four years and then, that’s it.’ It never ends. That’s the special thing about why I love Michigan State so much.”
When Green was a child, his family used to make trips from Saginaw to East Lansing to watch his aunt, former Michigan State center Annette Babers, play. A young Green was afraid of the Spartans’ mascot “Sparty,” but not so much that it turned him away. When he was older, he was drawn to “The Flintstones,” the nickname given to Michigan State’s team in the late 90s led by three players from nearby Flint, Michigan — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell — who went to three straight Final Fours and won a national championship in 2000. By high school, Green decided he wanted to be a Spartan.
“I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Green said. “Then, obviously, you go through the recruiting process and things change, and it brought me back to right where I wanted to be my entire life. It’s a dream come true.”
What changed was that Green’s high school coach, Lou Dawkins, had played college ball at Tulsa for Tubby Smith. Smith had since taken a job at Kentucky, and Green’s relationship with Dawkins created a battle of loyalties. Green eventually committed to Kentucky but, after Smith resigned in 2007, re-opened his recruitment, however briefly.
Green took a recruiting visit to Michigan State and was met by several former players including Zach Randolph, Alan Anderson, Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager, Mateen Cleaves and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
“That atmosphere is really what sold me,” Green said. “You don’t get that in many places. So, to have that atmosphere so close to home for me, what else did I need?”
After getting injured during a summer camp, Green entered his freshman year overweight. He averaged 11.4 minutes per game, and only got that much because of his knowledge and feel for the game. Green earned more playing time as his conditioning improved and contributed to the Spartans’ run to the national championship game. The next season, he helped them to the Final Four. By his junior year, he was playing more than 30 minutes per game as a starter.
“The grinder in the weight room is usually the toughest on your team,” Izzo said. “Nobody displays that more than him.”
After Green signed a five-year, $82 million contract with the Warriors in 2015, he called Izzo about making a contribution. He donated a record $3.1 million, $100,000 more than Magic Johnson did a few years before.
With the money, Michigan State opened the “Draymond Green Strength and Conditioning Center.” On the walls of the hallway outside is a picture of Green, at his most chiseled, with outstretched arms and tick marks to measure his wingspan and height.
Another picture of Green posing with Larry O’Brien Championship trophies and a list of his NBA accomplishments overlook athletes exercising below. Green, however, considers the facility a memorial to his son, Draymond Jr., who he insists will one day be doing hammer curls under the watchful eye of his father.
This summer, Green signed his third contract with the Warriors, a four-year, $100 million extension that will keep him with Golden State until he’s 33 years old. When finalizing the details, owner Joe Lacob told Green that, one day, the organization would honor him with a statue.
For Green, this Warriors season is similar to that of his senior year, when a Michigan State team with 11 underclassmen lost to first-ranked North Carolina and No. 6 Duke to start 0-2. “We could have folded right there,” Green said. “And we turned it around.”
Led by Green, the Spartans won 15 straight games, the Big Ten championship and came one game within an Elite Eight appearance. Green took Big Ten Player of the Year honors, and ended his career as one of three players in school history with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Green said it was that season when he left his mark at the school.
The 4-18 Warriors have the worst record in the league, and though Green’s patience has been tested, he has adopted a teaching role for a team with nine players age 23 or younger.
With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson sidelined for most of the season, and Durant having departed for Brooklyn, Green is the last foundational player standing. “Not only being a vocal leader, but being a veteran leader, it’s different,” Green said. “It’s one I’m taking seriously.”
Lacob, along with general manager Bob Myers, coach Steve Kerr, team consultant Zaza Pachulia and teammates Klay Thompson and D’Angelo Russell returned the favor and made the trip to East Lansing to witness Green’s jersey retirement.
“Those are the things that make you say OK, I want to be here for the rest of my career,” Green said. “And I will do anything for that organization to help make that happen.”
“It’s extremely nice for him to say that and it’s very unusual, because that is not the typical NBA player,” Lacob said. “Let me just put it this way, I know we’re not the typical NBA organization, as you heard him say, but he is not the typical NBA player. It’s just a very special bond.”
Kerr, who took a valuable day off during a five-game trip, was beaming as he watched Green’s speech from his courtside seats.
“One of the things I love about Draymond, is I know how much Michigan State means to him. His loyalty to his school is a big part of who he is, and a big part of what he’s meant to the Warriors,” Kerr said. “This is a league where, routinely, you get guys after they spent four months on a college campus and then they’re gone. Draymond spent four years playing for Tom Izzo and gave millions of dollars to that school. He left his heart and soul on that court wearing the green and white.
“So, for me, it’s a great example of what he’s done for us. We’re probably going to retire his jersey in San Francisco someday. I love the fact that he’s so loyal to his school. That’s his foundation, that’s his rock. We’ve been the beneficiary of everything Coach Izzo and the school did for Draymond.”
Also in the stands were Memphis Grizzlies center Jaren Jackson Jr. and Chicago Bulls guard Denzel Valentine, former Spartans who count Green as a mentor. Like Mateen Cleaves did for him, Green continues to make Michigan State his business.
When Michigan State standout Cassius Winston’s brother, Zachary, passed away in November, Green reached out to his family. Winston will likely be a first-round pick in June’s draft.
Born and raised in nearby Detroit, he works out in the “Draymond Green Strength and Conditioning Center,” walks by the monuments to Green at Breslin Center, and watched at halftime of Michigan State’s game against Duke as Green’s jersey was raised to the rafters.
“It’s huge. That’s big bro,” Winston said. “He did a lot of things for this program. A lot of things for me. Just a lot of encouraging advice. He’s one of the guys who made a name for himself on his own, which is tough to do, and I’ve kind of followed in those same footsteps.
“You just build your legacy … and he did that, and I would love to do that, too.”