Rubin: Larry Nassar's toxicity even sabotages book sales

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Maybe it’s just the price that’s hurting Jerrold Jenkins’ book. Or maybe it’s Larry Nassar, locked away in Arizona but contaminating things his verminous hands never even touched.

Victory for MSU, a 120-year history of Spartan Men's Basketball by Bethany Bradsher.

If you care about Michigan State University basketball, the book is worth the $59.95: lots of research, inviting writing, memorable photos, 340 silver-gilded pages and a 3-D pebble-grain basketball popping out of the cover. But ...

Larry Nassar. Molester, exploiter, stealer of dreams, Spartan. For now, the public face of MSU, even if 500,000 other living alumni haven’t done hideous things and won’t die in prison.

The first printing of “Victory for MSU: A 120-Year History of Spartan Men’s Basketball” was 5,000 copies. Jenkins, who put the project together, expected sales to hit 10,000, and that was before the current team reached No. 1 in the polls twice.

Instead, total sales have been maybe 1,000 copies since October, and the number has barely budged since Nassar shuffled into two courthouses late last year to plead guilty to his crimes against girls and young women.

As a defiant parade of Nassar’s victims read their statements these past few weeks and made the former MSU doctor shrivel, the Michigan Osteopathic College Foundation canceled its annual MOCF Ball, which has raised more than $400,000 in an evening for scholarships. Rather than celebrate on Feb. 3, said the letter from dean Andrea Amalfitano of MSU’s osteopathic college, “we strongly believe that like us, you would choose to step back in quiet reflection while the Nassar survivors begin the healing process.”

Meantime, in a third-floor office at Spartan Stadium, MSU fundraisers found that donations were down 25 percent in the last half of 2017 compared to the year before. Might be Nassar, might not.

At the Jenkins Group, Jenkins’ publishing service company in Traverse City, any Nassar effect has similarly been reflected in what hasn’t happened. That makes it hard to quantify, “but I’ve been in talks with a lot of big companies in the Lansing area, and it all just faded away.”

A real estate agency spoke of buying copies as gifts to new homeowners, Jenkins said. Developers and insurance companies had the book in hand and seemed enthusiastic about buying it in bulk. Tie-ins like those helped Jenkins’ “History of the Super Bowl” sell 30,000 copies two years ago at $50 apiece. But this time:

“Sorry.” “Wish we could.” “Maybe next year.”

Victory for MSU, a 120-year history of Spartan Men's Basketball by Bethany Bradsher.

“It’s a great book,” says Kathy Bush, in case any potential buyers are waiting for an endorsement. She’s the president of the MSU Rebounders Club, a basketball booster organization, and she does not want to think or speak the name Larry Nassar.

Magic Johnson. That’s a name she can appreciate. His picture is on the cover of “Victory for MSU,” cutting down a net. Or Jumpin’ Johnny Green, pages 58-61, who grew five inches as a Marine during the Korean War and then carried the Spartans to the Final Four in 1957. Or Charles Bemies, the school’s first coach, a direct connection to basketball’s primordial ooze.

Michigan State started playing hoops in 1898, only six years after a phys ed teacher named James Naismith invented it in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bemies learned the game from him.

The 1898-99 squad had a two-game schedule and no coach. Bemies, a minister, was hired in 1899 with basketball as an afterthought. Mostly, he was brought in to coach football, on the theory that a man of the cloth might turn football into an actual sporting event instead of a riot with uniforms.

For the record, the school back then was called Michigan Agricultural College and the half-dozen unimposing Caucasians who made up the basketball team were Aggies, not Spartans. Their biggest problem was finding opponents; the University of Michigan, for instance, didn’t play its first game until 1909.

Bemies had already coached an undefeated team by then, in 1900-01. That meant beating Olivet College once and Eastern Michigan twice.

The ancient history is Jenkins’ favorite part of the book. The program’s extremely recent history, with insinuations from ESPN that coach Tom Izzo has downplayed sexual assault accusations against players, is a difficult footnote whether or not it’s true. Likewise the latest addendum to a rough patch off-court for Izzo and the Spartans — a Yahoo sports report that the parents of star Miles Bridges received $470 from someone working alongside a sports agent.

“For 120 years, MSU has had a good program,” Jenkins says hopefully. “Why don’t we celebrate something good while the university is getting beaten down?”

It all seemed promising at first. Greg Kelser, who starred alongside Johnson, wrote the foreword. For the introduction, Jenkins found a woman of letters who declared, “I think of sports as sort of a front porch to the university.”

Lou Anna Simon also wrote, “I am a firm believer in the value of steadfast leadership.” Considered a sparkling success as MSU’s 20th president until Nassar became her great failure, she resigned in January.

“Victory for MSU” grew out of a casual conversation, Jenkins says. A friend wondered whether the Spartans had been any good before their most recent coaches, Jud Heathcote and Izzo. Jenkins, an Alma College alumnus, found himself intrigued, and soon thereafter he found a publisher, a North Carolina-based author named Bethany Bradsher, and enough photos that the cost of reprint rights hit $17,000.

The publisher is Ruckus Books, a Canadian company that specializes in the sorts of covers that make you say, “Hey! Check this out!”

A book about chocolate looks and smells like a chocolate bar. A book about cigars smells like a humidor. A book about golf has a circular cover with dimples.

With “Victory for MSU,” available at Amazon, Schuler Books and, “we wanted it to be a conversation starter,” says Ruckus publishing director Greg Sizelove. Hence the leather ball on the cover, and quick features about things like “5 Games MSU Fans Want Back.”

Sizelove lives in Chicago, but he grew up in a classic basketball-frenzied small town in Indiana with a hoop on the side of his family’s barn. For cold days, there was also a hoop inside the barn.

He’s a graduate of Indiana State, the school MSU once faced for the national championship, “and the first thing I did when I got the manuscript was flip to 1979. I read it three times.”

Magic Johnson and the Spartans won every time, but he enjoyed the experience. For an MSU fan, the chapter might be worth the whole $59.95 — with Mateen Cleaves and the 2000 title as a throw-in, no extra charge.

Now comes 2018, with a bad loss to Michigan early and a stirring comeback against Northwestern late. By last week, the Spartans were Big 10 champions, first in one major poll and second in the other.

“We made the book with the ability to be amended,” Sizelove says. In his hoop dreams, he sees another banner hanging from the Breslin Center ceiling and a fresh edition in two or three years.

But that’s March Madness, and this is only February, with cartons of unsold books still waiting to ship. Maybe a few more wins will shake the shelves.

“The story,” Sizelove says, “is going to keep writing itself.”

He just needs it to be about what happened on the court, not in the courthouse.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn