Final Four families get financial help to see kids play

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As Michigan State celebrated its victory over Louisville on Sunday to earn a spot in this weekend's Final Four, freshman guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. was on the phone with his mother.

Monalisa McKinney was one of the few family members not in Syracuse, New York. She was home in the Bahamas watching her son's biggest athletic moment on TV and crying on the phone with him when it was done.

Nairn said then he wasn't sure if his mom would be able to make it to Indianapolis, but after practice on Tuesday he said she would, indeed, be on hand Saturday when Michigan State takes on Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium in the national semifinal.

"I just can't believe how God has allowed her to come this year," Nairn said. "A lot of times she couldn't make it in high school but on the biggest stage of my life and my basketball career she's going to be able to see that firsthand instead of on TV. I've never been to a Final Four, she's never been to a Final Four, so I can't wait for her to experience that kind of atmosphere."

The logistics are, no doubt, difficult for McKinney. But financially it is just as hard.

However, that burden is being lifted this year. In January, the NCAA announced it would be providing $3,000 per player to help defray costs of travel, lodging and meals for their families to the Final Four. For the two teams that reach Monday's championship game, another $1,000 will be available.

"This is something we have all been pushing for a long time on this committee," said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, a member of the men's basketball committee. "To be able to put the kids in the same hotel without incurring a substantial cost is significant for those families.

"It takes me back to the floor at Syracuse. It was the most emotional that I have gotten at a regional championship game. As I looked around the floor, I saw tears in virtually everybody's eyes and as I stepped away I tried to reflect on why.

Having the families of the student-athletes on the court right after winning was the reason why emotions ran so high, Hollis said.

Nairn's mother will see her son play in the United States for only the third time. The first was his final AAU tournament and the second was this season's regular-season home finale against Purdue.

"It means everything to me," Nairn said.

Showing the way

A year ago, coach Tom Izzo was no fan of Kevin Ollie.

The Connecticut coach had just derailed the Spartans' dream of getting back to the Final Four and possibly winning a national championship. The Huskies were a No. 7 seed and defeated the favored Spartans in the Elite Eight.

"I think my favorite guy in America right now is Kevin Ollie," Izzo said. "I love Kevin Ollie. I hated him last year at this time, but I love him now."

That's because Connecticut, which kept rolling to the national title, is showing the way for Michigan State. UConn was a seven seed that beat, in order, the Nos. 10, 2, 3 and 4 seeds to reach the Final Four. Michigan State has beaten the Nos. 10, 2, 3 and 4 seeds.

The teams on the other side of the bracket in last year's Final Four were Kentucky and Wisconsin. This year? The same two teams. It all resulted in a title for Connecticut. Michigan State hopes it can do the same.

"He took a team that had struggled at the end of the year, and we actually didn't struggle at the end, we were in the middle," Izzo said. "But he got on a roll, had a guard that took control. Kevin did a great job. Not only beat us but went on to win a national championship as a seven seed. But can history repeat itself? You never know."

At home in Final Four

The Big Ten has two teams in the Final Four for the fourth time since 1999, and all four times Michigan State has been in the mix.

In 1999, Michigan State was joined by Ohio State, and in 2000 it was Wisconsin that Michigan State beat in the semifinals. In 2005, both Michigan State and Illinois made the Final Four, and this year it's Michigan State and Wisconsin, once again.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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News sports writer David Goricki contributed.