Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. doesn’t remember celebrating Thanksgiving when he was growing up in the Bahamas. It’s not a holiday in his native country.
But as Nairn returned home this week with his Michigan State teammates and coaches along for the ride, trying to describe how thankful he would be was difficult.
Nairn and the Spartans are playing the Battle 4 Atlantis at the swanky resort just miles from where Nairn grew up, and he couldn’t be happier. It’s a trip Michigan State has been planning since Nairn’s freshman year.
“It won’t hit me until we actually get there,” Nairn said. “My mom is talking about coming to the airport with my family. A lot of my family members haven’t seen me very often in the last nine years. ... I don’t take a lot of things for granted, and to be able to go back and see my family and be able to play in front of them … I want to win this tournament so bad.”
Moments like this were hard to imagine as Nairn grew up in a one-bedroom house in Nassau. The idea of playing major college basketball was a pipe-dream for the kids who would nail a crate to anything they could to form a crude basketball hoop.
Nairn remembers where they would play, next to an abandoned house near his grandmother’s. They’d sweep away broken glass and play with a ball that was so worn he could barely hang on to it.
“We nailed the crate there and there wasn’t a backboard, it was connected to the little house,” Nairn said. “You couldn’t shoot, only dunk. Just dribble and run up and try and dunk. The house is still there but the court is not there.
“Got lot of trouble for playing on the court.”
But it was trouble Nairn was willing to risk. A once-budding track star, Nairn realized he could play, and when he got the shot to leave for the United States at the age of 13, he jumped at it. Only after he arrived in Florida did he realize what he was in for, stuck at a prep school that hardly resembled a school.
For two years, Nairn battled through until he went home for Christmas and said he couldn’t go back. It seemed like his chances of playing college basketball were disappearing until a few months later he caught the eye of coach Kyle Lindsted of Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas while playing at a showcase.
Nairn took one more leap of faith and headed to America’s heartland, leaving his family behind again. It proved to be the right move as Nairn eventually signed with Michigan State and was starting in the Final Four as a freshman.
“I’ve had a lot of great players and I’ve had a lot of great kids, but there’s been nobody,” Tom Izzo’s voice trailed off.
He was trying to find the right words to describe Nairn, a player who former Spartans forward Draymond Green told Izzo should have been a captain — as a freshman.
But he paused.
Nairn doesn’t have the most impressive numbers and can be limited offensively, but his meaning to Izzo and the program is difficult to put into words.
“This kid is just — I think he’s got wings,” Izzo said. “If you talk to him, the most appreciative kid in this society of selfishness that I’ve ever met, that I’ve ever known. I’d die to have my kid turn out like Tum.”
Maybe it’s the season, maybe it’s Nairn’s contagious personality. Whatever it is, Izzo and the Spartans knew the trip back home was huge, so they brought a little home to East Lansing over the weekend.
As Michigan State was preparing to play Mississippi Valley State last week, Nairn was summoned from the pregame meal and asked to come to the locker room.
“I came in here and all my teammates had their phones out and I was like, ‘What are you all doing,’ ” Nairn said. “I look to my right and there’s my little brother sitting in my chair. I had no idea he was coming.
“I couldn’t believe it. I have been away from my brother for nine years. He had my jersey on, sitting in the chair. I ran out the door like, ‘This can’t be real.’ ”
Nairn’s brother, Laquan, has been attending junior college in Texas and just committed to Arkansas on a track and field scholarship. Nairn says his brother is the real athlete in the family, high jumping for the Bahamas at age 16 and now a long and triple jumper ready to move on to a Division I university.
The meeting was just a precursor to the week Nairn expects to have this week. The Spartans began play in the tournament Wednesday and will take off after their final game Friday, the rest of the season well ahead.
But Nairn said he hopes to show his teammates that old court with the crate on the house, hoping they understand him just a little bit more.
“I talk about home all the time,” Nairn said. “I want to take them around and show them where I really came from.”
That’s a small part of the trip. The payoff for Nairn is being with his mom, Monalisa McKinney, and his dad, Lourawls Nairn Sr. His brother will be there too, along with plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins
“It’s a lot for me to be thankful for,” Nairn said.
“Playing the game of basketball and playing in front of my family. My great grandmother is still alive and she’s gonna be able to come to the games. I don’t know if she even understands basketball, but she’s never seen me play.”
Michigan State might create plenty of memories on the court before Nairn is done playing next season, but this one, Izzo says, will be hard to top.
“I appreciate the opportunity of being able to be a part of seeing somebody do something that is going to be so meaningful in his life,” Izzo said. “That really — the championships are great and the wins are great — but watching a kid well up, it was a big deal to him. I think it will be an incredible experience. It will be one of the memory-makers of all memory-makers and I’m just happy I get to be a small part of it.”