MSU point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. talks about being a leader on the team. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — It was an early April evening back in 2015 and Tum Tum Nairn sat in the back of Michigan State’s locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium, head down and tears flowing from his eyes.
The Spartans had just lost to Duke in the national semifinals, capping a Final Four run not many people saw coming. It came on the heels of seniors like Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, both willing Michigan State to the pinnacle of college basketball a year after it came up a game short with a team everyone expected to make it.
And there was Nairn, the freshman, absolutely devastated by the loss.
But it wasn’t just the loss that had Nairn wiping his eyes. Games come and go. Some you win. Some you lose.
No, Nairn couldn’t get over the fact those seniors had just ended their careers on the wrong end of a 20-point game to the top team in the nation, one that would win the national championship two nights later. That was unacceptable to him.
It was in that moment those around the Spartans program knew Nairn — the lightly recruited 5-foot-10 guard from the Bahamas — was a different guy. Former Spartan Draymond Green hinted at it before the season, telling coach Tom Izzo to make Nairn a captain — as a freshman.
“I said, ‘We don’t have freshmen captains,’” Izzo recalled.
“You got one now.”
Nairn wasn’t a captain that season, but he’s been one ever since, including this season as he gets set to enter his final year in the program. That realization alone is difficult for Nairn.
He thinks back to that night in Indianapolis and then about the fact he’s got one more shot at this with a group of teammates he loves and who might be the most talented in the country. He thinks back and the emotions are there again.
“When I was a freshman sitting there (after the Final Four loss) knowing I wouldn’t play with Travis and BJ again, it hit home for me,” Nairn said. “That’s been my whole deal since I’ve been here because it’s been instilled in me, you sent your seniors out right. It’s emotional for me being at the end of that spectrum now. ‘It’s Tum’s senior year.’ But I’ve always been playing for my teammates, playing for the guys putting in the work for the program and even playing for the guys that I never played with. All the alumni — Draymond, Travis Walton, Mateen (Cleaves), Magic (Johnson), just playing for those guys as well and that’s what makes Michigan State so special.”
The irony is those at Michigan State are the ones that will say people like Nairn are what make it special.
Izzo has never shied away from lauding Nairn as a leader.
“Probably go down as one of the greatest program guys of all time,” Izzo said. “He doesn't let playing time on the court affect his role, his leadership, doesn't worry about scoring, doesn't worry about all the things. I've had a lot of good and cool leaders over my time here, but none maybe that has done more for not only our community, (but also) our school, our players, our coaching staff. This is a special kid.”
It’s felt throughout the team.
Izzo wondered if Miles Bridges returned for his sophomore season as much so he could still be around Nairn as anything else. Listening to the likely preseason player of the year in the Big Ten, it’s easy to understand why.
“Tum is probably one of the greatest leaders ever to come through Michigan State,” Bridges said. “He has had a big impact on me. He’s been a great role model in our lives. He’s a different individual. God can’t make them any better.”
Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward talk about Michigan State's upcoming season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
When the team is having a bad practice, it’s Nairn that gets sets them straight.
When the coaches need everyone to get to a meeting, Nairn is the one they call to make sure happens.
“That’s what leaders are for and what best friends are for,” junior Kyle Ahrens said. “He’s the centerpiece of this team.”
And, as Izzo said, individual accolades mean nothing to him. Nairn is not the team’s best point guard. He knows that. Everyone knows that. If Michigan State achieves its goal of winning it all this season, it will likely be in large part because of the progress made by sophomore Cassius Winston.
So Nairn is making Winston better, going after his teammate on a daily basis, then talking about how excited he is for Winston.
“I would say heart and soul,” Winston said without a beat when asked about Nairn. “Heart and soul of the team. It’s crazy because he’s not even our best player, maybe not near our best player, but the heart and soul of our team. Whatever Tum says we do. We’d follow Tum into anything.”
He’s determined to lead the Spartans to the national championship. There’s no doubt that’s the goal, always has been at Michigan State. But even if they come up short, Nairn will go down knowing he did everything he could to raise another banner.
“If it doesn’t happen I won’t have any regrets,” Nairn said. “I know I will have left it out there every single practice, every single weight session, every single game. I’m gonna give 120 percent.
“That’s why I’m emotional thinking I was a freshman like yesterday. I’m so blessed and thankful God gave me the opportunity to be part of something so special.”