There never has been a recruiting duel to match it. Not in Michigan.
Earvin Johnson, Jr., was the prize in April of 1977. He had been seen for years as a teenage basketball whiz so talented as to be celestial. He had moved into Michigan and Michigan State’s consciousness as a 12-year-old at Dwight Rich Junior High in Lansing, and then at Lansing Everett, where by 1975 he was anointed, in any consensus of college coaches, the best prep basketball player in the land.
And it looked in those waning days, just as he was to end the suspense and make an April 22 announcement both historic and power-shifting, as if a megastar soon to be known as “Magic” was headed to …
Michigan State knew it. Vernon Payne knew it. His boss, Jud Heathcote, understood it.
And so did Johnny Orr, the University of Michigan head coach who was a year removed from a NCAA championship game Michigan had lost to Indiana and Bobby Knight during the Hoosiers’ immaculate (32-0) 1975-76 season.
On a Wednesday morning, April 20, Orr’s two top lieutenants and recruiters, Bill Frieder and Dan Fife, sat at a breakfast table at the Big Boy restaurant on Trowbridge Road in East Lansing.
Forty-eight hours later Johnson was to lean into a microphone at Everett High and make an announcement that, locally, carried more clout than even a landmark Supreme Court vote.
Payne was a Heathcote assistant coach who had primary responsibility for the Earvin Recruiting Vigil. It had been a risky job. MSU was coming off a 10-17 season — Heathcote's first after he replaced the fired Gus Ganakas, a cruel and impulsive move by the MSU Board of Trustees that had fractured, maybe permanently, Johnson’s romance with MSU.
Star gazing for UM, MSU
Michigan had gotten its chance. And week by week, with Frieder and Fife popping by Everett to woo Johnson, the Wolverines were moving closer to poaching an all-time prize from Michigan State’s patio.
The assistant coaches were so in synch with Johnson during those closing weeks they could all but hear a 6-foot-8, 17-year-old’s heartbeat. They understood, hour by hour, what he was thinking, where his spirit and his soul were moving.
Two assistant coaches from Ann Arbor would have bet on Michigan as Payne stepped that morning into the Big Boy.
“Hi, Vern,” Frieder and Fife each said, upbeat, congratulating Payne on a job he that week had taken — head basketball coach at Wayne State University.
Payne’s hiring hadn’t meant anything in the recruiting fight. It was a straight promotion. Johnson understood. He wasn’t making any decisions based on Payne sticking in East Lansing.
Payne, though, was still, for a few days, MSU’s. And still invested, personally and professionally, in delivering Johnson to the Spartans.
There had been a giddiness with Frieder and Fife as they tore into their breakfast orders. Payne could see in their faces, hear in their voices, that Johnson probably was theirs. Clearly, the message had come, maybe earlier that morning.
Payne drove straight to Heathcote’s office.
“Jud, I’ve got to see Earvin right now,” Payne said, and if it seemed to Heathcote that Payne was more scared than alarmed, the coach was reading his co-pilot perfectly.
Payne drove to Everett High, on Lansing’s south side, weighing strategy, knowing this could be MSU’s last shot.
There was another person involved. Charles Tucker was a Lansing clinical psychologist who had played basketball at Western Michigan and had been drafted by the old Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association, years before the ABA merged with the NBA.
Tucker was a family friend, trusted as family by the Johnsons. He had the same relationship with MSU’s coaching staff. The word “integrity” rarely is used in amateur basketball circles. But it was the word that defined Tucker’s bond with the Johnsons and with Heathcote and Payne.
Payne had gotten on the phone after stepping from Heathcote’s office at Jenison Field House.
“Tucker,” he said, “I want you to get that kid out of class. I’ve got to see him in the library.”
Johnson sauntered into the library and joined Payne. They sat at a table. In privacy.
Payne bore into a final sales pitch.
Johnson always had been part of an underdog that triumphed, Payne said, cranking up his 11th-hour campaign. He had done it at Dwight Rich, and then at Everett, which a few weeks earlier had won the state Class A championship.
Now it was his turn to be an icon at Michigan State. To honor his Lansing roots. To allow this community, which had helped forge him, a few more years to celebrate an athlete and his skills as he evolved from boy to man.
He needn’t worry about Ganakas being gone. Heathcote could coach, Payne assured him. Earvin had seen as much during Heathcote’s first season in East Lansing.
He would be no stranger to MSU’s players. He knew Gregory Kelser and Bob Chapman. He saw what Jud had done with a freshman guard, Terry Donnelly.
Don’t go for the glitter, Payne told him. Go for the bedrock your hometown and Michigan State can promise.
And then the kill.
“Earvin,” Payne said, locking in on Johnson’s eyes, his voice a masterly mix of persuasion and summons, “if you want to come to Michigan State, if it’s important to you, then you’ve got to sign right away.”
Payne understood the stakes. And the enemy from Ann Arbor. If he gave Frieder, Fife, and Orr another 48 hours, the kid could easily become finally, permanently, enchanted with Michigan.
Johnson looked at Payne. He nodded. And he said: “I’ll sign, Coach.”
Johnson’s parents got the word that night. The letter of intent was signed the next day, Thursday, with his mom and dad, Heathcote, Payne, Tucker, and Everett High coach George Fox witnessing.
The secret was to remain secret until the next morning’s news conference.
The silence was sacred.
And that in itself was a phenomenon.
The speculation, the anticipation, the constant questioning — there had been no subject in Lansing as heavy, perhaps ever, or for so long, as the matter of where Earvin Johnson would set up shop on a college basketball court.
It had been an all-consuming matter at The Lansing State Journal, where I then worked. Phones rang incessantly ² his entire senior season.
“Have you heard anything?”
“Have you guys gotten any feel for where he’s headed? Any gut reads?”
There also were the “insiders” who invariably would call to say they had heard this, or heard that, or that they had gotten inside info that he was now Michigan’s, or that he was a lock to sign with Michigan State, or whatever.
The State Jounal staff had been covering Johnson since his adolescent days at Dwight Rich. We had learned how to work with him and with the family. He was being pursued, followed, hunted, and even harassed by media and boosters and even by good-hearted fans who, he acknowledged, wearily, one night after practice, were so smothering that he could not even hit the men’s room at Jenison during an MSU game without being overwhelmed.
Our arrangement with the Johnsons, with Fox, with Tucker, and with MSU, was understood: At the moment he decided, we would be informed, but only so that a story for the paper’s front page would be ready at the hour Johnson announced.
The State Journal was then an afternoon paper. It meant we would be trusted with a deadline caveat. We would write the story ahead of Johnson’s news conference so that it would appear as headline news when the paper came off the presses at noon.
The State Journal’s prep writer, the late Bob Gross was to be informed late Thursday night.
He would be the only other person entrusted. And in keeping with all the vows, Gross wasn’t to say a word — to anyone.
I had been out of town that Thursday night and drove back to Lansing, very late.
The suspense was too much.
I got to the State Journal at 3 a.m. and walked into the office. There was Gross’ story, tucked in a sealed manila envelope in his typewriter carriage.
It awaited sports editor Ed Senyczko’s arrival at 5 a.m. Senyczko would work with the front-page editors on a banner headline for Friday’s paper. The press run for this paper was going to be monstrous. There wouldn’t be a copy left on a newsstand anywhere in Ingham Country by 5 p.m.
I had been working the Johnson drama along with everyone else on staff. There was license to see Gross’ story.
It was crisp. And perfectly accurate, as Johnson was to make clear seven hours later when he bent over a microphone at Everett High and said:
“Next fall, I will be attending Michigan State University.”
Lansing put on something close to a V-J Day party. The exhilaration, the high fives, the sheer craziness watching kids and adults act as if they’d won a lottery ticket, was immeasurable. It was a state of rapture that astounded.
And, as it would turn out, the sense that a basketball messiah had descended on East Lansing wasn’t overblown or overly imagined.
Two years later, a national championship parade rolled down Michigan Avenue, delivered mainly by a man who State Journal sports writer Fred Stabley, Jr., had since dubbed “Magic.”
Johnson’s press conference came as a proportionally devastating bomb in Ann Arbor. He had been Michigan’s. Frieder and Fife could all but guarantee it. There had been no doubt Wednesday morning.
It was in those next two hours that history changed.
The Wolverines staff took it, at least publicly, with grace. Too, they had an annual Big Ten and tournament contender. Johnson would have been gold, but they had a life that, unlike Michigan State, didn’t necessarily hinge on a kid from Lansing.
And, for all the bitterness and disappointment, there was a final, important signal that humanity was going to win over a pitched recruiting war.
A few nights later, at Everett’s basketball banquet and state championship celebration, Orr sent a message to the audience.
He was congratulating Everett, Earvin Johnson, and Michigan State on their collective basketball triumph.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.