MSU's Joshua Langford talks about being out for the season with an ankle injury The Detroit News
East Lansing — For a time Saturday night, midway through the second half of Michigan State’s stunning loss to Indiana at the Breslin Center, there was only one man standing in front the Spartans’ bench. He wasn’t wearing a suit, or a uniform. Instead, he was dressed in a warm-up shirt and sweatpants, and he was in a walking boot.
It was Josh Langford, the team’s junior co-captain who’d been ruled out for the rest of the season only 72 hours earlier due to a stress reaction in his foot that’ll require surgery next week.
And he was doing the only thing left for him to do at this point: He was coaching.
“It doesn’t change,” he said, matter-of-factly, in the postgame locker room at the Breslin Center, while his teammates dressed and departed following a 79-75 overtime loss to the Hoosiers. “I’m just not out on the court. And I’m still on the court, if you think about it. Because I’m still using my voice, I’m still reminding guys what they need to do. That’s what I was doing when I was playing. And I’m not gonna stop doing that.”
Langford won’t because he can’t. Especially not now, with the Spartans (18-4 overall, 9-2 Big Ten) falling back into a tie for the Big Ten lead entering the second half of the conference schedule.
They’re 7-2 since Langford was sidelined by his injury, but if his absence wasn’t felt immediately in the standings, it sure seemed notable this past week, as Michigan State dropped consecutive games for the first time since the end of his freshman season.
As point guard Cassius Winston noted after the sluggish start did Michigan State in the loss at Purdue last weekend, “We could have used a Josh.”
And they surely could have again Saturday, as Izzo was left searching for more perimeter scoring from someone other than Winston, who played all but 52 seconds in the loss and finished with 26 points on 22 shots, including the last two attempts in overtime. Both were misses that left him pulling his jersey over his head in frustration as the final horn sounded and the crowd groaned.
Later, though, it was Langford who was busy explaining all wasn’t lost.
“Everybody thinks because we lost two games it’s the end of the world,” said Langford, who’ll have surgery Thursday to repair the navicular bone in his left foot. “It’s not the end of the world. We still have a long season ahead, we still have a lot to learn. And it’s good for this to happen now rather than March.
"I’m not saying I’d rather lose, but I’d rather get caught up with it now and pinpoint the things we’ve got to get better with now. And this team will learn, because we have a great group of guys. Everybody wants to get better, everybody’s on the same page.”
Yet for Langford, the hard part is being forced to turn the page himself. The 6-foot-6 guard was Michigan State’s third-leading scorer this season, averaging 15 points a game while shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point range.
Now his starting role has been handed to freshman Aaron Henry, in part because junior Kyle Ahrens also has been battling a back injury. Ahrens returned to the lineup and played 25 minutes off the bench Saturday, finishing with three points and three assists. Henry added six points, four rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes, but his athleticism can’t cover up his rookie mistakes on defense or some of his limitations as a ball handler at the moment.
Not surprisingly, it’s Langford who’s in Henry's ear nearly as much as the coaches on the Michigan State bench, and often in practice as well, preaching the importance of absorbing the scouting reports, or understanding the defensive principles, or running the floor hard at all times.
“Experience doesn’t always have to be the best teacher," Langford explained. "You can live vicariously through people if you really listen. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for him.”
Langford says this transition has been easier than he thought, in some ways. As a player, he says he knows what to say to his teammates “and what not to say.”
“And I know when to speak and when to sit back and let them think,” he said, adding with a laugh that he’s even starting to catch himself sounding like one of the coaches.
Matt Charboneau and John Niyo break down Michigan State's loss to Indiana The Detroit News
“Already, yeah,” he said. “All the time. It’s funny, you just see the game differently when you’re not in the game, when you’re on the sideline. You see so many times where you see why Coach is upset, and why coaches are yelling at us the way they’re yelling at us.
“But it’s fun. It’s another way for me to evolve as a basketball player.”
Just not the way he would’ve chosen this season, obviously. But when a reporter asked him Saturday if he’d ever had an injury like this before he shook his head.
“No,” he said, pausing before adding, “But I have dealt with a life-threatening disease. So this is nothing.”
Nothing that’s going to shake his faith, clearly. When he was 12 growing up in Alabama, Langford was hospitalized with a serious illness that initially confused doctors. It wasn’t until a spinal tap was ordered that he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, the same condition that had killed his father’s cousin and best friend when he was only 19.
Now nearly a decade later, that time in Langford's life — along with his deeply-held religious beliefs — shapes everything he does.
“I’ll always be OK, not matter what life may throw at me or what may happen,” he said Saturday, talking for nearly a half-hour in front of his locker. “Since I was 12 years old, when I was fighting for my life, ever since then I’ve understood.
“And I just want to keep reiterating that to people. Understand that there’s always somebody who’s going through more than you. … Life throws blows that you never expect. But at the end of the day, if you have a strong foundation that you believe in, you won’t get as rattled. I’m not gonna say I’m not a human being or I don’t get upset. I’ve cried about this, I’ve been sad about this. But I understand it’s always going to work for my good if I stay positive and don’t look at what is, (but) just look at what can be.”
After a loss that left coaches fuming and players frustrated Saturday night, that was a helpful reminder, to be sure.