MSU’s Appling gets wake-up call

EAST LANSING — A year ago, Michigan State’s Keith Appling would have been sitting in the corner with a towel over his head, uninterested in talking. Russell Byrd is certain of this, because that’s what Appling did after a bad game. He shut everyone out.

So when Appling stood in the middle of the locker room Sunday at Indiana after a tough loss in which he’d played his worst game of the season, Byrd and the other Spartans were surprised. Appling apologized — for playing shaky defense, for fouling out and stranding his teammates against a top-ranked opponent and for not making the game-winning plays down the stretch as he has so often this season.

Appling’s decision to speak to his teammates doesn’t change the loss. But it did remind those in the locker room how much he had changed since midsummer, and why the point guard and team’s leading scorer has become one of the best clutch playmakers in college basketball. Appling’s evolution would be very different if not for two tumultuous weeks in July when coach Tom Izzo suspended him and told him he was going to have to change to stay on the team.

“There wasn’t one big reason,” said Izzo, “there were just too many little things.”

Appling said he simply needed to grow up. He said he had to be more accountable. He said he had to stop getting traffic tickets, and start paying for them if he did. He said he had to learn to start trusting people. Maybe most important, he said he needed to learn to talk to people, and to listen, and to have deep conversations so that he could figure out who people really were instead of just assuming everyone was out to get him.

That had to start in the locker room, where Appling spent the first two years saying very little, but criticizing when he did.

“More in his body language and demeanor than in his words,” said Dane Fife, an MSU assistant coach. “Before this summer, he felt like he had to.”

Appling arrived from the east side of Detroit with a tough exterior. Fife said Appling grew up with a certain amount of controversy in his life. A better word might be drama. A basketball prodigy who made the McDonald’s All-America team, Appling learned quickly that his talent could attract hangers-on — or worse.

“He didn’t necessarily see the positive in teammates or the positive in life,” Fife said.

To survive, he relied on a small circle of friends and family from his neighborhood in Detroit. He realized he could get away with small things and that no one would ever say anything.

“In Detroit, there is so much madness that no one cares if you speed,” he said. “Whenever I’m home, I almost never see a police officer. There is too much other stuff going on.”

That attitude led to a series of speeding tickets and traffic tickets in East Lansing. Appling compounded the violations by not paying for them and skipping court dates. He was pulled over for driving on a suspended license. That cost him some freedom.

For eight months he couldn’t drive, relying on Derrick Nix, MSU’s center and Appling’s roommate, and Byrd to ferry him to practice and class.

“He was entitled,” Izzo said. “A lot of players are.”

By midsummer, when Draymond Green began to spend more time in California to prepare for his rookie NBA season, he left a void in leadership — the former Spartan captain stuck around the program after the NCAA tournament last year to help with this year’s team.

Izzo was counting on Appling to help fill the void. Instead, his point guard kept to himself and kept making poor decisions on the road. Nix, who played with Appling at Pershing High in Detroit and came from a similar neighborhood, kept trying to tell Appling that he had to leave that behind.

“It was pretty tough,” Nix said of their backgrounds. “(We) grew up in the hood: low-income family, didn’t have a father, abandoned houses everywhere. (But) I told him, ‘We are away from that, we are not in the inner city no more. We’ve got an opportunity to change our lives. We’ve got to take advantage of that.’ That means you’ve got to be a better

person.”

Appling had a tough time taking Nix’s advice, even as he helped his roommate through his weight struggles — “he told me what I couldn’t eat.” So Izzo enlisted more help.

“I had (Mateen) Cleaves talk to him. Steve Smith talk to him. Travis Walton talk to him,” Izzo said. Still, “it wasn’t registering.”

Perhaps if Appling had been a frontline role player, Izzo could’ve left it there and accepted Appling’s reserved, suspicious nature. But then Izzo would think: “How can he be my quarterback?”

So he gave his point guard a couple of weeks to think about it and sent him to Detroit. Yet he didn’t want to leave it there, either. So a few days later, Izzo, who had been on a family vacation at his cottage on the state’s west side, drove to East Lansing, picked up Fife and fellow assistants Mike Garland and Dwayne Stephens, and headed down to Appling’s home to meet with his family.

When Appling’s mom told him the coaching staff was on its way, he didn’t believe her, until the four of them walked through the door.

“I thought, ‘these coaches were all with their families, they must really care about my well-being,’ “ Appling said.

For the next several hours, Izzo and his staff, along with Appling’s mom, stepdad, aunt and grandparents discussed the point guard’s future.

“They let me have it,” Appling said. “At the end of the day, I got something out of it.”

He returned to campus after two weeks away ready to work. Not in the gym, he had always done that, but everywhere else. Byrd spent 16 hours a day with Appling, helping him make the transition, telling him things he didn’t always want to hear. It was liberating.

“Keith is just a happier person,” Byrd said. “He has less stress.”

Appling agrees.

“I had to change,” he said.

His team is grateful — and impressed.

“He was never a bad guy, but he came off as arrogant. He never talked to nobody. So everybody thought he was an (expletive),” Nix said. “People used to ask me, ‘Why does Keith act like that?’ “

Nix figured Appling didn’t understand he had any other choice. It’s a common tale.

What isn’t as common is the ability to change the way you view the world, especially when you’re only 20. Yet here was Appling at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., on Sunday, standing up and speaking out … about himself. And here was Appling on Tuesday back in East Lansing, walking out of the locker room and into the tunnel that leads to the floor of the Breslin Center for practice. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound guard spotted one of the team managers.

“Zach! What’s up, baby?!? Y’all win last night?” Appling asked, referring to an intramural game on campus.

The senior manager, Zack Peterson, from Oak Park, Ill., turned back toward Appling and told him the score, smiling.

“48-35.”

“That’s all?” Appling hollered, incredulously.

For much of the first two seasons Appling spent at MSU, he said almost nothing. Now he spends practices slapping hands and giving out attaboys and talking during film sessions and smiling and joking with the managers.

“He used to mess with them, kind of even bully them a little,” Nix said of the way Appling treated the managers and support staff around the program, “now Keith is their favorite player on the team.”

Appling finally understands what they wanted — for him to be himself.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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