SAN FRANCISCO – From a childhood in unpretentious Saginaw, Mich., to the the pinnacle of professional basketball, the golden years of Draymond Green will include more priceless memories than he can count.
Though he will have individual honors and Olympics glory, Green likely will be most famous for his time with the Warriors, as the connective tissue of a team that reached five consecutive NBA Finals and won three championships.
As much as Green’s time in the NBA, in the Bay, raised his profile, it was another place and time that influenced his life.
Michigan State University holds that distinction, and always will. Draymond spent four years on the Lansing campus, 75 miles from his beloved Saginaw, gaining notice for his leadership and production with the basketball program led by legendary coach Tom Izzo.
“I am excited,” Green said Wednesday. “I keep getting more and more excited by the day.
“Michigan State was my dream school. To get my jersey retired there . . . it’s crazy.”
Green played 145 games at Michigan State, averaging 10.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Moreover, he concluded his career as the school’s all-time leading rebounder (1,096). He was No. 2 on the list for blocks and steals. His three triple-doubles are second only to Magic Johnson at MSU.
The experiences of each season – four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, two of which ended at the Final Four – were treasured, to be sure, but nothing about Draymond’s time at MSU is more prized than the relationship he developed with Izzo.
What began with a tempestuous introduction, that Draymond truly appreciated, has evolved to be about as close as possible to father-son.
Coming out of Saginaw High, Green initially committed to Kentucky, then under coach Tubby Smith. When Smith left before Green enrolled, he went on the open market, where Izzo was waiting.
“I got a call from coach Izzo at like 7 o’clock the next morning,” Green recalled. “He was cussing me out. ‘How could you commit to Kentucky?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I didn’t even have an offer from y’all.’ He cussed me out some more. He was like, ‘Yes, the f--- you did. Here’s your f---ing offer if you didn’t think you had one.’
“I had the weirdest recruitment of all time. Everybody is always smiling in your face when they’re recruiting you. They sell you this false hope, like everything is going to be peaches and cream when you go to college. And it’s not always that way.”
If only Izzo had known. Green spent much of his childhood longing to be a Spartan. As a toddler, he would watch his aunt, Annette Babers, play basketball there in the 1990s. By the time he was 10, Draymond’s love of basketball in general, and Michigan State in particular, had consumed him.
The Flintstones, not the cartoon but the basketball players, are responsible for that. Behind Flint, Mich. natives Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, the Spartans rolled to the 2000 national championship. All six tournament victories were by double digits.
“The first team that he can really remember watching and going crazy for and feeling that if they won a national championship, I won a national championship, was the Flintstones,” Green said. “Especially with those guys being from Flint. You’ve got that Flint-Saginaw connection. It’s like, when they won it, we all felt like we had accomplished everything.”
That was enough to stir familial sensibilities within Green. He always had the support of his mother, Mary, and the man who helped raise him, Raymond Green. He always had Aunt Annette. And now he felt a brotherly attachment to a school an hour away.
Green’s favorite among the Flintstones should come as no surprise. It’s not Peterson – generally refered as Mo Pete – the smooth small forward who enjoyed an 11-year NBA career. It was Cleaves, the gritty point guard who was too slow for NBA stardom (167 games over six seasons) but schooled opponents in college.
Once Izzo called, there was no need to follow up.
“I visited other schools and that just felt like it for me,” Green said. “That was what I knew. It felt like home and I eventually became home. It just felt like home. It felt like family. It felt like everyone cared about you.”
Draymond recalls going back to MSU to visit, something he says former Spartans do as a matter of routine, and seeing Zach Randolph, Alan Anderson, Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager, Peterson, Cleaves and, of course, Magic.
“You don’t get that at many places,” Green said. “To have that atmosphere and be so close to home? What else did I need?”
Green then tells a story that best captures the significance of his relationship with Izzo.
Early in his career as a Warriors, Green was in the Bay Area feeling dissatisfied with a number of things. Izzo sensed something was amiss. He calls. Repeatedly. Draymond finally answers. Izzo asks if he’s OK. Draymond says he is. Izzo says he isn’t, that he can tell by the sound of his voice.
“And he got on a flight and flew out here,” Green said. “And then turned right back around and got on a red eye and went right back. It’s stuff like that, you don’t get that anywhere else. These coaches don’t care about you like that.”
By now, Green was trying to conceal emotions evident to anyone paying attention. His affection for his college coach is as genuine as a beating heart.
“I can’t do much for Tom Izzo today, other than be a friend, and like a son,” Green said. “I can’t go and play for him or help raise his pay or do anything. I can’t do much for him. Yet he still makes that a priority. That’s why I’ve got so much love for him.”
Which is why Green, upon signing his first big contract in 2015, worth $82 million over five years, donated $3.1 million to Michigan State in name, to Izzo in sentiment.
The Strength and Conditioning Center at MSU has above its door, in letters big and bold, the name Draymond Green.
“It says my name on the weight room,” Green said. “But I actually view that as like, ‘That’s my son’s name on that weight room.’ “
Draymond Jr. will see that weight room next week. Green and his fiancée, Hazel, are bringing the California family, and they will gather with the Michigan family and friends, at least 70 folks, for a ceremony they’ll always remember.
Don’t be surprised if the man for whom that weight room is named glances over at Izzo and sheds a tear or three.