TULSA, Oklahoma — Jim Larranaga was a first-time head coach at Bowling Green and was about to land his first star recruit.
There was one major obstacle standing in the way of that happening. Steve Smith had a particular dream, and Larranaga couldn’t help him achieve it.
Tom Izzo could, and did.
That’s how Larranaga described it Thursday, some 31 years later. He visited Smith’s home, near Detroit, in September of his senior year. Smith, Larranaga said, told him he was glad to get a scholarship offer from the Falcons and planned to visit campus, unless …
“I said, ‘What do you mean, Steve? Unless what?'” Larranaga said.
“He said, Unless Michigan State offers me a scholarship because they’re my favorite. Magic Johnson is my hero and if they offer me that’s where I’m going.”
The postscript, according to Larranaga, involved Smith scoring 47 points the next weekend in front of Izzo, then an assistant for Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote. Izzo “went to Steve’s home by himself, without coach Heathcote, and offered him the scholarship,” Larranaga said. “And I believe, if I heard the story correctly, Steve Smith committed to him on the spot. But that was our first encounter.”
Smith was Michigan State’s all-time leading scorer. The Heat made him the No. 5 overall pick in 1991, and he led Miami to its first playoff win — over the Hawks in 1994 — before joining Atlanta in the one-sided Kevin Willis deal. He was known as one of the best shooters in the NBA during his career, which ended with a short stint with Miami in 2003.
Izzo became MSU’s coach in 1995. His resume, heading into Friday’s game against Miami (9:20 p.m., TNT), includes seven Final Fours and one national title (2000). He hired Larranaga’s former assistant, Stan Heath, in 1996. Larranaga moved onto George Mason in 1997, and crossed paths with Izzo in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
The 11th-seeded Patriots’ upset of sixth-seeded Michigan State kick-started their stunning run to the Final Four.
“Tom and I have never discussed it, but the media tends to bring it up a lot,” Larranaga said, laughing. “That’s in the past. Has nothing to do with tomorrow night’s game. It’s Michigan State against the University of Miami, and both of us, I think, recognize we have young clubs. We have a lot
of young guys making major contributions, and I’m sure we’re both hopeful that those young guys will play up to their capability.”