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Nuggets guard Gary Harris opens up about what it meant to play for Tom Izzo

Harrison Wind Avatar
September 9, 2016

 

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Legendary Michigan State coach Tom Izzo will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday night along with a class that’s highlighted by Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming, Sheryl Swoopes, and former Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson.

Izzo’s accolades speak for themselves: One NCAA championship, seven Final Four appearances, seven Big Ten regular season titles, and five Big Ten tournament championships. I could go on but behind the banners, rings, and nets that sit on Izzo’s mantle somewhere, are the players he’s coached over his 22 years at Michigan State. The soon to be Hall-of-Famer would likely be the first to credit them with some of his accomplishments.

One of those players is current Nuggets guard Gary Harris, who spent two seasons under Izzo’s watch in East Lansing. Even though the 21-year-old has now spent more time with the Nuggets organization than he did at Michigan State, Izzo is still a figure in the Fishers, Indiana native’s life.

Harris wrote about Izzo in an open letter via The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Harris came to Michigan State as a ripe 18-year-old but got introduced to what it was like playing for Izzo.

“You learn fast with Coach Izzo: Lock into the game, the practice, the assignment – or face his wrath. Fast-forward to my freshman year: opening game in Germany against the University of Connecticut on television. We won the tip, and I ran down the court to start executing our opening set. Only, I completely blanked and forgot the play. Everyone was looking at me and I was lost. I just retreated to the corner – and stood there. My mind wasn’t where it should’ve been, and Coach Izzo let me know at halftime: “You’re scared, Harris! You s— your pants!”

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“Once I had snapped back at him on the bench. I dropped an F-bomb on him and one of our assistant coaches barked at me, “You can’t do that to Coach!” He was right, but I did.”

“After that game, I showered and was leaving the locker room in [Michigan State’s] Breslin Center. I was still fuming. I pretended that I didn’t see Coach Izzo on my way across the floor and out of the building. And suddenly I hear a voice calling over to me: “Really? Really? You’re going to yell at me like that and walk away without saying anything?”

Izzo’s connection to his players doesn’t stop when they go to the NBA or graduate from Michigan State. During his rookie season in Denver, Harris struggled. He was playing for a coach in Brian Shaw who proved to be tough on rookies and Harris was in the middle of a season where he only saw sporadic minutes and played on a short leash. He found solace in his college coach during a tumultuous first year in the NBA.

“Once I left Michigan State after my sophomore year and was drafted by Denver in the first round, my rookie season in the NBA was a struggle. I wasn’t playing much, had a lot of frustration building throughout the year, and Coach Izzo was constantly there for me. We would talk on the phone for as long as I needed his counsel, and he would say to me, “Who do I need to call? Who can I talk to?”

“He wanted to know if he should talk with the coach, or the front office, whomever. Here he was, in the middle of a Big Ten season, and he always had time for me. He had his own team, his recruiting and think about it: Forty years in the coaching profession and all the close relationships that I know he keeps with former players. Think of all the people he’s staying connected to, and he still made me feel like I was the most important one; I think he made everyone else feel that too.”

The full Hall of Fame class which includes Izzo, O’Neal, Iverson, Ming, Zelmo Beaty, Darell Garretson, John McLendon, Cumberland Posey, Jerry Reinsdorf and Sheryl Swoopes will be inducted Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBATV.

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