Nearly two years before Mississippi State’s men’s basketball team advanced to the NIT Final Four, the then-young group of men who barely knew each other walked the streets of Rome the day before they were to play in their first game together, a preseason international exhibition. MSU was coming off consecutive losing seasons, and the nucleus of sophomores and newly-signed freshmen were supposed to be the crew that would bring Bulldog Basketball back.
The journey they started then hasn’t reached its final step, and more pieces have been added along the way, but the 20 months that have passed since then have taken this team from the greatest city of the ancient world in Rome, to the greatest city of modern day in New York City. It was the legends of the past who entertained the masses in the Coliseum, and it is the greats of today who put on sport’s greatest exhibitions in Madison Square Garden.
This team’s story has yet to come full circle, but the production and potential of the present day have begun to catch up to the program’s storied past. That these Bulldogs – win or lose – will finish their season in MSG, in New York, on the most famous stage basketball has to offer, is a fitting finale for a program on the precipice of stardom.
“The greatest players of the history of the game all have one thing in common: every one of them played in Madison Square Garden,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “To be able to say, ‘I played in The Garden’ is a really special thing.”
And he’s right. All the legends, all the greats, all the heroes of basketball have stepped onto the court in The Garden.
Quinndary Weatherspoon’s favorite player, LeBron James, twice scored over 50 points at MSG.
Xavian Stapleton has pulled for Kobe Bryant since he was a kid, the Lakers star who famously racked up 61 points at Madison Square Garden in February of 2009.
In fitting form, Allen Iverson – favorite player of point guard Lamar Peters – had one of his best games in The Garden not as an NBA player, but in college when he scored 23 points for Georgetown to help the Hoyas win the NIT semi-final 1995.
That State’s players will get to add themselves to that list is no meaningless experience.
“Country boy to The Garden – it feels like I’m in the movies,” forward Abdul Ado said.
Said guard Nick Weatherspoon, “it’s pretty special.”
“I’m very excited,” forward Aric Holman said. “This is something I can tell my nieces and nephews about, or my kids one day.”
As it turns out, one person with the team in New York is already on the list of legends to play at Madison Square Garden, and he’s on it multiple times over. When MSU loaded the bus in Starkville to head for the airport, players walking back to their seats likely didn’t look twice at the gray-haired gentleman and his wife sitting near the front of the bus, but as they slid by him, they were quite literally having brushes with greatness.
Bailey Howell is a legend, a Hall of Famer, and perhaps the best player ever to wear the maroon and white jersey, and that’s why he’s making yet another visit to The Garden, this time as a spectator.
“Bailey came by to congratulate us [after beating Louisville in the quarterfinal],” Howland said, “and I was like, ‘you’ve got to come with us.’ It’s just wonderful for us to have him here. He’s such a classy person that really embodies everything Mississippi State is about. He was an unbelievable player when you think about what he accomplished at Mississippi State and in the NBA.
“I was talking wit him last night at our dinner,” Howland continued. “He had 32 rebounds twice in different NBA games, one of them against Wilt Chamberlain. He had 34 once in a college game. He averaged 17 rebounds a game for three years in college. Just incredible what he was able to do.”
Howell had a career so long and so successful that he actually played in the current Madison Square Garden and the old Madison Square Garden.
Riding the bus, traveling with the team and watching from the stands in MSG, Howell is a living symbol from the past of not only what this program has done before, but what more it can do in the future. These players, this season and this program are far from satisfied, but if history repeats itself, then the future is growing brighter by the day.
“Next year and in the years to come,” NIT commentator Fran Frischilla began as he introduced Ben Howland, “you are going to hear about the Mississippi State Bulldogs.”