EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The bodies numbered in the thousands outside of the Breslin center at 8:20 p.m., about 10 minutes before the doors were opened and old and young, fast and slow, green and white poured through the concourse, spilled into the bowl of the arena and crowded the seats to near-capacity for another annual session of Michigan State Madness Friday night.
It was three weeks ago when MSU fans proved their desire for this program by setting record numbers in a campout for tickets. And Friday night brought more of that passion and anticipation for a season with Final Four expectations.
This mid-October celebration of basketball has become tradition special in its own way in dozens of cities around the country over the past three decades, but at Michigan State it remains such a vital night due to how communal it is. Don't get me wrong, most schools hold Midnight Madness events explicitly for the fans and for their communities to get to know their teams better.
But the lengths Michigan State goes to in order to bring pretty much anyone to Breslin is beyond anything I've seen. Spartans coach Tom Izzo and the rest of his team plant themselves in the arena's concourse for an hour to sign autographs. Fans -- especially children -- snap photos with everyone before shuffling off to settle in for the show. One teenager was so excited over his iPhone pic with Izzo, as he was walking away with his father he forgot his signed magazine. He bolted back to retrieve it after about five seconds.
For as many hot-blooded college kids came Friday night, they were outnumbered by families. Grandparents were easily spootted. I saw a family of four, the husband and wife maybe barely 30 years old apiece, carrying two children that combined to be four years old.
And it was loud and rowdy and plenty revved, despite the difference in ages across the seats. Few fan bases have come to treat Midnight Madness like this. And it's no accident. Dating back to Jud Heathcote's days with the school (he was coach when Sparty won it all in '79 with Magic Johnson), a sense of sodality became a hallmark of this program. For 15 years Izzo has built on a desire: to make Michigan State basketball be available to all. He wants to win and show there can be a small-town sense of inclusion at such a massive state school with a perennial national basketball powerhouse, one that we've rated No. 3 to start the season.
In speaking with the players before and after Friday's event, which included Tom Izzo briefly fooling most of the crowd at Breslin after it appeared like he got shot out of a cannon, they were ready to start the season and considered this a launching point. But it was clear some didn't realize, or at least express, that what MSU has built up -- despite being a school whose priorities lie in football -- is outside the normal.
"I feel like we take it for granted," MSU junior point guard Travis Trice said.
After the night was over, it was as crowded in the bowels of Breslin as a mosh pit at a rock concert. Friends and family of the program filled the place. It was jovial, more packed in the locker room, hallways and accompanying gathering spaces than anything I've ever seen at a college arena before.
And this wasn't even a game. But it was as big as one, because October means something to Michigan State. It doesn't take a massive budget or too much choreography. Just Izzo doing something wild and a reason to get 15,000 people under one roof to look forward to basketball again.
Midnight Madness, nationally, isn't what it once was in the sense that Oct. 15 used to really mean something. There was a true offseason in college basketball, and it's return signaled a changing of the seasons. Now we have a 24/7 news cycle that includes constant updates on offseason workouts, foreign trips, recruiting drama and other minutiae that occupies the news cycle. Midnight Madness doesn't even start at midnight anymore, anywhere, though MSU's ended just shy of 12 a.m.
But if there's one place where the soul and spirit of intentions for this event remain today as they always were, it's at Michigan State. Powerhouse program with the perfect appeal and perfect coach in a place where basketball is set to undergo yet another season with legitimate Final Four hope. The season's begun in East Lansing, and everyone is ready for the games to begin as soon as possible.