The last time Michigan State won a national title, a certain 6-year-old was along for the ride.
With his father, the boy spent many home games in the locker room, grabbing pictures with Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, falling in love with basketball.
During that 2000 title game, the boy was practicing on a kids’ hoop in the back of the room, peeking in here and there to get a glimpse of his idols. And when the Spartans won that game, his mom drove him and his brother through the streets of East Lansing to be part of the celebration.
Now the boy is a man, and he has one last chance for a championship drive on campus. Then he’ll leave the only life he’s known. This March, it’s all or nothing for Denzel Valentine.
Denzel’s father, Carlton, was a four-year letter winner with Michigan State from ’85-88. He met his wife Kathy at the school, and they put down roots, raising their sons Drew and Denzel in Lansing, MI.
With the family so close to campus, the two Valentine boys tagged along with their father to practices and games and quickly fell in love with basketball and the Spartans.
“Anyone from my area pretty much wants to come here,” Valentine says. “I grew up wearing Mateen Cleaves jerseys and Morris Peterson jerseys. I’ve always been a Spartan.”
Now Valentine’s in his final days as a Spartan. He’s a likely All-American, averaging 19.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 6.9 apg. He also might lead the Big Ten in visits home per week.
“I take time once or twice a week to do something with my family,” Valentine says.
Growing up in the shadow of campus, it didn’t take long to notice that the Valentine boys had a knack for the game and Denzel was super competitive—about it and everything else. He didn’t just hate losing on-court. Whenever he lost a game of Monopoly, he flipped the board over.
“My dad has tons and tons of trophies that we had at my old house,” Denzel says. “Subconsciously when you see those, you just want to be a winner.”
An admitted sore loser at times, Valentine didn’t have to deal with much of it on the court because of how talented he was. Both he and his brother, who later played at Oakland University and is now an assistant coach there, started racking up wins from an early age with their father coaching most of the games.
It was at Sexton High in Lansing that Carlton Valentine did most of his coaching. He’s spent nearly a decade there during two separate stints. That time included the entire high school careers of both his sons.
“Any father with a chance to coach his kids at that level is getting an unbelievable experience,” Carlton says.
There was only one year of overlap for the two Valentines, and it almost didn’t happen. While Drew was a senior, Denzel was entering his freshman year, and after some summer struggles their father confided in Drew that he wasn’t quite sure if Denzel was ready for varsity.
Once Drew, who later coached his brother as a grad assistant at MSU, told his younger brother, that was all Denzel’s competitive spirit needed, with one last camp approaching.
“That whole team camp he was just straight killing,” Drew says.
From that point there was no looking back. Denzel committed to Michigan State before his junior year and ended his high school career with back-to-back state titles.
With his parents in the stands, Valentine’s Spartans career has been a memorable one thus far. Valentine’s team has been to three Sweet 16s and one Final Four in his first three seasons. Individually, he’s raised his points, rebounds and assists per game in every season.
There’s only one thing left that he wants to accomplish.
“I’m just trying to finish out strong,” Valentine says. “The goal at the beginning of the season was to win a National Championship.”
While the end of his college career could be memorable, it will also be bittersweet. As a consensus first-rounder this June, it’s likely he’ll need to be the first in his family to move away. It’s a change he can only describe as “weird” and not having him a car ride away is something his brother says will be “very different.”
It’s no surprise, though, that it’s his parents who seem to have the biggest adjustment ahead, since Carlton taught him the game, Kathy drove him to tournaments, and both of them brought MSU into his life.
Now there is just one more NCAA Tournament ahead of them.
“It’s tough, but we’ll manage,” Carlton says. “We’re cherishing the time we have. This next journey and adventure will be exactly that.”
Image via Getty