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Five Spartans Form New 'Flintstones'

Hit by Hard Times, a Michigan City Takes Pride in Another Group of Players in Final Four

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page D01

FLINT, Mich., March 31 -- Some say time will stop for a few hours Saturday night in this Midwestern city, as residents will momentarily forget about their personal plights while watching five native sons play basketball for Michigan State in the Final Four in St. Louis. Others say they have too many problems to worry about something as trivial as sports, and that time stopped here forever nearly six years ago, when General Motors closed its large automobile manufacturing plant, sending thousands in the city into unemployment and poverty.

"Everybody in Flint is going to be watching the game because we've got five boys on the team," said Larry Johnson, a security officer for Flint City Schools. "There's a lot of pride. But when the game is over, everybody is still unemployed."

Jaleel Williams, 8, and his brother Corbin, 5, of Flint, Mich., play basketball at Berston Field House, where many recreational programs have been eliminated. (Bruce Edwards -- The Flint (mich.) Journal)

When Tom Izzo took over for Jud Heathcote as the head coach of Michigan State 10 years ago, he forged a pipeline that has been a saving grace to some of the city's best high school basketball players. Flint natives Mateen Cleaves, Antonio Smith, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell -- the self-dubbed "Flintstones," each with their home town tattooed on a shoulder -- led the Spartans to the 2000 national championship and gave their city some positive exposure.

Five years later, Flint natives Tim Bograkos, Marquise Gray, Anthony Hamo, Matthew Trannon and Kelvin Torbert followed the path to East Lansing and comprise nearly one-third of the team that has Michigan State back in the Final Four.

But for the rest of this industrial city about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, the on-court achievements offer only momentary solace.

"There's not a lot left there," said Trannon, whose mother and father still live in Flint.

Nearly 10 percent of the 185,000 workers in Flint and Genesee County are jobless, almost twice the national average, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor. There were nearly 47,000 bankruptcy cases filed last year in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Eastern District of Michigan, nearly three times as many cases as 10 years ago. In 2002, Flint was ranked among the 20 most dangerous cities in America, and the number of murders in 2004 doubled from seven to 14. Three years ago, the state of Michigan took control of the city's finances because the municipality was $28 million in debt and the mayor was ousted by a recall vote.

Broken Down

Flint was the birthplace of General Motors, and factories here made Buicks beginning in 1904. In 1978, General Motors employed more than 76,000 workers in its factories in the city.

But by the early 1990s, as General Motors started losing consumers to foreign competition, the company began moving its assembly lines to Mexico and outsourcing work to smaller plants near Detroit and other Midwestern cities. After eliminating more than 50,000 jobs in Flint alone, General Motors closed its mammoth assembly plant near the Flint River on July 29, 1999.

Most of the complex known as Buick City had been razed and more than 200 acres of asphalt and concrete are now surrounded by chain-link fencing, leaving a rusting eyesore and a painful reminder of better times. General Motors now employs fewer than 4,000 workers at its two remaining factories here, although the company announced plans last year to invest $450 million to refurbish the facilities. Flint native Michael Moore documented the devastating impact of the plant closings in his 1989 film, "Roger & Me."

In the neighborhoods surrounding what is left of Buick City, dilapidated houses have collapsing roofs and boarded windows. On nearby Davison Street, all five houses on one block have been abandoned. For Sale signs litter the front yards of several dozen homes on Flushing Street. On Saginaw Street, one of the main roads through downtown, seemingly every other business has been closed. On one building, a sign advertises: "Dollar Store Coming Soon." The store never had its grand opening -- a For Sale sign sits in the window.

"When that plant closed, I knew it was doom for Flint," Johnson said.

On a sunny afternoon earlier this week, Johnson sat behind a desk in Berston Field House, a community center where the city's best athletes honed their games while growing up in working-class neighborhoods. The center opened in 1923 and during the mid-1930s became the first to offer programs for African Americans. The gym used to open at 8 a.m. and wouldn't close until after 9 p.m. But the city eliminated most of its recreational programs two years ago because it no longer had the money to operate them.

"We had guys that would work the first shift at the auto plants and then come in and play," said Johnson, who was the night director at Berston for several years. "Then the guys working the second shift would come in the morning. The teenagers would come in and play after school. There was always a game being played."

Only a few years ago, Flint ran similar programs at five other recreational facilities and had open gym at its four high schools. Today, Berston Field House is used only for a dance program operated by a private company and an after-school childcare program. In one of the gymnasiums, a basketball goal has been ripped down from its support. There is peeling plaster on the walls, broken windows, outdated radiators along the walls and a small scoreboard from the 1950s in the corner of the gym.

Encouraged by an open door at Berston Field House, Christopher Sanders, 24, wandered in and asked Johnson if the center was going to offer boxing lessons again. Sanders, who has lived in Flint his entire life, said he has been unemployed for three years. Johnson told him, "You know this building ain't opening again."

Flint has long been known as a fertile hotbed for star athletes. Jim Abbott, who pitched in the major leagues despite being born with only one hand, grew up here. So did Andre Rison, an all-American at Michigan State and a star wide receiver in the NFL for several seasons. Flint native Glen Rice helped lead the University of Michigan's basketball team to the 1989 national championship and played several seasons in the NBA.

"They're all very proud to have come from Flint," said Tim Bograkos, father of the Michigan State reserve guard and an assistant prosecutor for Genesee County. "I think there's a tremendous sense of pride. Flint has historically been a phenomenal sports town. Athletes from here have gone on to do great things at the college and professional levels. There's a lot of pride in being an athlete from Flint."

Izzo Can Relate

Even though Flint is only a 45-minute drive from the Michigan State campus in East Lansing, few players from Flint attended the college until Izzo was hired as the Spartans' coach. During his last season as an assistant under Heathcote in 1994, Izzo persuaded Smith, a star at Northern High School, to take a chance on his program. Smith swayed his friend Peterson to come along, and a prosperous pipeline for the Spartans was born.

The following year, Cleaves backed out of a verbal commitment to the rival Wolverines and enrolled at Michigan State; Bell came to East Lansing two years later. By the time Bell left after the 2000-01 season, the Flintstones had helped the Spartans make three appearances in the Final Four and won the school's first national championship since Earvin "Magic" Johnson led Michigan State to the 1979 title.

"Those guys laid the foundation," said Lamont Torbert, older brother of the Spartans' forward and girls' basketball coach at Northwestern High School in Flint. "This group is just carrying the torch."

Izzo, who grew up in the small town of Iron Mountain on the upper peninsula of Michigan, can't explain how he was able to strike a chord with so many players from tough, inner-city neighborhoods. Izzo, who played basketball at Division III Northern Michigan University and was a college roommate of Detroit Lions Coach Steve Mariucci, came from meager beginnings, too. His great-grandfather was killed while working the mines near Iron Mountain and his grandfather was a shoe cobbler. Izzo's father still works as a handyman and didn't receive his high school diploma until he returned to school in his mid-forties.

"For some reason, I just hit something with these kids," Izzo said. "I'm from lily-white America. There aren't many Afro-Americans, if any, that live in the upper peninsula. But when they tell me, 'You don't know where I come from,' I can relate to where they've been. I tell them, 'Don't put me on a pedestal just because I didn't work on the assembly lines. I wasn't fed with a silver spoon.' I'm not worried about where they grew up; I'm worried about where they're going."

Bograkos, who played baseball and basketball at Michigan State, said Izzo won over his son and the other Flint players with his frankness.

"Obviously, his ability to coach goes without saying," Bograkos said. "I think his honesty wins people over. With Coach Izzo, you see what you get and there's no hidden agenda. I think Tom has a way about him that people like. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. You might not like what he's saying, but he's going to be honest and tell you what he believes. He has a bold-faced honesty about him."

'They're So Caring'

While this class of Flintstones isn't as talented as the original, they've won over Michigan State fans with their resiliency and effort. None of the Flint natives are starters. Hamo hasn't scored a point this season, and Gray is redshirting after injuring his ankle during the preseason. But Izzo said each of the Flint natives brings a blue-collar attitude to the team.

"I think there's a toughness that I've enjoyed about the kids I've had from Flint," Izzo said. "It's the most unbelievable thing. They're so caring even though they came from a rough environment. If you give them a little bit, you get so much in return. They all put the program ahead of themselves."

Torbert, a senior guard, was one of the most highly regarded players to come out of Flint. He was named the national high school player of the year by the Sporting News in 2001 after averaging 26 points and 8.2 rebounds at Northwestern High School. But Torbert has been an above-average college player at best, never averaging more than 10.7 points in a season. Torbert, who is considered the team's best defender, gave up his starting job this season and is the Spartans' first player off the bench.

"I know what he's given to our team," Izzo said. "I know what he's given to our program. I still think he has the skills to play at the next level."

Izzo said Torbert, who is quiet and reserved, has been overwhelmed by problems at home during his career. Torbert's mother, Florine Green, died of breast cancer when he was 5. His father, Climmie Torbert, who worked the General Motors assembly lines for more than 30 years, fought breast cancer, rare among men, and has needed a kidney transplant for more than two years. He undergoes dialysis at least twice daily and is too sick to travel to St. Louis to see his son play. Torbert talks to his father nearly every day.

"We've got to enjoy this because we realize there are a lot of people out there who won't get to experience what we're going through right now," Torbert said.

Trannon, a star athlete at Northwestern High, was the second-leading receiver on Michigan State's football team and is playing basketball for the second consecutive season. A 6-foot-6 reserve forward, Trannon had to sit out his freshman season because he was an academic non-qualifier. His mother, Katherine Trannon, still lives in Flint. His estranged father, also named Matthew Trannon, is a Vietnam veteran and worked on the assembly lines for 30 years until mental illness ended his career.

"Coach Izzo always stresses having heart and being tough-minded," Trannon said. "A lot of kids from Flint are like that. We've had to overcome a lot during our lives."

Bograkos, who walked on the basketball team as a freshman but has been on scholarship for each of the past three seasons, grew up in a more affluent neighborhood in Flint but still attended public schools. His grandparents taught at Flint schools and his mother and sister also attended Michigan State. Bograkos, a senior, still faced huge obstacles while growing up. He had leukemia diagnosed when he was 4 and endured chemotherapy for nearly four years. Bograkos, who already has received a degree in advertising and is working on a second degree in communications, still gets annual checkups.

"He came through it with flying colors and he's been healthy ever since," his father said.

Tim Bograkos, the father, sees signs of hope in his home town. The University of Michigan has expanded its campus in Flint and might construct dormitories near downtown. There are new homes being built on the outskirts of Flint and in the downtown area, where buildings bear names such as Chrysler, Ford and Buick, some older structures are being converted into loft apartments.

"It's not all gloom and doom here," Bograkos said.

On Saturday night, for a few hours, at least, the Flintstones can offer a little more hope to their home town. Their coach figures it is the least he can do for a place that has given him so much.

"This puts Flint back on the map," Izzo said. "They're being talked about for sports again, instead of being the depressed place with all the laid-off workers."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company