NEW YORK — Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris was once a Michigan State freshman who had enough of Tom Izzo’s hell-raising, expletive-filled rants, bringing truth to power from a warning Draymond Green issued the previous summer.
“If he comes at you, you gotta go back at him,” Harris recalled Green saying in 2012, when Green was preparing for the NBA draft and Harris was an incoming freshman from Indiana. “You can’t let him think you’re soft.”
Green’s words probably weren’t consciously floating through his head at the time, but Harris instinctively fired back at Izzo during a game during that freshman season, cursing his coach for all to hear as the guard took a seat on Michigan State’s bench.
So when he saw Izzo light into freshman Aaron Henry during the Spartans’ first-round NCAA tournament win over Bradley on Thursday, Harris wasn’t the least bit surprised — although the social-media-fueled reaction caught him off-guard.
“Izzo don't have time for that. He's a freshman anyway,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “That's his first tournament experience. Iz has been there [at the NCAA tournament] 22 straight years? I mean, he's not trying to be a first-weekend exit. I don't blame him. He should've cussed him out.”
Harris said he did speak to Henry and Izzo to get both sides of the story when he was in Washington preparing for the Nuggets’ win over the Wizards on Thursday night.
Izzo repeatedly got in Henry’s face as Henry walked to the sideline for a timeout and had to be restrained somewhat by point guard Cassius Winston as Izzo berated Henry for on-court mistakes.
After Harris’ incident, it was associate head coach D.J. Stephens who went down to Harris’ seat to let him know he couldn’t talk to Izzo that way. Harris, who said he was used to being coached hard before coming to East Lansing, wasn’t ready to deal with Izzo in the immediate aftermath.
But following a postgame shower, Harris said he was leaving the arena when he saw a smiling man waiting down a hallway with a raspy voice.
It was Izzo.
“I wasn’t gonna say nothing to him. I was just gonna leave,” Harris said. “I see him, and he’s like, [imitating Izzo’s voice] ‘Really, you're gonna just leave and not say anything to me?’”
The two made amends and moved on, and Harris learned Izzo probably enjoys some level of confrontation more than most.
“He loves it. He loves it. But you better be right though,” said Harris, who declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore year. “He likes when you show emotion, when you challenge him. He's gonna challenge you, so he's gonna give you the right to challenge him back. You better be ready though. A lot comes with that.”
Izzo’s teams have often been defined by their fire: tough rebounders, rugged players and strong leaders. Harris said recruits know that full well when they make the decision to play for Michigan State.
“If you're not strong minded, don't go to Michigan State,” Harris said. “If you can't take nobody yelling at you, getting on you when you're not doing right, don't go there. When it happens, it happens, you gotta deal with it.
“I'm not saying you talk back to everything he says. You gotta pick and choose when you go back at him. Iz is gonna respect that. If you don't see eye to eye, you say something. As a man, you can't do nothing but respect that. You know where you stand in the moment.”
A bigger conversation has sparked since the incident, regarding whether Izzo should be allowed to be so emotional and confrontational in that setting without repercussion. In an age in which coaches are no longer revered for such behavior but held accountable, the situation has come into greater focus and some have said Izzo was verbally abusive to Henry.
There’s a fine line between discipline and abuse, and the situation is further muddled because it’s unpaid players who are expected to endure such behavior.
Harris believes there’s a line, but that Izzo didn’t approach it. Other Nuggets players discussed their interactions with high school and AAU coaches before Friday’s 111-93 victory over the New York Knicks, often scoffing at the notion anything would ever get physical.
“As long as you don't put your hands on somebody, say something degrading to somebody's family or as a man,” Harris said. “Everybody has a different line that they draw, that they allow someone to say to him. I don't think Iz crossed it because if he did, he would feel a different kind of way.”
Izzo has grown more publicly defiant over the years, perhaps because his search for a second national championship has resulted in more disappointment than triumph.
An old-school coach with methods that have taken Michigan State to seven Final Fours and a Naismith Hall of Fame induction in 2016, his players have said Izzo puts “love” inside the tough love — but it’s usually the “tough” part that catches attention.
“You can see all the former players, it's why everybody says something. We all know Izzo cares about his players,” Harris said. “He'd be the first one to yell at you, but be the first one to cry [for you] if something went wrong.”
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