EAST LANSING/FLINT, Mich. — Miles Bridges didn’t have to play high school basketball in Flint to become one of the city’s finest players. He didn’t have to stay at Flint Southwestern in order to establish a reputation, nor did he have to stay close to further a storied relationship between his hometown and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
He’s one of them, the Flint elite. Perhaps the best of them.
As an eighth-grader at Southwestern, the tall, ambidextrous kid had already earned consideration as the next in line behind Monte Morris, who won three state titles at Flint Beecher before becoming a nationally renowned point guard at Iowa State.
Morris followed the likes of Flint Powers’ JaVontae Hawkins, who became a mid-major star at Eastern Kentucky. Before their time, Anthony Crater at Southwestern and Marquise Gray at Beecher, among several others, carried the load for the city.
Years prior to those guys, the Flintstones (class of 1994-’95) forever changed Michigan State basketball, simultaneously setting the tone for Izzo, who has credited Flint for “making” his career and building his house. Literally, the house in which he lives, not just figuratively speaking.
With a national championship in 2000, the Spartans’ first and only since Magic in 1979, Mateen Cleaves and Antonio Smith of Northern, Charlie Bell of Southwestern, and Morris Peterson of Northwestern became idols to thousands of local kids who wanted to grow up and do the same. Smith wasn’t there for the 2000 title, but he helped set the bar by helping the Spartans reach the 1999 Final Four.
Bridges was a toddler when they won it all and made back-to-back appearances in the Final Four. And really, those 17- and 18-year-old accomplishments have been celebrated longer in Flint than they have been in East Lansing.
They weren’t just Izzo’s. They weren’t just MSU’s.
They belonged to Southwestern, Northern and Northwestern.
They fueled a hope-filled man who wanted to follow in their footsteps.
“(Izzo) expects more out of me, because he knows my background,” said the 6-foot-7, 230-pound potential lottery pick. “Mateen, Charlie Bell, they were tough guys, and he wants me to be as tough as them.”
In theory, Bridges could be the final Flint star for Izzo, who isn’t getting any younger.
This past week, and while at his podium, Izzo quietly said “enjoy Miles Bridges” — to himself or to the media? — before fielding questions during a postgame press conference.
A possible one-and-done, Bridges, a former McDonald’s All-American, represents the last of a disappearing breed. Since 2009, Flint has shut the doors on two high schools — Central and Northern — and could combine Southwestern and Northwestern — the last standing — within the next couple of years.
There won’t be many more, if any, players for Izzo to scout in Flint. There sure as hell won’t be another Bridges — a 6-7 kid who can do everything — in Izzo’s coaching lifetime, anyway.
With that said, transferring to Huntington Prep in West Virginia, and playing for coach Rob Fulford — who is now an assistant at Missouri — turned out to be the most beneficial for Bridges, who learned to diversify an already powerful, yet unrefined, skill set at the prestigious academy.
“In Flint, I had a really raw game. I didn’t have a high IQ and I wasn’t strong enough,” said Bridges, who often outplayed skilled varsity-level players as a middle-schooler. “But once I moved and got to a higher level, I really learned how to win.
“I got stronger. I played against the best, so that helped my defense.”
While at Huntington, Bridges learned about the finer points of the game from Fulford, who also provided housing, and truly recognized that he belonged among the blue-chips. Leaving Flint was difficult, but it had to be done, said Bridges.
Regardless of the situation, Bridges has commanded respect.
Whether it’s been a coach or a player, everyone who’s faced Miles Bridges has had nothing but compliments for and about Miles Bridges.
This past Saturday, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery acknowledged the best player on the floor. Earlier in the season, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Michigan’s John Beilein, among several others, had specifically mentioned and identified the first-year Spartan phenom as being in a league of his own.
“Miles has been around so many great players, he’s been brought up and learned with a legend himself in Jeff Grayer (of Flint Northwestern/Iowa State),” said Monte Morris, who’s wrapping up an illustrious four-year run with the Cyclones.
“He’s had no choice but to be successful just like he is.”
Izzo constantly talks about Bridges, even when Bridges isn’t the topic of conversation.
“I love that kid,” he’s said a few times — or more — this season. Back in January, Izzo said that Bridges had endured more adversity — an injury and the Duke and Kentuckys of the world — than any other previous freshman at MSU.
His eyes light up a little more when talking about guys such as Bell, Cleaves and the rest. Likewise, they glow in much the same way when he mentions Bridges. Izzo knows he has something special. The hardest part for Izzo, of course, is knowing the NBA will eventually call before he’s ready to bid farewell.
Had Bridges not suffered an ankle injury in December, he would have played enough games to qualify for the Big Ten leader boards. But because he missed seven games, he’s only eligible for the conference-specific stats.
For those counting, he’s No. 6 in Big Ten scoring (15.9 PPG) and No. 6 in rebounding (8.2 RPG).
He has also posted six double-doubles, hit nearly 39 percent of 3-point attempts, and blocked 33 shots in 19 games.
Bridges is something to behold. Izzo knows it. So does everyone else.
Enjoy Bridges. Enjoy the Flint thing, too.
Enjoy the fact that Bridges enjoys the Flint thing.
“It’s really an honor, man. I give all the glory to God,” Bridges said. “I’ve been dreaming about this. I see Monte… and Monte really inspired me, coming out of Beecher. He was just a skinny kid from Beecher and made it to Iowa State. He’s doing big things. He’s really inspired me, and he’s one of my role models.”
Kyle Kuzma of Burton Bentley, an area school, has become a standout at Utah. Cameron Morse of Flint Carman-Ainsworth has evolved into one of the nation’s leading scorers at Youngstown State.
Morris continues to gain attention at Iowa State, heralded as one of the purest point guards in the country.
Different schools. Different paths. But when home, they discuss the ties that bind.
“I talk to them from time to time,” Bridges said. “That’s just the Flint relationship we all have. I have a good relationship with everyone who plays basketball and came from Flint.”
So does Michigan State.
It seems as if Flint saved the best for last.