Couch: Jason Whitens is living the dream and doing his job at Michigan State – and his teammates appreciate him
PORTLAND, Ore. – Jason Whitens thinks of himself as a tough guy on the basketball court. But when Michigan State assistant coach Mark Montgomery singled him out in the locker room for his performance in the Spartans' 78-77 win against Portland on Sunday, Whitens felt a tear leaving his eye.
Moments later, he was being mobbed by his teammates.
“It was a very emotional moment for me,” Whitens said Sunday evening, walking toward the team bus after MSU's final game at the PK85 Invitational. “Coming back from injury, I'm really living my dream here, just getting the opportunity.”
Tom Izzo described Whitens’ story as a fairytale. It is that. One with depth to it and heartache and triumph — all the necessary elements. And a family, of sorts, that thinks the world of him.
“Because we are a family. And that gets thrown around a lot with a lot of different teams,” Whitens said. “This is the closest team I’ve been on.”
Whitens on Sunday played more minutes in the first half than he had in his entire MSU basketball career, which, to that point, had spanned one exhibition game a year ago — during which he tore an ACL — and three appearances in MSU’s first six games this season, totaling seven minutes. He played nine in the first half against Portland and 16 in all, tailing four points — on two second-half buckets — two rebounds and an assist. And, most notably, he played the final 8 seconds, with MSU up one and defending for its life. He went in for center Mady Sissoko, so MSU could switch defensively if needed at all five positions.
“I wasn't letting that guy by me and I wasn't letting anyone get the rebound after that either,” Whitens said. “So just get that stop, do my job. That's what Coach (Izzo) told me before the game. He said, ‘Whitens, you've got one job. Just go do it.’ ”
A day earlier, he had three first-half rebounds in three minutes against Oregon and Izzo later lamented not putting him back in the game. Izzo thought Whitens could help MSU last season, before he was injured. Whitens had been a recruited scholarship player at Western Michigan, where he started 47 games over three seasons. He’s on scholarship at MSU this season, only because there was one available.
“You really feel good for him,” Izzo said. “In the locker room, the players were so excited for him. It was heartfelt. He makes a nice little shot on the little runner. But it was his defense. And the other night it was his rebounding. He does some things. He’s a high, high energy guy and (I’m) really proud of him.”
MORE: Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State's 78-77 escape against Portland at the PK85 Invitational
This increasing role won’t last and Whitens knows it. When Jaden Akins returns, there will be less need for his minutes. When Malik Hall gets back, he’ll be further down the depth chart.
But that doesn’t diminish the experience, the dream being lived by the 6-foot-6 kid from Powers, Michigan — 30 miles southeast of Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula, the home of Izzo.
“It’s every kid's dream, when you grow up in the U.P.,” said Whitens, who turns 25 in January. “My dream has always been to contribute to a Michigan State basketball team. And getting to do that this weekend has been everything I've ever asked for. I have had to work hard for it. I tore my ACL last year, so it meant a little extra.”
And then to hear and feel the recognition in the locker room …
“That was a good team moment,” MSU point guard AJ Hoggard said. “I just appreciate him coming in there for that 15 minutes and giving us his all. Without that, we don't know what could've happened tonight. It could have went the other way. We just appreciate him. We feel like he played a good part in us winning.”
That appreciation began long before Sunday. It started on the steps of arenas in Iowa City and State College, Pennsylvania, last winter. As Whitens rehabbed after his ACL surgery, he would come along on road trips, running the stairs alone during the Spartans’ pre-game shoot-arounds.
His teammates would shout his nickname, “Dubby!” as he ran up and down the steps.
“That would just get me to go harder and harder every single time, every away game,” Whitens said.
The night after he tore his ACL in that exhibition against Ferris State, he thought briefly about calling it a career.
“I’m an older player, going through an injury like that,” he said. “But then the next morning, I’m like, ‘That’s not me. Ain’t no quit me me. And I’m going to come back and show everyone what I’m made of.’ ”
MORE: Couch: Kamaria McDaniel's emotional journey back to a starring role Sunday against Oregon gives MSU women's basketball hope it's found its go-to player
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.