DETROIT — Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. was the starting point guard for the 2014-15 Michigan State team that made an improbable run to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed. That perspective was important as he sat at his locker Sunday at Little Caesars Arena — the last time he’d perform that ritual as a Michigan State player.
“This is the best team I’ve been a part of,” said Nairn not long after the Spartans had lost to Syracuse 55-53 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “My freshman year we had a pretty great team. Close-knit. Then my sophomore year was better, and my junior year it got better. I didn’t think it could get any better. I’m so blessed and so thankful to be a part of a team like this. I couldn’t dream of it. I’m thankful.”
Nairn played 2 minutes in his final game, entering late as a defensive replacement as Michigan State pressed one more possession, one more shot that would maybe, just maybe, fall and preserve its season. The possessions came. The shots didn’t fall.
Nairn was never a scorer; his average of 3.5 points per game last season was the highest of his four seasons. He finished with 412 assists in his career compared to 346 points. Defense was the strongest part of his game, like when he doggedly harassed Brad Davison for 10 seconds and disrupted Davison’s final 3-point attempt for Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals, a shot that could have tied the game. The Spartans instead held on for a 63-60 win.
No. 1 holds on.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 2, 2018
His role on the court changed over four years but it never did off it. Tom Izzo has said from the day Nairn stepped on campus that he had a leadership quality that couldn’t be quantified. It can’t be measured, but people know it when they see it.
“I think Miles [Bridges] said it best in the locker room. So did [assistant coach] Dane Fife. That kid has meant the world to our program, our community, our team and me,” Izzo said on Sunday. “And I don’t know if — I don’t know if there’s another Tum out there. I just hope I can keep him around for a while. I’ll figure that out in the future. He’s meant the world to our entire community.
“He’s been rock solid through a lot of things this year. And I love him for that. As I do — it’s hard not to feel bad. I know why Miles came back. But he has no regrets why he came back, because in his mind he got to do the things he wanted to do and he came back, except maybe get to a Final Four.
“And you don’t get all your dreams sometimes. But Cassius [Winston] has gotten a lot better because of Tum. Miles is better because of Tum. Josh [Langford] is better because of Tum. Nick Ward has really made some strides in the last three weeks, four weeks, a lot because of Tum. Tum’s not God, but he’s right there.”
Nairn spoke to his teammates in the locker room after this final loss. The defeat ended Michigan State’s season at 30-5. The Spartans won the Big Ten regular-season championship and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional.
As other players spoke around the locker room, Nairn’s words could be heard being repeated. They were words of perspective.
“Of course you get frustrated but this is hand we were dealt,” Langford said. “It’s tough because you put in so much work, so many hours in the gym, preparing for so long, staying up long nights and things like that it hurts but at the end of the day you have to learn from it. Understand that at the end of the day there’s still people out here that are homeless, people out here that have cancer and people out here who are losing loved ones. At the end of the day we still have our lives and we still have a chance to learn from it.”
The Spartans were expected to be playing next weekend in the Sweet 16. So were eight other teams seeded 1-4 in their respective regions who lost in either the first or second round. No. 1 seeds Virginia and Xavier are out of the tournament. So are No. 2 seeds Cincinnati and North Carolina.
“You’ve got to understand that there’s more to life than losing a game of basketball,” Nairn said. “I’m going to remember this and everything I did and was able to do with this program and this team.”