EAST LANSING, Mich. — The hallway bustled with laughter and activity outside the Michigan State locker room in the Breslin Center on Sunday evening.
Family members — in larger numbers than usual, as it was Senior Day — waited for players to come out of the locker room after speaking with the media. One of them, Marveda Saunders, sat on a bench, leaning back against the wall, a smile across her face as people kept coming by and complimenting her.
After what should’ve been a particularly difficult week for senior guard Eron Harris’ mother, she felt content. Her son had suffered a college career-ending knee injury eight days before, but it wouldn’t sully a great occasion.
“The reason why it hasn’t been tough is because of the way Eron has handled it,” Saunders said. “He kept saying, ‘Mom, I’m OK.’ So because of the way he’s dealt with it, it’s made it easy for me to deal with it as well.”
Plus she got to put in time organizing a massive surprise. Throughout the week, she worked with Michigan State director of basketball operations David Thomas to set up a plan to sing the national anthem before the game, unbeknownst to Harris.
I can't believe I got to experience my mother sing the national anthem at my college senior night game. Blessed in so many ways I could go on forever… so thankful for everything that God has allowed me to do thus far. I know that all of our stores continue to be written. Just leave everything in the hands of the author. In the mean while, be thankful for the small things and show genuine love from your heart to everyone and everything that god has created. Blessings will come in return… ??? #WeAintDoneYet #spartandawgs
He knew all about her singing chops. The former lead singer of an R&B/jazz band, Saunders performed in multiple venues across Indianapolis. Later on, as a volleyball coach for Arsenal Tech (Indianapolis) High, she would sing the anthem every year for her seniors.
Harris had pitched the idea for her to sing, and not just once. He was persistent. He checked in with the people in charge of organizing the anthem. He texted Saunders a few days prior to the game trying to make it happen. She had to concoct a white lie on the fly.
“I said, ‘Well, I tried to arrange it, but they told me the marketing department already hired somebody, and they already paid the person,'” Saunders said. “So, he was like, ‘Oh well, don’t worry about it, Mom. I’ve heard you sing millions of times.'”
Saunders showed up on Sunday, and while the staff made sure to keep him up in the basketball offices, she did a sound check. That could only partially prepare her for the experience of performing in front of 14,797 fans and her unsuspecting son.
As she stepped out of the tunnel and had her name announced, Harris caught on. He stood on the bench with his teammates, overcome with emotion, tears dripping down his face.
— Michigan St. on BTN (@MichiganStOnBTN) February 26, 2017
“It’s like when your life flashes before your eyes,” he said. “Everything flashed in my head, and I was getting real emotional. I had to let it out. That’s a good energy to let out.”
Saunders couldn’t afford to do the same. She kept her eyes closed as she sang to avoid getting choked up by the sight of her son. Emotions made the lower notes difficult, but she belted out the high ones with no trouble.
“It was totally nerve-wracking,” she said. “It was an awesome experience, and I’m glad that Eron was touched by it, because that’s what I wanted to do.”
But even Saunders didn’t know what would happen two hours later. Neither did Harris. The night before, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called equipment manager Dave Pruder to let him know he wanted Harris’ jersey ready.
“Don’t tell anybody,” Izzo said he told Pruder, “but if we get way ahead or way behind, I’m putting Eron in. It’s going to be his one shining moment.”
When told to get dressed for the game, Harris started to get suspicious, but he justified the move in his head. He thought they wanted him in uniform for the postgame Senior Day festivities.
Izzo, though, had a tough time holding it together in front of his injured senior, who scored 616 points in two seasons with Michigan State after transferring from West Virginia.
“It seemed like coach Izzo couldn’t stop crying the whole time,” Harris said of the hours leading up to the game. “Every time he talked to me, I felt like there was tears in his eyes today.”
As the game wound down, Izzo didn’t know if he’d be able to get it done. The Michigan State lead got up to 11 points with 1:21 left, then down to seven, then back up to double digits again.
With 11 seconds remaining, Izzo called his name. With a brace on his leg and some soreness in his knee (which will likely be operated on in about a month), he subbed into the game.
Wisconsin players responded graciously, giving hugs and congratulations. But since Harris couldn’t come in and out of the game without time leaving the clock, Izzo told guard Matt McQuaid to walk with the ball.
Eron Harris checking in on Senior Night despite season ending injury. Touching. pic.twitter.com/zYpZDy1Toa
— Zachary Barnes (@Forrest_Barnes) February 26, 2017
“He told him exactly what to do,” Harris said. “He said, ‘Stop there. Come over here. Travel. All right, get out.’ I subbed in, and then it was my time to kiss (the logo).”
Added Izzo, “It ticks me off, too, because of the turnovers. I was trying to keep those turnovers down. I just didn’t know any other way to get him in and keep him by (me), too, so that he wouldn’t get hurt, and still get a chance to kiss the head. It worked. Thank god for the officials and thank god Wisconsin was okay with it.”
Harris limped over to the logo, went into push-up position and kissed it while the crowd erupted. Then he made his way back to the bench, checking out for the final time.
“Just to be a part of this, nobody can take that away from me,” Harris said. “They’ve got the video of me kissing it now. That’s a memory that’s going to last forever, so I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Harris said the injury and the finality of his college career have resonated. He’s happily taking on a vocal role with the team while he prepares for rehab and trying to put together a professional career.
If anything, the injury made the emotions of Senior Day even more poignant. It served as a reminder of all he has given to the game of basketball and all is has given to him in return.
“I think this is like a blessing in disguise,” Saunders said, “because I think he’s gonna regain his love and his passion for the game. He’s going to have to work through rehab and get himself back healthy enough to maybe play somewhere. That’s what his goal is, and I’m sure he’s going to do everything he can to try to get that done.
“And we’re gonna help him.”