It all started with an Instagram comment.
In early February, Korie Lucious was without a team. The former Michigan State point guard, probably best known for sending the Spartans to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 with a buzzer beater over Maryland, was at home in Los Angeles, working out and looking for his next opportunity.
He and Russell Byrd never saw any on-court action together at Michigan State. Byrd joined the team in 2010 but redshirted as a freshman because of a left foot injury. Lucious was then dismissed from Michigan State for “conduct detrimental to the program” in 2011 — he later said it was for smoking marijuana — and finished his college career at Iowa State. They remained friends.
Lucious was scanning Instagram on Feb. 13 when he saw a post from Klarissa Bell, a former Michigan State basketball player and Byrd’s wife, celebrating her 25th birthday. He commented wishing her a happy birthday and asked her to say hello to “my boy young russy.”
Bell did so, and in addition, she suggested that the two get in touch themselves. Byrd and Lucious started talking about their careers, and the idea came up.
“Bro, we actually need a point guard right now,” Byrd told him. “What are you doing?”
A week earlier, another former Spartans player — Brandan Kearney — also had been searching for a landing spot. The NBL Canada’s Windsor Express released him on Feb. 1, ending what had seemed an ideal situation for the Detroit native since Windsor was just a short drive across the border.
The Miracles drafted Kearney second overall in 2015. After a strong rookie year, he signed an offer sheet to play elsewhere in the league the following year and then bounced around, and now the Miracles have a different coach: former NBA journeyman center Paul Mokeski. “Coach Mo,” as Kearney calls him, consulted Byrd and then signed the 6-foot-7 wing nine days after his release. Lucious signed on Feb. 25.
Each NBL Canada team is allowed, at most, eight foreign nationals to play alongside at least four Canadians. Three of the Miracles’ foreign-born players are one-time Michigan State players who finished their college careers elsewhere.
They’ve reunited in Moncton, a city of nearly 70,000 in the New Brunswick province, approximately 175 miles east of the Maine border. The area is known primarily for the Magic Mountain Waterpark, but to Michigan State fans, it also is the quaint home of Byrd, Kearney and Lucious for now. A series of unexpected circumstances took them to the Atlantic Time Zone to reconnect and to play fast-paced, high-scoring professional basketball.
“It turned out to be a great decision,” Byrd said. “I’m really happy that I’m up here and obviously really happy that Korie and Brandan are here as well.”
Similar ages, different stages
Less than four years separate the trio of Michigan State Miracles in age, but they all find themselves at a different stage in life.
Byrd was a journeyman. After transferring from Michigan State in 2014 following his junior year, Byrd finished his college career in Santa Clarita, Calif., at The Master’s University (then The Master’s College). The Sioux Falls Skyforce selected him in the 2015 NBA Development League Draft and placed him on waivers three months later.
He headed to Israel for a short stint with Maccabi Hod Hasharon, then to Spain to play for HLA Lucentum in January 2016. Several months later, he planned to move on to a team in Italy, but with his wife pregnant with their second child, he felt he should settle down.
“Being married and having kids is a situation you probably don’t see too often, so it changes my perspective on what I want to do,” Byrd said. “Other guys are going to want to go overseas and go to China or Italy, France, places like that. That’s not something that’s really too desirable at this point.”
So he got in touch with Mokeski and signed with the Miracles in September, the same month the baby was due. He and Bell, have been in Moncton since with 2-year-old Addison and 8-month old Grayson.
Kearney, on the other hand, isn’t locked into any one location. The 24-year-old finished his college career at Detroit and has since bounced between Moncton and Windsor. The NBL Canada, he hopes, will be a stepping stone.
“This is a good league, but I’m trying to go as far as I can,” Kearney said. “I’m still chasing my dream of making it to the NBA.”
He’s got the connections. One of his Windsor coaches, Bill Jones, is a fellow Detroit native who briefly played for the Nets. And Mokeski played for five NBA teams, including the Pistons, over his 14-year professional career.
Making his way back to the States would help Kearney get closer to his daughter, Brooklyn, who lives in Phoenix with her mother. With the help of his parents, he last saw her April 21 when they brought her to the Miracles’ road game against the Niagara River Lions.
Lucious has a child of his own, Kash. The 11-month-old lives with his mother in Iowa, and Lucious said he plans to do whatever he can to get there for Kash’s birthday on May 20. Lucious said he knows the date — Feb. 15 — that they last saw each other.
Lucious said he has been happy to play in the NBL, which he said has pleasantly surprised him with its level of talent. Like Kearney, he hopes it will catapult him back in the direction of a long, successful career.
“With me sitting out as long as I did, I am looking for this to get me back where I was, to get me back overseas where I can play,” Lucious said, citing stops in Poland, Hungary and China. “Whatever happens after this will be good, but this is definitely a stop which was good for me to make.”
A competitive league
Playing in the NBL Canada means a lot of bus miles.
Though the league’s 10 teams cover just southeastern Canada, they span four provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Ontario. A three-game road trip from April 19 to 23 against the Orangeville A’s, River Lions and Halifax Hurricanes put them on the road for more than 2,400 miles.
It’s worth it for exciting basketball. Each team averages more than 100 points per game in the fast-paced league that features former Arizona State star Jahii Carson, former Stanford big man Stefan Nastic and even ex-NBA first-round draft pick Royce White, whose dissatisfaction with the mental-health policy in the NBA took him elsewhere.
“You have some guys that starred in college and some guys that played in the NBA in this league,” Kearney said. “It’s a pretty good league. It’s starting to come along.”
And we’ve reached the most exciting part: the playoffs. Despite losing five consecutive games down the stretch, the 15-25 Miracles secured their playoff berth with a 101-99 road win over the Cape Breton Highlanders in the season finale. Had the Highlanders won, they would have advanced.
Next up: Halifax, the top-seeded team in the Atlantic Division. The Miracles finished 3-5 against Halifax during the regular season, and the first two games of this best-of-five series will be played on the road.
The Miracles faced a few hiccups down the stretch. First, Lucious was sidelined from practice with a stomach virus but managed to return for their April 26 game. Byrd suffered a dislocated finger in that game and drove himself to the hospital before returning for the second half. He finished with 19 points on 5-for-8 shooting from long range.
Who needs the NBA Playoffs?
You don’t have to be in Canada to watch the Miracles. All NBL Canada games are streamed live on YouTube.
It’s ideal for not only millennials, but also the anti-millennial, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Byrd said his former coach tuned in to watch the Miracles’ 125-121 win over the league-leading London Lightning on April 9. Byrd, Kearney and Lucious combined to score 57 points that night. Izzo called later to let them know his thoughts on their play.
“He definitely knows what’s going on and that we’re all up here together,” Byrd said. “[The coaches] do a good job of keeping in touch with us, obviously. They’ve got to be those type of people to build a program like they’ve built.”
Though none of the three wrapped up their college tenures in East Lansing, the connection to Michigan State remains. Byrd returned to practice with the Spartans from preseason to December, when he departed for the start of the NBL Canada season.
He plans to bring his teammates back as well. Neither Kearney nor Lucious has returned to campus since leaving, but both continue to watch the Spartans and like their prospects in 2017-18 with Miles Bridges returning.
“We’ve definitely been keeping up with them,” Kearney said. “They should get back to regular scheduled programming as far as winning and getting to championships and the Final Four.”
Lucious added that he talks to Izzo regularly. There are no hard feelings following his departure, and he is entertaining the idea of joining his teammates there this summer.
But first, the Miracles have their own championship to pursue. You can tune in here at 6 p.m. ET on Friday to watch their playoff opener against Halifax. Holding the worst record of all eight playoff teams, the Miracles’ chances look slim. But don’t tell them that.
“We have a good group of guys, talented guys that can really put the ball in the hole,” Lucious said. “All we need to do is play defense. The team that we’re playing is the second-best team in the league, but every time we’ve played them since I’ve been there, we’ve played them pretty well. I think we’ve got a good chance as long as we play together.”