EAST LANSING, Mich. -- After Robert Ray clinched his third consecutive Division 1 intramural basketball championship at Michigan State last season, he was given an idea to take things to the next level.
Ross Winter, MSU’s assistant director of intramural sports, encouraged Ray to bring his established intramural team to a tournament in Dayton, Ohio, last year which featured some of the nation’s top club basketball teams.
“We basically took our IM team down there and competed against other club teams,” said Ray, a first-year graduate student studying osteopathic medicine. “We didn’t win the tournament, but we were competitive, especially since we played against teams that were practicing and had coaches.
“But after that, Ross was like, ‘You guys are good enough, you guys should start a (club) basketball team.’ So he told me what I had to do to get registered.”
But before the team could move forward, there was a financial hurdle to overcome. The team couldn’t receive funding from MSU’s recreational sports and fitness department because its budget had reached capacity from already-established club programs.
Ray appointed Derek Veltema, a senior accounting student, to be the team’s treasurer to handle budgeting for court time, travel, hotel, referee and uniform costs. From there, they made it work.
After paying a $1,000 registration fee to join the National Club Basketball Association, Ray and his intramural team, along with several guys they frequently played with at MSU’s intramural facilities, surprisingly, became the first club hoops team at MSU.
“I didn’t even think to ask (how to start a club team),” Ray said, “because I figured it would’ve been done by now. Especially with how popular basketball is at Michigan State.”
From Unknown to No. 1
The team now has goal they will truly have to work for -- a NCBBA national championship.
And they’re trending in that direction.
After defeating Kent State in a pair of non-conference games to start the season, the Spartans swept three games against both Bowling Green and Western Michigan to move to 8-0. Their unblemished record has earned the team a No. 1 national ranking, according to the Rawlings NCBBA Top 15 poll.
The squad is coached by Sean Hankins, a MSU psychology professor and assistant coach at Lansing Eastern. Hankins coaches the Spartans for free because of the tight budget.
The Spartans trudge their way to IM East for 6:30 a.m. practice every Wednesday, and if they were without Hankins, Veltema said the early wake-ups wouldn’t be worth the hassle.
“Having (Hankins) really makes an impact,” he said. “Having 6:30 a.m. practice, if we didn’t have him there and forcing us to do stuff, like rebounding drills, if he wasn’t there, honestly, I think some of us would be screwing around. So in terms of keeping us in line and kind of managing us, he’s done a great job. I don’t think we’d be where we’re at today without having him.”
MSU will play three more conference games against both BGSU and WMU, as well as six -- three home and three away -- against conference rival Michigan. If the Spartans win the conference, which they are in position to do, they will advance to the regional tournament.
But, for now, the team is enjoying its top ranking and all the fun that comes with it.
“IM is only so fun, and beating up on the same people can get old,” Ray said. “But it’s another thing to go out and be representing Michigan State and travel different places and then just get kind of recognized on a higher level.”
A "really unique team”
The Spartans aren’t the No. 1-ranked team in the nation by accident. But, in a way, they kind of are.
Years of playing pick-up ball together at MSU would eventually pay-off in a way they never knew it would.
“We’re all decent players, we play (teams) that might have better athletes, but we play so well together,” Veltema said. “I know that’s pretty standard to say, but someone on my team knows where I’m gonna be and he’s gonna give me the ball because that’s my shot. We know when to give each other the ball and when to be unselfish.”
And for a group of men who longed for higher competition, it’s that unselfishness that could propel them to their goal of a club national championship.
“Competition is one of the main driving forces (for forming the club team). That’s why people play sports, that’s why I play sports, that’s why the people on the team play sports. And I think one of the things that makes us so good is that we don’t have any selfish players,” Ray said. “We’ve all been playing together for a long time and we all want to win. No one cries about playing time or stats or anything like that. It’s not your typical club team. We know what we’re good at. We know what we’re not good at. We know who fits into what situations and it’s just a really unique team and chemistry situation that we have.”