DETROIT – When Travis Walton arrived in East Lansing four years ago from Lima, Ohio, he didn’t know whom to trust. This made him suspicious of just about everyone, which, in turn, made him clam up. He found it almost painful to talk.
“When you come from a small town, you get locked into that small town,” Walton explained. “When you talk to people there, they know who you are, they know your parents. You go somewhere else, nobody knows anything about you.”
Now, if you ask Michigan State’s senior do-everything guard a question, he grabs onto it like a pit bull, shaking it, ripping it open and inspecting every part of it. Now, Walton won’t stop talking.
Not at home, where he dissects all facets of everything with his roommate and confidant Goran Suton. Not in the locker room, where his unbridled chatter fills the ears of his teammates. Not in the time-out huddle, or on the bench, or on the floor.
Especially not on the floor.
Walton’s defense, leadership and competitiveness are all huge reasons the Spartans are back in the Final Four for a fifth time in 11 years. But it is his mouth that electrifies his team.
From Izzo’s perspective, it’s difficult to imagine that the same player he once called into his office and scolded for being too quiet – “Coach told me I needed to smile more,” Walton said – is now the unquestioned soul of this team.
Said Izzo: “I heard him on the [Jim] Rome show recently and thought, ‘Holy $%!’ I mean boy, he became a man, eh?”
In the tournament, he has hit key jumpers, made consistently good decisions with the ball and even managed to up his already-supreme defense.
Take Sunday, for example, when MSU played Louisville in the Midwest Regional final to play in this weekend’s Final Four. Walton was matched up against the Cardinals’ 6-foot-6 All-America wing, Terrence Williams – an assignment, by the way, which Walton insisted to Tom Izzo he could handle. (Walton is 6- 2).
Early in the first half, Williams flipped a pass to his teammate, Preston Knowles, who drained a three-pointer. Knowles then turned and clapped his hands in Walton’s face. As the teams headed back toward MSU’s goal, Williams sought out Walton and added, “Don’t worry about it, that’s what he do.”
The heavily favored No. 1 seed was trying to get into the head of MSU’s leader and shake his confidence. Walton simply smiled and ran back down the court.
A few seconds later, Suton answered Knowles’ three-pointer with one of his own. Walton smiled, turned to Williams and hollered, “Don’t worry about it. This is what we do!”
“Yeah,” said Walton, grinning sheepishly at the memory, “that was fun.”
Walton says he just grew up. But it wasn’t that simple. Along with battling his inner introvert, when he did speak, it usually blew out like lava from a volcano. In his early days at MSU, he developed a reputation for a quick temper.
“Cleaves was tough like Trav,” Izzo said, “but Trav was a little more uncontrollable. He would blow up over anything, everything. He’s learned to deal with it.”
His anger burst out when he sensed a teammate wasn’t playing with the same fury he did. He couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t want to win, or at least seemed that way on the surface.
“It took me awhile to realize that,” he said. “Everybody can’t be like [me]. It used to be, if you weren’t like me I was in your face. ‘Get some life into you!!’ ‘Get this!’ ‘Do that!’ This year, I was more laid back, let [the team] be themselves and enjoy the game.”
That change helped his teammates. It also helped him.
Said Suton: “He just slowed down.”
Sometimes it takes a step backward to move forward. He gets another chance Saturday night.