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The Hall of Fame coach’s son seeks to uncover the beginning of his fairy tale ending

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Steven Izzo sat in his locker, aw-shucksing the high point of his adult life, playing a familiar part.

The first basket of his five-year career on his father’s Michigan State basketball team was an act of comedic defiance. The gall of this move. Against a Rutgers defender with 6 inches and 50 pounds on him, Steven Izzo took two dribbles to his left, stopped, reversed direction, flicked the ball between his legs, took two more dribbles and, falling backward, flung a prayer in the general direction of the backboard. The ball landed upon the rim, spun back to the glass, danced on the heel, and, as if knowing what the moment called for, dropped through the net.

What followed was some kind of shared catharsis. Never mind that Steven is 23 — everyone’s little brother made this shot. Teammates fell over each other to get to Steven. The student section, aptly known as “The Izzone,” screamed and jumped and hugged. Grown fans brushed away tears. After years of chanting for him to play and screaming for him to shoot, it felt like a release. Overembellishment be damned, that basket, on that day, scored in the waning moments of a blowout win, stands as one of the loudest moments in Breslin Center history.

In front of reporters afterward, Steven said everything he was supposed to say. That what matters most to him is putting on the jersey, being with his father. That he can’t believe how fortunate he is. That scoring was just a bonus. “I haven’t been necessarily worried about stats,” he shrugged. “Nor should I.”

The whole scene was perfect.

Later, in private, Steven recounted the shot, frame by frame. The smile was still fresh, except this time he added, “It’s nice to give people the fairy tale version.”

That version is the one Steven has always felt people wanted. The one free of complications, the novelty they root for. Steven has never needed his own identity because being Tom Izzo’s son was always enough.

But then there’s reality. That ever since he was 3 or 4 years old, back when mom read bedtime stories about adopted kids and told him to clasp his hands in prayer for his biological mother, he’s known there’s another part of him; a part that’s rarely mentioned. While Steven’s Michigan State biography says he was born in East Lansing, Mich., he was, in fact, born on June 16, 2000, in West Virginia.

That version is another story, one that required Steven to open a door and pick up a box.

Second-floor closet. Second shelf from the floor. A clear plastic container, blue lid, tucked among linens for the guest room, some cleaning supplies and a commemorative Final Four Beanie Baby.

That’s where the rest of the story starts.

His former life lasted four days. Steven Izzo was 5 pounds when he entered a world that was unsure where to send him. His mother was 19. Presented with a list of potential adoptive parents, she chose a couple in Michigan because it was the farthest option.

Tom and Lupe Izzo had married nine years earlier, when Lupe operated a Lansing water purification franchise and Tom was a manic assistant basketball coach. Tom was an Italian-American from the otherworld of Michigan’s upper peninsula. Lupe was a Mexican-American from Texas. They never saw each other coming. But by getting married later in their lives, they were immediately on the clock to start a family. That’s when things got difficult.

Those early miscarriages were hard, but eventually along came Raquel. A bouncing, smiling girl. Tom and Lupe’s daughter was born in August 1994 at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. Tom and Lupe were 40.

The next few years were harder. The specialists. The injections. Hope, then agony. “To the point where I just finally said to Tom, I don’t think I can do this anymore,” Lupe now says. “To lose a child every time, it was too much.” The Izzos decided to add their name to some adoption lists.

Lupe was home on June 16, 2000. Life was, in many ways, finally settling down. The five years since Raquel’s birth were a blur — Tom was named Michigan State head coach in 1995, lost a bunch of games early, feared he’d be fired, then won the Big Ten in 1998, went to the Final Four in ’99 and won a national title in 2000. The Spartans’ championship parade was still fresh in her mind when, walking down the stairs with a bin of laundry, Lupe fumbled with her phone. She might’ve ignored the call, but it was Nick Saban.

“Lupe, I’m trying to get a hold of Tom, but he’s not answering.”

Saban coached football at Michigan State from 1995 to 1999, but left seven months earlier for LSU. The families remained close because Nick and Tom are who they are, but also because the Sabans had previously adopted two children from Nick’s home state of West Virginia. He knew people there and pulled all levers within his power to line up the Izzos.

“Are you sitting down?” Saban asked Lupe. “A baby boy was just born. Are you interested?”

The laundry hit the floor.

Tom and Lupe didn’t know Steven’s race or ethnicity, didn’t know the details of his birth, didn’t know he was severely malnourished, didn’t know his weight would continue dropping after he was born. They didn’t know his name because he wasn’t given one. All they knew was he might be their son. In her retelling, Lupe demanded to Tom something like, “You can get me on a plane, or I’m gonna start walking.” The next day, they grabbed an old car seat from the attic, held Raquel’s hands, and climbed aboard a propeller plane bound for somewhere in West Virginia.

The adoption was private, but Tom and Lupe learned the biological mother faced steep medical costs. They offered to cover the bills and, as a result, learned information about her that they might not have otherwise. It was information that would eventually find its way into a file, one that would be tucked away in a closet for safekeeping.

News spread rapidly. Local media covered the adoption, so much so that, fearing unprocessed paperwork could hit a snag, Lupe called a few reporters’ wives and implored them to ask their husbands to use more discretion. At 46, the thought of getting so close to adding to their family, only to see it come undone, terrified Lupe.

Six months later, on Dec. 22, the adoption was finalized in a Lansing courthouse. The family’s second child was given the most Izzo-ian name imaginable. Steven for his dad’s best friend, Steve Mariucci. Thomas, for Tom. Mateen, for his dad’s best player, Mateen Cleaves. Steven Thomas Mateen Izzo. Raquel hit the gavel and everything was perfect. Christmas was coming. Michigan State was off to a 9-0 start and ranked No. 2 in the country. The judge presiding over the ceremony told the Lansing State Journal: “You’re talking about one of our sports icons. He’s a god in this town.”

Twenty-three years later, on a recent afternoon in East Lansing, that same icon sat in his Michigan State office and told a hard truth. Maybe it’s not that easy to be the adopted son of a deity.

“I’ve often thought to myself, man, this kid really hit the lottery of life, you know? The things he’s gotten to do. All his needs taken care of, all that stuff,” Tom Izzo, now 69, says. “But, damn, it hasn’t been easy for him.”

Steven is 5 feet 8, 150 pounds. His size is the first feature attributed to him at all times, in all settings. An easy running joke. Opposing fans love it. Voices on social media love it. Of course they do. He’s small! And made somehow smaller by standing next to Division I basketball players. He’s a foot and a half shorter than 19-year-old freshman teammate Xavier Booker.

It’s always been easy for people to dig in on Steven’s size because his dad is a 5-foot-9 Vesuvius — this angry, fire-breathing, swear-spewing, short man, stomping and flailing along the sideline. If Izzo’s stature is fair game, why not lump in Steven, too, right?

Maybe that was the grade school bullies’ rationale, too. There were a few of them, and they were relentless. Shy and emotional, Steven was an easy mark. Fifth through eighth grade? Really bad. “Felt trapped once those doors closed,” he says now…


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