Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo breezed into the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, thanks to 19 straight NCAA tournament appearances, 12 Big Ten titles -- regular season and tournament -- seven Final Fours and a national title in 2000. He's also done it the right way, without a whiff of scandal, while graduating just about every player who hasn't jumped to the NBA.
You've probably heard a lot of stories about Izzo this week. But here's one you haven't heard before, about his No. 1 fan.
After Tom Izzo graduated from Northern Michigan in 1977, he became the head coach of the Ishpeming High School Hematites, named for one of the minerals they mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. One afternoon, when the Hematites were on a school bus rolling out of town on Third Street to play their archrivals, the Negaunee Miners -- named for the iron ore they've been excavating since the Civil War -- Izzo's players suddenly started yelling, "Coach! Coach! You gotta stop the bus! It's Suds!"
Izzo replied, "What the hell is a 'suds'?!"
Suds is what they called David Solberg, who was born on April 8, 1957, the second of four children. Before he turned 4 he had already been fitted for glasses and orthopedic shoes, had several surgeries to improve his hearing and started speech therapy.
He was physically uncoordinated and socially awkward. They didn't diagnose him with anything back then, but in hindsight, his sister Debbie says he was probably mildly autistic. Predictably, the kids at school picked on him, and he had to repeat the second grade. But he was good at math and reading, and he could pull up seemingly random facts, names and numbers in an instant -- especially if they involved sports.
When Suds got to Ishpeming High School, he started keeping score for the JV basketball team. His sister's friends on the football team took him under his wing, and he graduated with the class of 1976, at age 19.
Suds never got his driver's license, so he hitchhiked every day. "Probably half the UP gave my brother a ride," Debbie says.
And that's what Suds was doing when Tom Izzo's team bus drove by: Standing by the side of the road, sticking his thumb out, hoping for a ride. When Izzo told the bus driver to stop, his players cheered. Suds ran up to the bus, hopped on and introduced himself to the young coach. Izzo liked him immediately. When Izzo started noticing Suds at all the Ishpeming games, he asked him to become the team's scorekeeper.
The next year, Izzo became Northern Michigan's assistant coach, and Suds joined Debbie in East Lansing, where she'd just graduated from Michigan State's nursing program. Suds went to a vocational school in town, then worked at a bowling alley for a few years, then Tripper's sports bar and finally the local Meijer store, which is Michigan's answer to Walmart. Suds's official title was bagger and greeter, but unofficially, he was the Mayor of Meijer. Everyone seemed to know him, and every waitress in town loved him.
When Michigan State's legendary Jud Heathcote hired Izzo as an assistant in 1983, Izzo didn't know many people downstate. So, he often called Debbie with tickets for her and Suds, who always wanted to go, even if she couldn't. Whenever Suds came by the office, Izzo and his staffers would give him another Spartan jacket, T-shirts or hats, which were gold to Suds. He never wore anything else, unless his beloved Packers were playing that day.
Suds called his friends often, including Izzo, but he never talked long. A typical call went like this, "How ya doing? Watcha doing? Well, gotta go!" When the Spartans played badly, Suds wouldn't sugar coat it. "Oh my God, Iz, they played like crap!"
"Too often," Izzo says, "Suds was right."
Suds wasn't just a fan looking to curry favor. He was a real friend, who would tell Izzo the truth, which is what friends in the UP do. Izzo returned the respect.
When Izzo became Michigan State's head coach in 1995, he told Suds, "'Hey, I'm going to be a lot busier now, so you can't be calling all the time,'" Izzo recalls. "But it never stopped him!"
When Izzo would come home after a long day, his daughter Raquel often said, "Suds called."
"Well, what'd he say?"
"Nothing. He just hung up."
"Well, if he just hung up, how do you know it was Suds?"
"We know," she'd say. And they did.
A year ago, Suds's liver enzyme deficiency finally caught up with him and sent him to the hospital. It was March Madness, but Izzo found a few minutes to visit Suds. For each tournament game, Debbie brought her brother a different Spartan shirt and hat to wear while he watched his favorite team from his hospital bed.
When the Spartans got to the Final Four, Izzo called Debbie with tickets for her and Suds. Suds was thrilled, but the doctors decided they needed to keep him over the weekend. Suds still proudly posted on Facebook that he had two tickets to the Final Four, but he didn't mention who gave them to him.
In June, Suds returned to the hospital. He showed signs of recovering enough for a liver transplant, but a few weeks later, things took a turn for the worst. Debbie brought Suds his favorite sweatsuit, an older one with Izzo's name on the back that the coach had given to him. And it was in that sweatsuit that Suds passed away in August.
They held Suds's funeral last fall in Michigan State's Alumni Chapel. Coach Izzo gave the eulogy.
"I like to say, great players play great," Izzo told the crowd, "but elite players make every one around them better. And that is what Suds did: He made everyone around him better.
"I get stuff in the mail all the time from people saying they're my No. 1 fan. But I had only one No. 1 fan, and it was Suds."
Tom Izzo's No. 1 fan would have turned 59 years old today.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.