DETROIT — The noise began in the upper reaches of the stadium, squinting distance from the floor. It started out as a low rumble, like thunder in the distance, and its volume rose as it rolled through the grandstands and toward the players on the floor.
The sound came from the cheap seats, and it came from the club seats, and it came from faraway towns like Traverse City and Muskegon, from Kalamazoo and Battle Creek and all the other places across Michigan. It sounded like relief, and it sounded like appreciation. Most of all, it sounded like gratitude.
And now it was a full-blown roar, and it washed across the kids who are supposed to be too young to know what a game such as this one can mean.
Saturday night, the cheers were for Michigan State.
The victory, on the other hand, was for the state of Michigan.
This was for them all, the unemployed and the disadvantaged, for all of those who are struggling to make it through a tough time in a tough state. This was effort and grit and overcoming the odds.
Never has a bigger crowd watched a Final Four game, and never has a crowd seemed to appreciate it more. There were 72,456 in the stands as Michigan State upset UConn, 82-73, to advance to Monday's national championship game, but if you want to be truthful about it, only about 50,000 or so of them seemed to be Spartan fans.
These days, how can you help it? How can you not feel good about a team willing to offer itself up as a momentary distraction for those who are suffering from a bad economy? How can you not feel good for players who are aware enough to notice the hard times in their own neighborhoods?
For most of a week now, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and his assembly line of overachievers have talked about being a beacon for their state and their fans, a bit of relief for those who are weary from the worrying. For most of a week, the state has responded. You could not be in Ford Field without feeling it.
"I felt it the day we came here," said Izzo. "I felt it at the hotel. I felt it at practice. I felt it with all the people at a pep rally. But my favorite time today was driving to the game. You go by some tough homes, some tough places.
"I always said as a player, you have a chance to be a differencemaker, a role model. You have a chance to do things to make other people smile and other people feel good about you. We are the blue-collar team. This is the blue-collar city."
No, it will not provide jobs, and no, it is not an answer for unpaid bills. But that is not the purpose of games. At its best, sports is a timeout from life, a chance to lose yourself in something because, let's face it, worry won't pay the rent, either.
"I hope we were a ray of sunshine, a distraction, a diversion," Izzo said.
The Spartans were all of that. They were also efficient, rugged and determined. Days after beating Louisville, the top-seeded team in the tournament, they beat UConn, generally regarded as the nation's most talented team.
The Spartans were simply better. UConn coach Jim Calhoun has escaped his doctors and stayed two steps ahead of the NCAA posse so far, but he didn't have an answer for them. Perhaps he should have phoned a friend. Better yet, he should have had one of his assistants text one.
A lot of things have been said about Ford Field over the years, but no one has ever accused it of carrying a homefield advantage. Especially not the Lions. Of course, the Lions aren't this physical, are they? Certainly, they are not this deep.
This was the wonderful Kalin Lucas, controlling the game with the ball in his hands. He scored 21, and he had five assists, but the best thing Lucas does is bring a sense of calm to his team when things seem to be slipping away.
"I know some people who have had hard times, who have been laid off their jobs of whatever," Lucas said. Usually, Lucas lists his hometown as nearby Sterling Heights. Saturday night, he listed it as Detroit.
Durrell Summers, too, feels the economy. His father, Duryea, was laid off at GM two years ago. His mother was laid off at a hospital last year (she now works for the post office).
"We're just trying to be a light for the whole city, the whole state," Summers said.
Said forward Travis Walton: "I think everybody is having hard times. Rich people are losing their money, and poor people aren't getting any money. The one thing we talked about was bringing hope for the city. People can forget about their problems, forgetting about what they are going through."
For one night, it worked. The Spartans gave their fans a chance to forget.
Better yet, they gave them a chance to cheer.