For a city of just over 100,000 souls, Lansing, Michigan, has an outsized basketball tradition. It all starts, of course, with Earvin Johnson, who was nicknamed Magic by a local sportswriter when he was still at Everett High School. Magic won a state championship with Everett, a national championship with Michigan State, and then an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers — all in a four-season span.
A few years after Magic left Michigan State, his old coach, Jud Heathcote, recruited an undersized forward from Washington, D.C., named Carlton Valentine. Heathcote would remember Valentine as “a good enough player” whose teams went 21-38 his junior and senior years. Valentine played five years in Sweden before returning to Michigan to marry a local schoolteacher, raise two sons, and coach high school basketball.
The good-enough player turned out to be great at molding young basketball talent, starting with his sons Drew and Denzel. When they were boys, he pushed them through the “square-up drill”— a pull-up jumper off one dribble — for hours and hours. When they were young men, he coached them at J.W. Sexton High School, where Denzel won two state championships. (One of Denzel’s teammates was Bryn Forbes, who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.)
Drew and Denzel are now both big names in Chicago basketball. Denzel is a role-playing guard for the Bulls. This week, Drew was named head coach at Loyola University — at 29, the youngest coach in NCAA Division I. Growing up in a basketball family from a basketball town helped him get there.
“I think it was just the consistency that he coached with every day — the passion and the fire that he coached with was inspiring for all the players,” Drew said of playing under his father in high school. “We probably spent 30 minutes a day on just jumping to the ball, simple defensive positioning, and the simple fundamentals from a defensive standpoint are things that have still stuck with me to this day, and that’s kind of where I got my passion for that side of the ball.”
Drew played college basketball at Oakland University, a mid-major team in the Horizon League. Denzel was the more talented player, Drew the better leader. After those state titles at Sexton, Denzel was recruited to Michigan State, his father’s alma mater. The two brothers’ skills ended up complementing each other. From 2013 to 2015, Drew served as a graduate assistant under Spartan coach Tom Izzo. Every day, he drilled his brother on basketball fundamentals, just as their father had drilled them as boys.
“I would say we both kind of took off when we were with each other,” Drew said. “He’s always been a really good player, and he really improved himself. Going from his freshman year to his sophomore year at Michigan State, he really took off, and then he made another huge jump going from his sophomore to his junior year, and those were my two years. I think when he kind of made the biggest jump was when I was around him, and it also benefited me because I had somebody that trusted me and knew that I had his best interests. I think one thing we really worked on was his shooting. He wasn’t a great shooter originally. We really worked on his off-the-dribble 3s. That’s a shot that he’s really gotten good at. That’s kind of where the game has went, and I think he kind of got ahead of it.”
In 2015, Michigan State went to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. In 2016, Denzel was a lottery pick for the Bulls. Developing Denzel into an elite player made Drew believe he had a future in coaching.
“It just gave me a ton of confidence that I could do it, that I was good enough, and I could coach high level players,” Drew said.
For ambitious young Lansingites, moving to Chicago is a rite of passage. (Eight North Side bars cater to Michigan State graduates.) Denzel beat Drew here by a year. Drew spent two years as an assistant coach at Oakland University before outgoing Loyola coach Porter Moser hired him in 2017, eventually naming him de facto defensive coordinator. The fact that Denzel was playing for the Bulls helped sell Drew on Chicago.
“It wasn’t the main reason, but it was like a consolation prize,” Drew said. “I wouldn’t have come to Chicago if Coach Moser didn’t have such a great vision for the program, but the fact that my brother was here was an added bonus. The fact that we’re doing what we’re doing what we’re doing under the age of 30 in the same city with one another, the fact that it’s one of the biggest cities in the country, it means a lot. We’re super happy for each other, we’re super proud of each other.”
Drew’s parents have moved to Florida, so he only goes back to Lansing a few times a year. Chicago is home now. He and his wife, Taylor, live in Roscoe Village and are expecting their first child in July. He wouldn’t have made it to a big-time program in a big city, though, without the lessons he learned in a small town that has given the world so much great basketball.