Middle Man

He was once a two-sport, star athlete at Lansing Sexton High School.

Drew Valentine set school records, garnered all-state acclaim and received top-notch offers from the most storied programs across the country (Florida State and Michigan State to name a few).

But little did Drew imagine that injuries would put him on the hardcourt sideline with his brother, Denzel, five years later.

“It’s been kind of tough at times,” he said, “But I think it’s just been tougher because I’m here versus elsewhere.”

For Drew, elsewhere had limitless possibilities, because a 6-foot-5, 200-pound quarterback was a rare specimen. College coaches in both football and basketball tugged Valentine to compete at the next level after high school, but his football injury in his senior year steered his athletic career in a new direction.

“My first football game of my senior year, I tore my ACL. It kind of started my whole injury thing,” stated Valentine. “All the schools went away for football and basketball, and then Oakland and Central Michigan were the only two that kept their offer on the table for basketball. Oakland was just the place for me.”

It was one of his favorite schools from the start. He developed a close relationship with head assistant Saddi Washington, who went to Sexton in the 1990s and whose father played at Michigan State.

But at Oakland, the injury bug never left.

Between the amount of injuries in his hand, pinky fingers and both knees, his injury list was as long as a college basketball roster.

Drew still played throughout his senior year and earned All-Summit League honorable mention at the end of it. He also currently holds the record for the most steals in a game on Oakland’s home court, with eight.

He had offers to play overseas post-college, but he knew his future as an athlete was limited because of his long-lasting injuries. He was right back in the middle.

“I knew my time was coming to an end. I knew I wanted to stay involved in the game,” Valentine said.

And that was when little brother Denzel stepped in.

Under coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Denzel came straight from Sexton to the Michigan State basketball hardwood and played right away as a freshman. He mentioned to Izzo that his brother Drew had an interest in coaching, and Izzo followed up to offer Drew a graduate assistant position for the 2013-14 season.

Drew accepted in July. The transition from player to coach was tough at first because many of the guys he grew up playing basketball with were now his players. One specifically was Michigan State point guard Keith Appling, who he played AAU basketball with.

“I’m used to hanging out with those guys. Kind of having to pull back on that a little bit,” explained Drew. “And not being able to control things, the way that I see with my play, is kind of tough. All you have is your eyes and you have to trust that the players up there know what you’re talking about.”

But at the same time, he knows that they accept him.

“They kind of got a little bit more respect than they would from a normal guy coming from a mid-major to here,” Drew said. “It’s a plus because I’ve spent time with them off the court. And they kind of trust me as a person, which I think is key.”

Yet, on the sideline, his most interactive role is with his brother, Denzel. Coach Izzo wanted Drew to talk to Denzel at many times throughout the season because of the relationship built as a family. Drew knows his brother is very coachable and responds to him differently.

“If coach is yelling at him, I might pull him aside and explain to him what coach is saying in a more calm voice. I think it kind of helps,” Valentine explained. “I try to tell him that I understand what he’s saying and I understand why you’re frustrated, but this is what coach wants to do. I’ve kind of try to play the middleman between it so that both can get a happy medium.”

According to Drew, it worked, because coach Izzo did not yell at Denzel as much towards the later half of the season. The only times were during the NCAA tournament, when he took some quick three-pointers in transition. He feels that he has taken a big role in helping his little brother.

“It’s awesome for me seeing him grow and helping. Some of the things in pregames, I’ll get emotional before the game sometimes just because I look up in the ground or look up at the banners, and we’ll just be like…‘Man we used to come here and watch the games all the time when we were little’…and now you’re out here playing it.”

In the middle of it, he is more focused than ever as a coach. Through the emotions on the court with his brother, it was back to his roots with coach Saddi Washington at Oakland that make him better as an assistant at Michigan State.

“Before I actually committed to Oakland, (Washington) came to my surgery and I woke up and he was the first person I saw when I woke up from my surgery,” Drew said. “So if you see somebody going out of your way for you on a personal level, like I said. Moving forward, I want to know my players as a coach. If somebody is taking that time in recruiting to do that, it’s just crazy.”

During the year, Drew works from about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. including class, and sometimes it can be longer. He works toward the goal of taking a Division-I coaching job after he completes his program as a graduate assistant.

Perhaps down the road, he will be in in the middle once again with his brother, but on a different hardwood and setting.

Alex Scharg is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.

Andrew Hayes is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.

Photo: David Defever/Impact Sports