Merriman: Remember Appling's career for all he did right

Upset. Frustrated. Disappointed. Those are some tough words to describe a 22-year-old kid.

That’s exactly what Keith Appling was when he committed to play basketball for Tom Izzo back in August 2008. A tough, gritty kid from inner-city Detroit, Appling came to Michigan State because he wanted to play in a Final Four – an experience that every four-year player under Tom Izzo had experienced until this season.

Appling arrived in East Lansing with monumental expectations. A McDonald’s All-American, the guard gave MSU fans a taste of what was to come in the 2009 Michigan High School Basketball Championship game, where he scored an MHSAA record 49 points in leading Detroit Pershing to a state title at the Breslin Center.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Unfinished business for Michigan State ]

On Sunday, almost exactly four years after Appling led his high school to that memorable state title, he saw his Michigan State career come to a close in the East Region final. His stat line: 2 points, 2 assists, 4 turnovers and 5 fouls. His fifth and final foul came when he got a piece of Connecticut star Shabazz Napier’s arm, down 53-51, with 30 seconds remaining in the game.

Appling buried his head in his hands after the foul was called and ran to the end of the Spartans’ bench. Napier made all three foul shots and No. 7 seed UConn went on to complete a 60-54 upset of the No. 4 seed Spartans to reach the Final Four.

What a tough way to end a career. A playing career that was filled with plenty of highs, but one that ended with the lowest of lows.

Fans took to social media following the game, some in support of Appling, but many taking the opposite route.

Upset. Frustrated. Disappointed.

Those were the most common words used to describe the feeling directed toward the Spartans’ senior guard. And while Appling certainly didn’t play his best game on Sunday afternoon, it’s simply not fair.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

If Appling came to Michigan State and dropped out of school, got in trouble with the law or got kicked off the team, then yes, it would be fair to label him as a disappointment.

But Appling arrived at Michigan State as a fatherless child, losing his father in the ninth grade after he was slain in Detroit’s west side. He has a tattoo that reads “Dad R.I.P” across his left arm in honor of his late father. He was raised by a single mother, Tottie Collins, who would watch her son play basketball at the nearby playground, always keeping an eye on him to make sure he would walk home safely.

Yet despite Appling’s challenging upbringing, he managed to carve out what should be remembered as a memorable four-year career. During his time in East Lansing, the Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title (2012), took home a pair of Big Ten tourney titles (2012 & 2014) and advanced to the Elite Eight (2014) and Sweet 16 (2012 & 2013).

Appling should not be remembered for what he failed to do in his senior season, but instead for all that he did do in his career. On top of the team accolades, he stayed out of trouble, got good grades, was an exceptional teammate, and will become the first member of his family to receive a college degree.

And let’s not forget, he managed to play some outstanding basketball, as well, during his time wearing the Green and White. Maybe not to the level that fans expected, but it’s tough to argue with 1,500-plus career points and nearly 500 career assists.

[ MORE: UConn upsets Michigan State, 60-54, in Elite Eight ]

Appling battled through challenging injuries throughout his senior season, specifically a wrist injury he suffered in a loss to North Carolina on Dec. 4. He aggravated the wrist again against Indiana a month later, which forced him to sit out three games, the first games he missed while at MSU.

Appling would return, but he was never the same player. He averaged 4.9 points the remainder of the season and often shied away from taking shots in which he would routinely take during his first three years. But despite the ailing wrist, the soft-spoken point guard continued to battle. He let it be known time and time again that he wanted to be out there on the court and do whatever he could to help his team make another memorable Final Four run.

“Final Four, that meant a lot to me, to my teammates,” Appling told the media following Sunday’s loss. “For us to come up short and have the opportunity to be so close, it just hurts so bad. Words can’t even describe it.”

Appling came up short of his ultimate goal. His college chapter has come to a close, and this story fell short of a fairytale ending. But don’t fool yourself, this is not the last time we will hear the name Keith Appling.

Good student. Good teammate. Soon to be college graduate. Appling will leave Michigan State as one of the most accomplished players in the Tom Izzo era.

Before you jump to associate those three words with the name Keith Appling, pause and think about it for a moment. Let’s not remember Keith Appling for how he fell, but instead for how he grew as an individual.


Your Opinion?
Show Comments (4 Comments)
douginnc on 3/31/2014 @ 1:53am EDT Said:

This article should be addressed to Jim Jackson of BTN itself, who Sunday evening said on air that it wasn’t a physical problem that hurt Keith Appling, but it was a “mental” issue, and the pain felt by Appling was because “he let his team down.” I’m a “disappointed” Spartans fan but Keith is not a “disappointment,” is not a “mental” case, and should not be unfairly singled out on the Network as the one player on whom this loss should be pinned. I’m glad one writer on showed more grace and compassion for a player who gave everything he had in him.

Willie Erves on 3/31/2014 @ 9:52am EDT Said:

Michigan has a bigger problem? We need a real coach man. That coach did the same thing he did last yr get to a big game and couldnot win? He put in Hartford and there was no reason to . It cost us the lead a ten point lead? It turn into a dunk fest a freshmen came in and went nuts dunking over the top were was the coach and why did he not make adjustments? He is a offense coach and like i said all yr no defense blocking out and rebounding and that is basic basketball skills you learn in high school and i was hurt again because of coaching unlike Mich St.It is time for a change and until Mich get a real coach were going to be going thu this for along time

David Kavanaugh on 3/31/2014 @ 5:14pm EDT Said:

To Mr. Erves, you mean such grammatical foundations that one would expect from a high school graduate? I believe Beilein has and will continue to lead current and future teams to success. I believe you meant to write, does Michigan have a bigger problem? The answer is, the concern should be for whomever reads your post.

annladenberger on 4/2/2014 @ 3:29am EDT Said:

Great article. I was often amazed by Appling’s fearless play as he hurled his body through the bair lke a gymnast in pursuit of the ball and deftly drove around defenders toward the net. He was fun to watch, not just for his skill but also because one could see his self confidence growing. I loved to see him smile at his successes, and I’ve literally been crying a bit at the thought of him beating himself up because he got hurt and his level of play dropped at the worst moment. It’s appalling that people are beating him up. Fot what that young man has gone through despite long odds and for his body of work over 4 years, he deserves only praise, Especially now at this difficult moment! He seems like as kind young man, too, and that is to his credit. Thanks, Keih! Youll be missed. I wish you all the best.