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Kyle Ahrens - Toughness personified

Redshirt junior has carved out an important role for MSU

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Iowa
Kyle Ahrens during MSU’s road win against Iowa.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Versailles, a small town in rural Western Ohio, was originally called Jacksonville but thanks to most of its early population being of French descent it got renamed shortly after being founded. So today this little village in the middle of the American nowhere shares a name with the elegant city west of Paris, world famous for its strikingly beautiful palace complex that was once the residence of French kings for over a hundred years. The Buckeye State version of Versailles though couldn‘t be further away from the shining and splendid old world grandeur that defined life in the Royal Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors or the endless gardens at the “Chateau“. Versailles in Ohio is known for other things and Kyle Ahrens, junior forward for the Michigan State Spartans, can tell you all about it.

“Everyone in my town was a farmer and it wasn‘t unusual for people to be up at 4 am milking,“ Ahrens remembers, who along with his five siblings grew up in Versailles. “It was just nonstop working, working, working. When I played sports with my friends we always went at it accordingly and that mentality was built into me from an early age.“ It was of no surprise that this kind of mindset once endeared him to a certain Hall Of Fame coach – Tom Izzo – and now in his junior season has earned him an important rotation spot on Michigan State‘s team. The road to regular playing time was a very long one though for Kyle Ahrens – and often extremely painful.

A true love for the game

Everything began way back during his childhood days, in his family‘s laundry room of all places. “We had this little toy hoop in there and Kyle spent hours of shooting on it before he could even walk,“ his mother Susan says with vivid recollections of Ahrens‘ basketball beginnings. “He was obsessed with the ball going through the hoop and from that point on always loved to play the game.“ His passion for it continued when he actually was able to stand on two legs and went to school. “I played a little football but my first love was always basketball,“ Ahrens says, who followed his passion and went on to star for his local high school team, the Versailles Tigers.

It didn‘t take him long to make a name for himself beyond the farmhouses of his 2500 soul community. During his sophomore year, a season in which Versailles reached the final of the DIII state championship, he was one of the best players on the team and gained national attention on top of it. During the state semifinal he rose over his retreating defender and finished with a spectacular, rim rattling facial dunk. It earned him the number three spot on the SportsCenter Top 10, ESPN‘s list of nightly highlight clips. Even though Versailles and Ahrens couldn‘t quite crown their run with a title, the future looked bright for the Tigers and their rising young star. That was until one fateful day in the winter of 2013.

The shock in December 2013

“It was December 27th, I know the date exactly,“ Ahrens remembers vividly and with a serious look on his face. “We were running a break and I was going up for an alley oop.“ It was the sixth game of Ahrens‘ junior year when he rose for the ball and moments later came down awkwardly. What followed was an instant shock for Kyle who immediately felt “two snaps in my leg.“ The packed gym fell silent as Ahrens grabbed at his calf. In the middle of that devastated crowd sat Kyle‘s parents – Susan and Kevin. “It was an awful feeling to see it and when he smashed the wall behind the basket we knew something was seriously wrong,“ his mother explains. “Kyle always had a high pain tolerance, he quarterbacked in a football game with a broken finger, he once broke his hand dunking in 8th grade, yet he never really acknowlegded pain to be honest. So we knew him going down was serious.“

Ahrens had broken both his fibula and tibia in his left leg. As he rode in the back of the ambulance on his way to the hospital Ahrens fought tears in his eyes and feared the injury might be the end of his college basketball dreams. “I wondered if anybody even wanted me anymore now that I was injured,“ Ahrens says, who had garnered considerable interest from numerous Division I basketball programs. Some teams, just as he worried, lost interest after his devastating incident and the following surgery, among them the Ohio State Buckeyes. One school that didn‘t pull its offer was Michigan State and so Ahrens went up to East Lansing for an official visit during his recovery process. It didn‘t take him long to commit.

“Once he stepped into one of Coach Izzo‘s practices it was done,“ his father Kevin recalls, who used to coach Kyle as an assistant coach at Versailles. “He knew that this was the way he wanted to practice and how he wanted to play. It was a perfect fit for him.“ Walking next to their son on the MSU campus his parents could easily sense that he felt a special bond, that he felt at home. He committed on the spot, forcing Tom Izzo to leap out of his seat. “It was an easy choice“ according to Kyle himself, who back then also listed Dayton and Xavier as his finalists. In the following weeks and months he worked extremely hard to get fully healthy, often times setting foot in the gym at six in the morning or late at night. He returned to the court his senior year and with averages of 30 points and 8.3 rebounds per game proved that he was ready to take the next step, even though he missed additional time after his graduation with stress reactions.

Redshirt? No thanks!

When he arrived on the Michigan State campus, his new coach though felt that because of his injuries it might be a bit early for Ahrens to contribute full time. Tom Izzo thought a redshirt might do the freshman good as he couldn‘t expect much playing time in a crowded wing rotation and still feeling some effects from sitting out for so long. But Ahrens wouldn‘t have any of it. “We talked about it, talked about it with his parents,“ the Hall Of Famer explains about that summer of 2015. “I kind of was an advocate of redshirting when a kid wasn‘t gonna play much, but I forgot he had missed a year and a half of basketball when he was a junior in high school, when he broke that leg.“ As tough as Ahrens was, he wasn‘t sure if he could get through more time away from the game that he loved. “He looked at me and said ‘Coach, I don‘t know if mentally I can sit out again‘,“ Izzo remembers of the conversation. “He said he didn‘t care how many minutes he would get, he just wanted to play. And I could understand.“

So Ahrens didn‘t redshirt as a freshman and played sparingly (3.4 minutes per game) during the 2015-2016 season. But he played and that was all that mattered. As a sophomore his minutes increased slightly and he got his first career starts when freshman phenom Miles Bridges missed the entire December with an ankle injury. Ahrens, affectionately known as “Arnie“ among his teammates, even had to fill in numerous times at the power forward spot for a team that was devoid of size following season ending injuries to center Gavin Schilling and transfer Ben Carter. But again, he did not complain as he was finally living the dream of playing big time college basketball. Going into his junior year though the former three star recruit was keen on making a bigger impact on a team with national title aspirations.

That summer in 2017 the injury bug bit him again though. He injured his right foot during a summer league game and was supposed to miss a little more than a month with a stress reaction. The season opener didn‘t seem in jeopardy though… not yet. “Then in my first practice back I was stopping at the sideline and I heard something pop in my foot,“ Ahrens says. “I knew it right away – another broken bone. I got really emotional.“ Not only Ahrens was struck by the devastating injury, his teammates felt just as subdued. Tom Izzo recalls the moments after the injury: “When he got hurt there was a cloud over practice because all of his teammates have the utmost respect for Kyle and for how hard he worked to get back on the court.“

Another injury and another year off

This time Ahrens not only had to opt for another surgery but also for the dreaded redshirt year. Once again the 6-6 forward decided though all he could do was make the most of it. He worked tirelessly on his game and his body plus found inspiration in his faith and from talking to David Thomas, a member of MSU‘s 2000 National Championship squad and today the Director of Basketball Operation at the university. “He said he also redshirted his junior year and that he found a lot of benefit in it,“ Ahrens says of his conversations with the former pro. But even with a lot of support and a strong work ethic, there were major doubts if Kyle Ahrens could ever develop into a regular contributor before his time in East Lansing would come to a close. So many stories like his ended up as tales of sad “what ifs“ with people wondering what could have been if not for the injuries.

But Kyle Ahrens was hell bent on not letting that happen. He entered his redshirt junior year trying to show consistently what he over the years already showed in flashes – his athletisism, his shooting ability and of course his natural toughness. His coach commented before the beginning of the season: “He hasn‘t played in a year and a half but I do expect that he‘s gonna help us a lot. I don‘t expect miracles though.“ Neither did many Spartans fans. Yet what Kyle Ahrens went on to do in the upcoming weeks and months not only earned him regular rotation time, it became of tremendous value to his team and can easily be considered a small miracle.

Ahrens, who off the court is an Academic All Big Ten selection and is about to start his masters this spring, averages 19.8 minutes per game for the Spartans and is scoring a career high of 6.1 points per contest. Far from gaudy numbers but considering where Ahrens came from all the more impressive. Along the way he also managed to create some lasting memories. Like when he stepped into the starting lineup for the injured Matt McQuaid in an overtime loss at Louisville and notched a career high with 15 points. Or when he faced his younger brother Justin, who is a freshman at Ohio State, in the Big Ten regular season. His biggest moment to date came in December when he won MSU‘s game at Florida with a two handed dunk just 9.4 seconds before the final whistle. He had already dazzled the green and white faithful with a long three and a reverse layup minutes earlier. There were quite a few people who deemed the non conference win “the Kyle Ahrens game“.

Finally showing his true talent

For Kyle Ahrens it was a day when he finally came full circle. “That dunk I had, that‘s my high school days,“ the emotional wing said in the postgame locker room. “Just raising up like that. My body feels way better than my early years here, my joints, everything. I finally felt a hundred percent healthy and being back is the happiest feeling in the world.“ If Ahrens looked like the happiest person on earth in that moment, his coaches and teammates came in a close second. “This is the Kyle Ahrens you couldn‘t see because he was always injured,“ assistant coach Mike Garland said. “People often don‘t realize we recruited this dude – like he dunked over them guys, that‘s who he was. That‘s exactly why we brought him in.“ Captain Josh Langford shared Garland‘s excitement: “You are especially happy for a guy like Kyle because he had a lot of injuries in his career and now is really helping. Everyone will be able to see the kind of player he is now.“

That player combines his strong athletisism with good size and a very reliable outside jumper. But just like many of his teammates he also has made an effort to attack the basket with more regularity and of course defend like his life would depend on it. “He can stretch the floor from three positions and that is very big for us“, junior center Nick Ward knows about his teammate‘s value to the entire group. Where it all starts and ends of course with Kyle Ahrens is something that got him through all the dark days being injured and watching from the sidelines – his toughness. “The reason we recruited him is the same reason he is having success this year – he is very tough minded, hard working, extremely loyal and maybe most important just a tough as nails competitor,“ Tom Izzo says with full admiration for a player who embodies what he looks for on the court. “I think he has a bright future ahead of him.“

What it will bring – for Kyle Ahrens and this year‘s Michigan State team – nobody knows. Especially after he recently injured his back and once again had to miss additional time. His availability is unclear after another setback in the recent road win at Iowa. As far as Kyle Ahrens is concerned he knows better than anyone that you can only live in the moment anways: “You know you take a lot of things for granted in life and I get really emotional about that. Now I just want to do whatever I can and I want to give my all for this team.“

You have to hope that he is capable of doing just that very soon again. Just like he learned at an early age during his childhood days in Versailles, Ohio.