Like Spike: The unlikely marriage of Spike Albrecht and Michigan
Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein wasn’t always so sure about Spike Albrecht.
Beilein says that when he offered the 5-foot-11 guard a scholarship, he knew it would either be one of his best decisions as Michigan’s coach, or one of his last.
After Albrecht played in an open gym on campus during his recruiting trip, Beilein invited him and his parents over to his house for dinner. Following the meal, Beilein took them into his home office.
“I was kind of intimidated, like, ‘Oh shit,’ ” Albrecht recalled thinking. “He was sitting there talking, then he paused. I could tell he was thinking, about ready to make a big decision. He’s like, ‘You’re either going to get me fired or make me look like a genius.’ And then he goes, ‘How would you like to come play basketball at Michigan?’ ”
Spike accepted on the spot.
Beilein did what no one else was willing to — take a shot on the little guy. Spike didn’t look like a Division I athlete, much less a basketball player. He had only one other offer to play, and an Ivy League opportunity that fell through when he failed to bump his ACT score up a point.
It was one point he’s glad he never got.
Spike’s first neighbors adored him.
When he was just 3 years old, the neighbors would bring company over and ask Albrecht’s dad to pitch to him. The neighbors wanted to show their guests how far Spike could hit a baseball — over the roof sometimes — even at just 3.
Then his family moved, not too far away, to a different house in Crown Point, Ind. The new neighbors weren’t as excited about having a rambunctious little Albrecht running around.
“I was the youngest brother, so I always wanted to be causing havoc, trying to get away with things,” Spike said. “There are a lot of good stories.”
Like the time he upset his “crazy neighbor” Betty when he hit a ball onto her roof, and she stormed over to tell his father.
Or the time the 10-year-old and his friends stole a page from Billy Madison and put a bag of dog poop on a neighbor’s porch, rang the doorbell and ran.
“We didn’t actually light it on fire,” he said. “We picked it up with a shovel, put it in a bag.”
There was the day he stole $140 from his parents’ cupboard in grade school and announced to the whole class that he was buying ice cream for them at lunch.
Or the time he hit golf balls across a busy street as a kid.
“He just didn’t care,” said Stephen Albrecht, one of Spike’s older brothers, about Spike growing up. “Looking back on it at the time, there might (have been) something wrong with this kid.”
Spike was born in Crown Point, a small suburb 50 miles south of Chicago. He was the third of four children born to Chuck and Tammy Albrecht. There was Chachi, six years older; Stephen, three years Spike’s senior; and then Spike, followed by the lone girl, Hannah.
As a youngster, if Chachi and Stephen did it, Spike wanted to, too. Stephen and his friends used to egg Spike on to curse. They thought it was funny to hear a four-letter word fly out of the mouth of a 4-year-old, and Spike would oblige.
On the court, too, Spike wanted to be with his brothers. When Chuck coached Chachi’s 9-year-old team, Spike, just 3 at the time, would tag along.
When those closest to him are asked when they first knew he had a knack for the game, they all tell the same story.
It was in a youth-league game when he was in first grade and Stephen was in fourth grade. Stephen’s team was playing a team from Chesterton, Ind., that former Michigan guard and Albrecht family friend Zack Novak played on.
Leading big late, Stephen’s team put Spike in at the end of the game. He got the ball, crossed over his defender and scored.
“We give him crap to this day,” Novak said of Spike’s defender.
With two brothers showing him the ropes, Spike caught on quickly.
He could swat a baseball, launch a football and pass a basketball like nobody’s business at a young age. He picked up everything easily. He never learned to ride a bike; he just got on it one day and was gone.
“I was looking for the training wheels,” Chuck recalled. “And my dad was here, and he goes, ‘What are you doing?’ And I go, ‘I’m looking for those training wheels.’ He goes, ‘Spike’s already riding the bike.’ Just gone. He was down the street.”
Playing against older competition his whole life set Albrecht up well. He turned heads on the hardwood and wowed spectators on the diamond. Spike, whose given name is Michael, got his nickname because he never took his baseball cleats off when he was younger — even when he went to church. But before high school, he decided to hang up his cleats for good. Baseball was too slow and bored him. He opted to exclusively pursue basketball and had his sight set on playing Division-I basketball at Notre Dame.
Spike made the varsity team at Crown Point High School his sophomore year and shined. In his sophomore season, they played Chesterton, which at the time had future Michigan teammate Mitch McGary. Purdue coach Matt Painter was in the stands to watch McGary, but Albrecht stole the show. Late in the game, after McGary was blocked, Spike took the ball the other way and finished with an and-1 play to help Crown Point win by four. He ended the game with 14 points and nine assists.
In retrospect, Painter said, not looking more closely at Albrecht was a mistake. In fact, Painter said he recruited his current point guard, 5-foot-10 sophomore P.J. Thompson, with Spike in mind.
Painter wasn’t alone in passing on Spike.
During his senior season, 16 Division-I coaches came to watch a game against Merrillville, interested only in Merrillville players — none came to watch Spike. Albrecht scored a game-high 30 points and dished out five assists in a losing effort.
After the game, Crown Point’s athletic director told Chuck they’d be getting a lot of calls from coaches that were there.
Nobody called. Spike ended the season with conference MVP honors, 21 points per game and zero offers to play college basketball.
As his senior season came to an end, Albrecht was unsure about his future.
Notre Dame never bothered checking Spike out. He considered playing at Brown University, where Stephen played, but his ACT score was one point short of the school’s required mark. The coaches at Brown recommended he take a prep year at Northfield Mount Hermon (Mass.). There, he could play against some of the top high school talent in the country and work to get his test scores up. So he signed on with coach John Carroll and enrolled in NMH for a post-graduate year.
Over the summer, Wayne Brumm reached out to Spike. Brumm coached the SYF Players, one of the top AAU teams in the Midwest. He had coached both of Spike’s brothers, and with Spike opting for a prep year, he was eligible to play over the summer.
Brumm has an eye for talent. He also coached former Michigan players Glenn Robinson III, Max Bielfeldt and McGary, but even he admits that the first time he saw Spike play — in middle school — he wasn’t sure what to make of him.
“I was more amused than anything because he was really tiny, but he had game. He caught my eye, but I just — it was one of those reactions where you just sort of chuckle,” Brumm recalled.
At the Pittsburgh Jam Fest tournament, Brumm remembers one play perfectly. Spike dished a left-handed, half-court bounce pass to a teammate by the basket who finished with a layup. A friend of Brumm’s who is now a scout for the San Antonio Spurs came up to him at the end of the game and asked, “Who’s that kid? That kid’s got game.”
Spike played in just three tournaments with Brumm’s team before breaking his foot, but he left an impression on the longtime coach.
Spike left for NMH with the broken foot, leaving him unable to play during the fall period. In the fall, before the college season begins, college coaches have the opportunity to check out players in person. Dozens of coaches would come to open gyms at NMH, and all Spike could do was watch.
“I was just pissed,” he recalled. “I’m a thousand miles from home — I came there to play basketball, wanted to get a scholarship. I remember I was just getting so fed up.”
As fall turned to winter, though, Albrecht recovered, and was healthy in time for the start of the season. Just like his time at Crown Point, he turned heads. He was averaging nearly 10 points and seven assists per game against some of the best talent in the country, but it still wasn’t good enough for schools to take a chance on him, and Albrecht had to reconsider his options for the following year.
Playing with Stephen at Brown was out of the picture. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t manage the ACT score.
So, midway through the year at NMH, father and son had a candid conversation.
“I’m like, ‘I don't want to play Division II or Division III basketball’ — nothing against it — that’s just not what I worked for,” Albrecht recalled. “So I remember thinking, ‘Shit, I guess I’m just going to go to IU for school.’ ”
That was the plan. He’d give up basketball, go to Indiana, study business and be a “rec-league superstar.”
Then a phone call came.
“All of a sudden my prep school coach comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey I got an interesting call today,’ ” Spike remembered.
It was Michigan.
“I was like, ‘The University of Michigan?’ I was in complete shock and I honestly thought — I thought he was messing with me.”
Back home, Brumm had been pounding the phones on Spike’s behalf, reaching out to college coaches. Brumm and Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer are longtime friends, and when Meyer mentioned Michigan needed a point guard because then-freshman guard Trey Burke might take off for the NBA, Brumm didn’t hesitate to recommend Spike.
“I felt Spike could play anywhere all along,” Brumm said. “But convincing (college coaches) is a different story.”
Luckily for Spike, Meyer trusted Brumm’s word and came out to watch him play.
In a game against Hargrave Military Academy, with Meyer in the crowd, Spike put up nine points and tallied 14 assists. He was worried it wasn’t enough to impress the coach.
After the game, Spike remembers thinking, “Damn, did I just miss my chance with Michigan?”
The next day, Beilein called. He’d had his eye on Spike from a distance and loved what he saw.
Beilein was impressed with his play, so much so that he personally cut film of Spike — some 300 clips, he says — the most he has ever scrutinized a recruit on video. Perhaps, in Spike, Beilein saw himself: an undersized, under-recruited guard with good handles. Beilein played at Wheeling College — a small Division-II school — and spent most of his time there on the bench.
Despite Meyer’s report, Beilein still wasn’t sure. Back on campus one day in the spring of 2012, Beilein called then-Michigan junior Josh Bartelstein into his office and showed him film of Spike.
“ ‘I want you to watch film with me for five minutes and tell me if I’m crazy or if this kid’s actually good,’ ” Bartelstein remembered Beilein telling him. “ ‘He’s got no other offers. People aren’t gonna offer him. People are gonna think I’m nuts, but I’m telling you, I see something in him.’ ”
Bartelstein watched with Beilein, and could tell his coach was high on the little guy.
Beilein wanted to see for himself. He met Spike in Crown Point for an in-home visit. He pulled onto the sloped driveway, and Albrecht was standing at the bottom.
“His coach told me he’s not going to pass the eye test,” Beilein recalled. “I was standing above him, and he was below me, and I’m looking, towering over him, and I’m saying to myself, ‘No kidding, he’s not passing this first eye test at all.’ ”
The coach and player met and talked about the potential opportunity of playing at Michigan. Beilein still hadn’t seen him play in person, though, so he later traveled to NMH to watch him play in an open gym.
Beilein, along with other college coaches, including some from Appalachian State, which had recently extended an offer to Spike, watched him play pick-up in an open gym. Spike played seven games and never lost.
Looking back on it, that was hardly coincidence.
“We kind of set the teams up in my favor,” Albrecht said.
Regardless, Beilein was sold. He decided right then that he was going to offer Spike a scholarship, though he didn’t tell him that at the time.
One week later, Spike was set to visit campus. At the airport, when he told a TSA agent why he was going to Michigan, the airport employee didn’t believe him.
“He’s like ‘Michigan? Get the hell out of here,’ ” Albrecht said. “And he screams over to his friend Big Mike, ‘Yo, Big Mike. This little white boy says he’s going to Michigan.’ ”
Doubters aplenty, Spike took off for Ann Arbor.
On his campus visit, Spike wanted to make a good impression, and Beilein was looking out for him.
The story goes that Spike, Beilein, then-sophomore forward Jon Horford and some of the assistant coaches were out to lunch at The Chop House. After eating, the coaches insisted Spike get dessert. He didn't want to, but they said they needed to beef him up.
“He tried to order tiramisu and he asked what was in it,” Horford said. “I told him there was a little alcohol in it, and Coach Beilein freaked out like, ‘No, no, no you can’t have anything with alcohol in it. That’s not responsible of me.’ He made a big deal of it.”
Later that day, Beilein had others keep an eye on Spike for him — this time in a players-only open gym. Due to NCAA rules, coaches cannot watch open gyms that are not mandated tryouts.
Spike held his own, and after the practice, Beilein asked some of the players what they thought: Was Spike walk-on talent or a scholarship player?
“Everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a great kid; he’s really nice; he’s a pretty good basketball player,’ ” Horford said. “But literally, I was the only one who said that I thought he should be on a scholarship, and I didn’t know that until (Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander) told me later. He’s like, ‘You know, you were the only one.’ ”
Bartelstein and former Michigan player Matt Vogrich claim that they, too, recommended Spike for scholarship, perhaps less vocally. The exact number is unclear, but what is clear is that not all of his future teammates thought he had the makings of a scholarship player at the time.
The next day, Beilein made his decision final. He would offer Spike a scholarship. And so the unlikely marriage between Michigan and Albrecht began.
Twelve minutes, 17 points and one tweet. That’s what it took for Spike to go from unrecognized to can’t-be-missed.
Spike flew under the radar for most of his freshman year. During one game at Ohio State, he was late coming off the bus. When he tried to catch up with his teammates, a security guard stopped him and told him, “Players only.”
He played in garbage time and whenever Burke needed a breather.
He knew his role. Beilein had made it clear: He’d back up Burke, and the following year, when another guard named Derrick Walton Jr. arrived, Spike would likely back him up, too. That was OK with Spike. He remembered what his dad used to tell him: “Not everyone can be a superstar, but everyone can be a superstar in their own role.”
But on that Monday night in Atlanta, on the biggest stage, in the 2013 National Championship Game against Louisville, Spike was the superstar.
Burke committed two fouls early in the first half. Beilein took him out, and Spike went in. He knocked down his first five field-goal attempts, pushing Michigan out to a 12-point lead. The magic ended, though, as Michigan’s lead, and championship hopes, slipped away. But nobody forgot the night Spike had.
His performance shocked everyone except those who knew him.
“When that all happened, I was like, ‘This is what he did in high school,’ ” former Crown Point teammate and best friend Evan Langbehn recalled thinking. “I wouldn’t say I was shocked. … You always knew that he thrived in the big moment.”
His former coach at Crown Point, Clint Swan was at the game and couldn’t hold in his emotion.
“For him to overcome so many doubters and not just get a Division I scholarship, but to get a Big Ten scholarship, and not just to get a Big Ten scholarship but to contribute his freshman year, and not just to contribute but to make the All-Final Four team. It was almost more than I could overcome.”
The day after the loss, Spike and some teammates were talking. One of them — Spike forgets who, but denies it was him — threw out the idea that he tweet at supermodel Kate Upton, who was at the game the night before.
Spike didn’t love the idea.
“I don't want the coaches to be pissed at me or people to think that I don't care that we just lost the national championship,” Spike remembered thinking. “Because obviously I would have traded all that in to have not played and won the national championship, that’s what mattered to me.”
He checked with Bartelstein, and the captain gave him the OK. He pressed send and within minutes his phone was exploding.
@KateUpton hey saw you at the game last night, thanks for coming out! Hope to see you again ;-)
“I remember frickin three days straight my phone was just non-stop,” Albrecht said. “I remember after the first couple of minutes, me and (former Michigan player) Nik (Stauskas) were sitting in a room and we were laughing. Stausky, he was going nuts and I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t think I should’ve done it. This has gotten to be real bad.’ It was just getting stupid.”
Bartelstein saw Spike’s status — not his ego — blow up. On campus, he was an overnight celebrity. The departing senior didn't want that one game to be Spike’s only legacy.
“Don't let that half define the rest of your career,” Bartelstein told Spike afterward. “Don’t let that be the end of it.”
Spike listened. His sophomore year, he helped Michigan to its first outright Big Ten title in 28 years. The year after, he was named a co-captain and played major minutes with two bad hips when other teammates suffered season-ending injuries. This year, he is on track to become one of the winningest players in program history. Not bad for a guy pegged as a career backup.
It’s the Friday night before the Michigan football team’s game against Brigham Young and Spike Albrecht — like dozens of other Michigan seniors — is in a corner by the bar at Rick’s American Café.
On the opposite side of the basement bar, former Yankees captain Derek Jeter is sitting at a booth with some friends. Jeter sits in a roped-off area, and dozens of Snapchatting students hover around to get a shot of the Yankees legend at their favorite campus hangout.
Back on the other side, Albrecht and Caris LeVert — Michigan’s co-captains — pose for a picture with two giddy girls.
Spike and some other teammates eventually sneak their way over toward Jeter, and the future Hall-of-Famer calls him over. Michigan’s co-captain and Captain Clutch meet and pose for a quick picture with some others.
Just a couple of captains hanging out.
“Stunningly, he knew who we were, so that was probably the highlight of my weekend,” Albrecht said.
Asked if he was actually surprised Jeter knew him — one of the faces of Michigan athletics, someone who dropped 17 points in a national championship game — Spike didn’t hesitate.
“Hell yeah, that does surprise me. I was shocked that he called my name before I even introduced myself. I thought that was pretty cool.”
He’s still not used to the attention. He never will be.
Two weeks before the season started, Michigan hosted an open practice followed by an opportunity for fans to take photos with the players.
The line for Spike was twice as long as the line for any other player, and for an hour, he smiled and posed as they snapped.
Colin Williams, 6, went to Spike’s line first. Dressed in his No. 2 jersey, he said that Spike is his favorite player.
His father, David Williams, said Spike’s a natural draw for his son. “They see Spike, and they say, ‘Hey, he’s not much taller than me. I can play just like him.’ ”
Spike has heard that his whole life.
“The things I do, I feel like a lot of people can do,” Albrecht said. “You don’t have to be a freak athlete or 6-(foot)-5 to do a lot of the things I do out there. So I think that’s part of the reason people can relate to me.”
Standing next to him, it looks like that. The 5-foot-11 guard isn’t that big. That could be anyone. But the reality is, most people haven’t put in the work to do the things he does.
“He reminds me of that swan that looks so graceful out there on the water,” Brumm said. “But under water, he’s swimming like heck.”
Perhaps Bartelstein summed up people’s natural attraction to Spike the best: “The legend of Spike Albrecht is that any kid can be him if you work hard at it.”
It’s 10 days before Michigan tips off against Northern Michigan, and Spike sits in the lobby of the William Davidson Player Development Center, his back to a rare sunny November day in Ann Arbor.
He’s relaxed. He tells stories about driveway hoops, swears that he’s the best ping-pong player on the team and says that he hopes that, in the future, he’s “making a lot of money.”
Three of the five members of his freshman class are on NBA rosters; Caris LeVert, the fourth, is poised to join them next year. Spike couldn’t be happier for them. In fact, he says he knew from the first time he played with them that they’d all go pro.
“I don't get jealous,” Albrecht said. “It doesn't make me mad or anything like that. They’re all great kids. Some of my closest friends who’ve worked their tails off to be in the positions they’re in, and I feel like I’ve done OK with what I am or what I got.
“You don’t see many guys like me playing in the NBA. You don’t even see many guys like me playing college basketball. So I’ve always been realistic with myself. I have tons of confidence in myself and I don't doubt my ability, but those dudes, you watch the NBA at all? You see what those guys do. It’s a whole different animal.”
He hasn’t ruled out playing overseas next year, but he doesn’t try to think about the future too much.
“It just seems crazy that I’ve put in 20 years of work and busted my ass for this game, given everything I got, and then it’s just all gone,” he said. “So that’s going to be tough for me. … I’m sure if you ask anyone, it’s tough giving up what you love to do and what you’ve worked so hard at for so long.”
Maybe he’ll play overseas for a few years. Maybe not. As for his future, no one’s totally sure yet.
Vogrich jokes that he’ll work at Abercrombie and Fitch. His dad thinks he’ll make a career out of his people skills. He used to chat up so many people during his Little League days that they said he’d become the mayor one day.
But enough about what’s next for Spike — he wants to talk about his coach’s future.
Earlier in the day, Michigan announced it had extended Beilein’s contract through 2020-21, and Spike jokes that Beilein offering him a scholarship didn’t get the coach fired after all.
It got him an extension and a raise.