Look at a map of Michigan.

You’ll find a dot marking Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.

Now look at a map of Indiana. Somewhere between South Bend and Gary is a small town called Chesterton. Until recently, its only connection to Michigan was the sewage it dumped into the Little Calumet River, a tributary into Lake Michigan.

But like most small towns in Indiana, the people of Chesterton live for high school basketball.

There’s a little pep in Tom Peller’s voice when he thinks back to the first time he saw the 6-foot-2, shaggy-haired eighth grader. Peller, Chesterton High School’s coach, wasn’t blown away by the boy’s physical attributes, but he knew a special player when he saw one.

And Zack Novak is a special player.

“Here’s an average-sized white kid with average speed and quickness, but I knew his heart was going to get him somewhere and that that would make the difference, and I think that did,” Peller said. “If you want one word, he was a winner.”

So that’s what Novak did. Win.

Novak led the Trojans to a 57-31 record as a four-year starter, the program’s best four-year stretch. In his senior season, he led the program to its first outright division title.

Even though Novak had put himself into the mix for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball by averaging nearly 27 points and eight rebounds a game, the offers weren’t coming in.

Valparaiso offered a scholarship — only because its campus is 10 miles from Chesterton — and then withdrew.

But the big schools weren’t the only big thing that paid little attention to Novak and his work ethic that year.

At every one of Novak’s game, a 6-foot-9 freshman was in the stands. At each of Novak’s practices, the tall kid was there working up a sweat — but maybe not enough.

While Novak was working his tail off, the tall kid’s work ethic wasn’t quite there. The classroom yielded similar results, with Novak excelling in advanced placement classes and the tall kid struggling to pass.

Meanwhile, John Beilein was struggling mightily in his first year at Michigan — both on the court and on the recruiting trail.

Beilein heard about Novak’s situation. With nothing to lose and few alternatives, Beilein started showing up in Chesterton’s stands and came away impressed.

That chance he took on the gritty, hard-nosed player established Michigan’s foothold in Chesterton.

Novak’s commitment was hardly a splash. Scout.com left him unranked, without any stars. Rivals.com almost inexplicably gave him three stars for committing to a Big Ten program, but didn’t even give his profile a picture.

But somewhere else in those stands with Beilein was that tall kid. Maybe they even shared a row once or bumped into each other. Maybe the kid looked at Beilein in awe. Maybe he didn’t give it much thought.

Beilein wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — known who he was, but in the stands with Beilein was a sweaty kid who’d just finished his JV game: Mitch McGary.

But the Novak-Michigan-McGary connection should’ve stopped there.

McGary’s grades continued to decline — after his junior year, he was forced to transfer to Brewster Academy, a New Hampshire prep school — just to give himself a chance of garnering a scholarship.

Novak, on the other hand, was making headlines in Ann Arbor, putting together a stunning rise from a nobody to a four-year starter and three-time captain.

And then McGary turned his life around. His game followed closely behind.

“He did not have the work ethic that Zack had, but I think now he does,” Peller said. “Mitch has come back since then and I can see the maturity, I can see the improvement. You can see he’s matured a lot, just talking to him.”

Though he didn’t even start on Brewster last year, he made the honor roll. When summer came around, Mitch McGary simply blew up.

Playing on the AAU circuit, he went from being a player on the rise to one of the summer’s hottest players and finally, to his current position: No. 2 in the country.

Somewhere amidst all of the fame he was receiving, he made time to stop back in Chesterton. With the hectic lifestyle of a basketball phenom, there couldn’t have been much time for the visit. The same can be said for Novak, who was busy leading offseason workouts in Ann Arbor.

But as fate would have it, their visits home overlapped. Naturally, the two best athletes to come out of Chesterton in the last decade would head to the gym, where they would finally play together.

It was just a pick-up game and no one, including Beilein, was in the stands this time. But at one time, five years earlier, he had been. He found Novak, the scrappy, disregarded kid, straight out of “Hoosiers.” Novak would take Beilein’s program, coming off a 10-win season — out of the Big Ten’s basement and into the NCAA Tournament.

When Novak graduates this year, he’ll have left the program a better place than he found it — even if McGary hadn’t chosen Michigan. But in that small Indiana town that doesn’t even show up on the state map, Novak brought the University of Michigan.

The connection was once bound only by a sewage-filled river. But when the kid who once shared the bleachers with John Beilein committed to Beilein over Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, Mitch McGary finished what his Zack Novak started. Together, they put Michigan on the college basketball map.

— Daniel Wasserman predicts Michigan will be a top-5 team next year. He can be reached at dwass@umich.edu or on Twitter @d_wasserman

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.