The Michigan Maestro

By Michael Rosenberg
Updated: April 2, 2010

Coach Tom Izzo (left) and point guard Mateen Cleaves celebrate their national championship victory over Florida on April of 2000.

Coach Tom Izzo (left) and point guard Mateen Cleaves celebrate their national championship victory over Florida on April of 2000.

DETROIT — Ten years ago this weekend, in the second half of a national championship game against Florida, Mateen Cleaves felt a sharp pain in his ankle and heard a pop.

The combination could mean only one thing, Cleaves thought: His right ankle was broken. Thankfully, his ears deceived him. The ankle didn’t pop. The tape on the ankle snapped. But Cleaves still had a sprained ankle. He famously returned to the court a few minutes later and led the Spartans to their second national title.

Cleaves said this week that there was some luck involved in the championship. He was lucky that, if he was going to suffer a sprained ankle, he did it in the title game Monday instead of a semifinal Saturday. There was no way he could have played two days after that injury.

He was lucky, as it turned out, that he was injured earlier in the season. The Spartans learned to play without him, and they were ready when he went down. (MSU actually extended its lead in Cleaves’ absence.)

But mostly, Michigan State was lucky it had Mateen Cleaves. There have been better players in the Tom Izzo era. Nobody has been as important.

No player has been more important to Michigan State

Mateen Cleaves limped into a Bob Evans restaurant in the Flint area this week wearing a Michigan State sweatshirt and a Tigers cap. He had suffered a torn quadriceps in a pickup game at a local YMCA. Let’s digest this:

He retired from the Bakersfield (Calif.) Jam of the NBA Development League last summer. Now, 10 years after leading MSU to the national title in Indianapolis, Cleaves, 32, is limping into a Bob Evans after suffering a torn quad during pickup ball.

Michigan State has had better players than Mateen Cleaves. Magic Johnson was 10 times better. Kalin Lucas is quicker. Cleaves’ fellow Flintstones, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, have had better NBA careers. Durrell Summers is more explosive. The list goes on.

But nobody has been more important to the program than Cleaves. He is the player, more than any other, who started this 13-year run, who believed in the Spartans’ potential greatness when they were an NIT team, who led them to a title and, who, at 32, is playing pickup ball at the Y.

This last fact is important to understanding Cleaves. He plays at the Y for the same reason he stuck around the D-League: He loves to play. The D-League could have been depressing for a man who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and played for the Pistons.

Cleaves says he liked the D-league “because everybody came at me because I played in the NBA. It’s like survival of the fittest. It wasn’t a cakewalk.”

Cleaves stopped only because he has a young family, and continuing to play pro basketball felt selfish.

It always was about the game to Cleaves.

When he was in high school, everybody told him the best players in the state go to Michigan. That would have been the easy route for him. He had friends there. But he chose Michigan State partly because he wanted to build something.

And once he got there, this is how he earned coach Tom Izzo’s lasting admiration: “If I didn’t play well, he didn’t even have to come tell me I didn’t play well. I would go to him.”

Cleaves did not have to watch film to see whether he played poorly. His rule was simple: “If we lost, I played bad. Every time we lost, I told him I played terrible. Every time we lost, I thought it was my fault.”

This year’s Spartans have struggled at times to meet expectations, and that’s hard. But what’s harder is creating expectations. That takes a special player, a guy who will get on his buddy Peterson to play defense and demand that one of the best teams in school history get better.

In his sophomore year, the Spartans earned a No. 4 seed and ran into Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and top-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels were way better. Cleaves knew it, but he was undeterred. The next year, MSU earned a No. 1 seed, made the Final Four and ran into Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier and top-seeded Duke. The Blue Devils were way better. Cleaves knew it, but he was undeterred.

The next year, Michigan State won the whole thing.

Izzo and his wife, Lupe, did not name their kid Steven MoPete Izzo; they named him Steven Mateen Izzo. Cleaves and his wife, Chanda, returned the honor last summer by naming their son Mateen Izzy Cleaves. (In a testament to how powerful the Fab Five were as a cultural influence, Chanda has a 12-year-old son from a previous relationship named Jalen. Cleaves considers Jalen his son, too.)

Cleaves sat in that Bob Evans this week and said he and Chanda planned to drive to Indianapolis for the Final Four. (Cleaves recently was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence; he did not want to comment on it because it’s an active legal case. His lawyer has said Cleaves drove only because of an emergency involving his son.)

When Cleaves played in the NBA, his teammates would tease him whenever his team went to Indianapolis.

This is where you were the big hero, right? He always thought about that Final Four.

Now he is going as a retiree. But this MSU team will get the same Mateen Cleaves that the 2000 team got. The games start Saturday, but he planned to get there by today. He wanted to watch film. He wanted to sit in on team meetings.

And he did not plan on simply observing, because observing is not his style.

“I will speak up,” he said. “I will say something. Because I’ve been there. For me, it’s going to be hard not to say something.”

He says he knows that “it’s not about me.” And whatever happens this weekend, he’ll come back and try to figure out the rest of his life. He has done some broadcasting lately and might make a career of it. He says, “I do have a passion for coaching, getting in the gym, working guys out,” but has no immediate plans to become a full-time coach.

He plans to play pickup ball for the rest of his life.

Unlike many athletes in his position — a high draft pick from a tough background who never made the huge money — he says he is in good shape financially.

“I’m cool, I’m straight, I don’t have to ask nobody for nothing,” Cleaves said. “I’ve lived within my means.”

He does have a few side projects. One of them is a young rapper from Flint named Jon Connor. Cleaves is working with Connor, trying to get his music out, convinced that Connor will be a star. Cleaves doesn’t want to be a music mogul. He isn’t looking for a stable of artists.

He just believes in Connor. Cleaves heard Connor one night at a place called The Loft in downtown Flint. Cleaves walked into The Loft with some friends.

They had no idea who Connor was, and apparently neither did anybody else. Cleaves said there were “10, 12 people” in the joint that night.

“He just performed like he was on stage at the Palace or something and it was a sold-out concert,” Cleaves said. “I just saw the passion and stage presence and aura about him. Something about him said, ‘Man! That guy has it.’ ”