His grandmother had a voice that made men weep, it was so
beautiful. Mateen Cleaves never knew his mother's mother, Betty
Livingston, but he knows about her voice. A voice like Billie
Holiday's, he's been told. Her boyfriend sent a demo tape to
Capitol Records, and Capitol sent a man out to find her, but he
never did. When Betty was strung out on heroin, booze, morphine
or something else, nobody could find her. When Frances Cleaves
buried her mother, a young woman burying a young woman, her
emotions were jumbled. Betty's pain was finally over, but all
her promise was gone, too. Frances made a vow that day: At every
turn she would seek out greatness, nurture greatness, celebrate
greatness. That was her job, when she wasn't on a GM assembly
line. That was why God put her on this earth.
And that's what she's done. Look at her baby, Mateen, the
youngest of her five children. You see the exuberance with which
he plays basketball? That's God at work, Frances will tell you.
Mateen is a junior at Michigan State, a 6'2" point guard and the
floor leader of a team that, after defeating Iowa 80-65 last
Saturday, is ranked fifth in the nation. He is one of the best
at his position playing in college today, that's what NBA scouts
will tell you. His shot--he launches it from down around his
right shoulder, sixth-grade style--is not a thing of beauty. His
numbers (11.9 points per game, 7.1 assists, 2.2 steals) won't
blow you away. What he does is beat you. At week's end Michigan
State was 20-4, leading the Big Ten at 9-1 and with high hopes
for March. The Spartans know that as Cleaves goes, so goes their
team. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been saying for months
that he hopes Cleaves is ready for the NBA draft in June, even
though Mateen says he wants to return for his senior year. For
if Cleaves proves down the stretch that he's ready for the pros,
it means the Spartans will have had a superb season.
Wherever the Spartans go, Frances Cleaves goes. That's why she
was in State College, Pa., on Feb. 9, checking into the Nittany
Lion Inn. She had spent 17 hours riding five buses to get there
from Flint, Mich., the barren factory town north of Detroit
where she lives, just to see Michigan State play Penn State.
With her nails done in Spartan Green and the letters MSU
stenciled onto half of her wardrobe, she stands out when she
comes to town. In the gift shop of the Nittany Lion Inn that
day, three white-haired Penn State alumni happened upon her.
Quickly they became enraptured.
"It says 'Flintstones,' because we have four players on the team
from Flint, Michigan," she said, explaining the wording on the
T-shirt she was wearing. She began pointing to four cartoon
characters in the vicinity of her stomach. "This is Charlie
Bell; he's just a sophomore. This is Antonio Smith; he's a
senior. This, of course, is Mateen. They're all starters. And
this is Morris Peterson. He doesn't start, but he leads the team
in scoring. Four kids from one city on a single basketball team.
How do you like that?"
February 15, 1999
The three Penn State alums nodded enthusiastically. Apparently
they liked it quite a lot. They snuck a look at the back of her
T-shirt, where there was an outline of the state of Michigan.
Only one city was identified, marked by a basketball. It was
Flint, of course. "When those boys were coming up, they'd play
against each other in summer leagues and whatnot," Frances
continued. "I always told them, 'Never let it become personal,
because you never know when your opponents will become your
This season, in which the Spartans hadn't lost at home in 11
games through Sunday, a new song has caught on in the student
section of the Breslin Center in East Lansing. It is sung to the
tune of the Flintstones theme song.
Flintstones. We're the Flintstones.
We're the best ballplayers in his-tor-eee.
Mo P--from Mateen Cleaves,
ally-ooping is their spe-shul-tee.
he's the man who plays defense.
he's the man with the Windex.
play the Flintstones,
you'll have a tough time,
a really tough time.
Watch out, it's Spartan time!
But on the road, in State College, on a dreary, damp night, it
was the Spartans who were having a tough time, a really tough
time. With 2:16 left in the game, Penn State, a team with much
talent and a dim record to show for it, had a 68-65 lead.
Cleaves was having a good passing game but a lousy shooting
night, taking 10 shots and making just two of them, scoring only
nine points. Then, in the final minute, he showed his game. With
50 seconds left he drained a three-pointer to tie the score at
68. Then with 31 seconds to go and the score unchanged, the
Spartans got the ball back. During a timeout Penn State figured
Cleaves would be the guy to take the final shot, and in their
huddle the Lions were devising methods to stop him. In the
Michigan State huddle, the Spartans were thinking differently.
They were trying to find a way to get the ball to a shooter,
maybe Jason Klein, a 6'7" senior with velvety hands, or perhaps
one of the Flintstones. Izzo runs practices with military
precision, but at crunch time he takes suggestions from anyone
who has a good one. The players were sitting on tiny camping
chairs assembled hastily on the court. There was a lot of noise.
In the final seconds of the timeout, Cleaves said, "I'll take
His confidence is boundless, which is amazing, considering what
he, and therefore the Spartans, endured during a two-week span
early in the season. They lost three games, all on national TV,
all against Top 10 teams, in large part because Cleaves played
about as poorly as he ever does. On Nov. 20, at Temple, he had
17 points--along with 10 turnovers and several bad fouls. The
Spartans lost 60-59. On Dec. 2, in a 73-67 loss to Duke in the
Great Eight tournament in Chicago, Cleaves shot 3 for 17 from
the field. Three days later, at Connecticut, Cleaves shot 2 for
15, and the Spartans lost 82-68. Questions were being asked.
This is the guy who was an All-America last year? This is the
guy some people are talking about as an NBA lottery pick? This
is the guy who wants the ball with the Penn State game on the
line? Yes, yes, yes.
Penn State followed its game plan. For most of the final 12
seconds at least two Nittany Lions were guarding Cleaves. He
dribbled through the traffic jam, head down, inching his way
toward the foul line, finally creeping just inside it. With .4
remaining he tossed up one of his sixth-grade specials. Mostly
net. The Spartans won 70-68.
"Mateen Cleaves is an All-America, probably an NBA player," Penn
State coach Jerry Dunn said after the game. "When a game's on
the line, blue-chip guys step up. That's Mateen. That's why he
is who he is."
Cleaves, trained by his mother, took no responsibility for the
shot. "God was with me. He carried the ball into the basket," he
told reporters. Frances sat nearby in a plastic chair, watching,
His faith has not always been so unambiguous. In October 1995,
when Cleaves was a senior at Flint Northern High, one of his
closest friends, Marlon Veal, was shot dead by a Flint police
officer during a foot chase. Veal was 18. Cleaves describes Veal
as a good kid who did bad things, a curbside drug dealer who
made maybe $300 a week. But if you didn't have a pair of
basketball shoes or a ball to play with, he got you what you
needed. At the funeral, when the preacher talked about God this
and God that and Marlon's heavenly resting place, Cleaves's mind
was drifting far away. "I thought he'd just jump out of the
casket," Cleaves says. "He was always playing games."
For a long time Cleaves blamed the Flint police for Veal's
death. A lot of people in Cleaves's neighborhood in Flint still
feel that way. On the side of the vacant house in which Veal was
killed, just a few blocks from the Cleaveses's family house,
there is a spray-painted message RIP BRO. F--- THE PO-PO. For a
long time Cleaves wrote the initials MV on the heel of each of
his basketball shoes.
Cleaves's roots in Flint are deep. One of his three tattoos
reads FLINT. Another reads FRANCES. (Cleaves is also close to
his father, Herbert, who lives in Flint, too, though his parents
are divorced.) The third tattoo reads GSP, for Grace Street
Posse, the cadre of kids--Marlon Veal was among them--with whom
Cleaves grew up on the north side of Flint. The Grace Street
kids still figure in his life.
On Oct. 10, during homecoming weekend, Marlon Veal's brother,
Michael, attended a dance in a Michigan State dormitory attended
by 300 people, including Cleaves. No alcohol was served. Veal,
who is 23, is not a Michigan State student, but he was not the
only outsider there. An off-duty Detroit police officer attended
the dance, too. During the party several fights broke out. The
off-duty police officer used his pepper spray in an attempt to
quell the fighting. In the melee his handgun disappeared. Campus
police were called in to restore peace. No one was arrested, but
the campus police conducted an investigation. Six weeks later,
on Nov. 30, Veal was arrested and charged with assault for
allegedly hitting a Michigan State student with a chair. At
least one witness said Cleaves was a peacemaker during the
fights. At least one other said Cleaves punched the off-duty
police officer. Cleaves and Veal declined to discuss the
incident. Frances had only one thing to say about it: "If
Michael did what they say he did, then he misrepresented our
neighborhood." That, naturally, would disappoint her. Still, she
prays for him.
The fourth paragraph in a news story about Veal's arrest in the
Dec. 1 edition of the Lansing State Journal read, "Ingham County
Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said others may be charged."
Neither Cleaves nor the people around him knew what to expect.
On Dec. 2, against Duke, Cleaves had one of the worst games of
his college career. Soon after, at the suggestion of his mother,
he stopped writing MV on his basketball shoes.
"Mateen has to realize he's the most visible athlete at MSU,
maybe in all of Michigan," says Izzo. A year ago, East Lansing
police arrested Cleaves on a misdemeanor charge of possession of
alcohol by a minor, which in this case was an unopened can of
beer. Izzo came up with a punishment he thought fit the crime:
He benched his guard for half a game. (Cleaves also paid a
court-ordered fine and did community service.) Izzo says Cleaves
should be allowed to lead the normal life of a college student.
"Mateen did nothing wrong at that dance," Izzo says. "I'm not
going to stop a kid from going to an on-campus, nondrinking
party. He's just got to be careful. I told him he's got to watch
who he hangs with. But that doesn't mean you forget the people
you've known all your life."
After the loss to Duke, and the loss to Connecticut three days
later, the Spartans were 4-3 and sinking fast in the polls. They
won their next seven games against unranked opponents, but on
Jan. 6 they lost a Big Ten game, to Wisconsin, which was ranked
24th at the time. Then came the game that turned Michigan
State's season around. On Jan. 9, on a Saturday night in East
Lansing, Michigan State played Michigan. The Spartans were
celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1978-79 national
championship team. Magic Johnson, the kingpin of that team, was
in the house. Breslin was shaking. Cleaves was warming up when
somebody approached him and said, "Earvin wants to see you,
right away." Cleaves ran off the court and met Johnson, who got
right to the point. "I've been watching some of your games," he
said. "It looks like you're not having any fun."
"I think I'm trying too hard," Cleaves said.
"I've been there," Johnson said. "But you have to remember why
you're playing. You're playing basketball 'cause it's fun. Now go
out and have fun."
Before that Jan. 9 game, Cleaves's most significant experience
involving Michigan was a nightmare: On a recruiting trip to Ann
Arbor in his senior year of high school, Cleaves was a passenger
in a Ford Explorer, driven by a Wolverines basketball player and
carrying four other Michigan players, which hit an ice patch and
flipped. The accident happened at 5:10 in the morning, when the
players were returning to Ann Arbor from a party in Detroit. The
car was demolished; miraculously nobody was seriously injured.
This time Cleaves had a better Michigan experience: He scored 25
points, had four steals and eight assists, made 10 of 11 free
throws and helped lead the Spartans to an 81-67 win. One of the
highlights came when Cleaves was charged with a technical
foul--for excessive celebration.
"Everything Magic was saying, I had been hearing that from my
teammates, but hearing it from Magic just drove it home,"
Cleaves says. "I was trying to do too much. You come out, you
know everybody's saying, 'Look at this guy, he's supposed to be
an All-America.' I was trying to take the heat off my teammates
by doing everything myself. At the Michigan game I made the
decision that I would rely on them. That freed me up. I made the
decision to enjoy the game."
Immediately after the Penn State game last week, Cleaves and his
mother had a brief reunion. He was wearing his jersey, number 12.
She was wearing a gold necklace with a number 12 pendant. She
disappeared into his arms. "I almost had a heart attack tonight,"
Frances said. "The buzzer went off, and I didn't know who had
Mateen laughed. He has big, straight teeth and an enormous, warm
smile that brings to mind a guard who played at Michigan State 20
years ago. "We won, Mama," he said. "We won."
"When a game's on the line, blue-chip guys step up. That's
Cleaves. That's why he is who he is."
"He's got to watch who he hangs with. But that doesn't mean you
forget people you've known all your life."