FINAL SHOT AT THE FINAL FOURTHIS IS WHY CLEAVES RETURNED FOR SENIOR YEAR

The hallways were crowded, the arena was sweltering, there was yelling and pointing and noise everywhere. It took Michigan State coach Tom Izzo an extra minute or two to get to the locker room at halftime of Thursday night’s Sweet 16 showdown against Syracuse. And by the time he arrived, his players were already getting a lecture . . .

…from Mateen Cleaves.

“Mateen came right in and expressed his disgust at the first half,” said A.J. Granger, the senior forward. “He was pretty vocal.”

“So you got chewed out by both a player and a coach?” someone asked Granger.

“No,” he said. “Coach let Mateen do all the butt-chewing. Then he came in and did the X’s and O’s.”

Now this is impressive. Not that Cleaves would address the team, although that is impressive. And not that Izzo would defer to him, although that, too, is impressive. And not that the other Spartans would listen, although, given the
“me-first” nature of many college athletes today, that is highly impressive.

No, the really amazing part is that Cleaves was chewing out the Spartans and they were taking it, and Izzo was letting him yell — and Cleaves was 0-for-6 at the time!

As someone might have said of Moses as his people followed him into the Red Sea, “Now, that’s leadership!”

And so it is. We are witnessing something rare here, folks, a disappearing breed, a dying trend. Mateen Cleaves, facing the end of his college career, doesn’t lead from ego, he leads from experience, from confidence, he leads from comedy and from anger. Most important, he leads from example.

And tonight, that example gets its sternest test. Tonight the Spartans attempt to come full circle on their journey of last spring, which left them at the Final Four, on the doorstep of a national championship game. It was there where Cleaves had to look down the tracks and determine which train to catch. The one that took him back to college for one more try, or the one that took him to the NBA.

He chose the former, went back to school, stayed his senior season, milked every drop out of the college experience — but all the while knew that if his team somehow crapped out of the post-season, people would say he made a mistake.

He is one victory away from erasing that. One victory away from getting at least as far as last year.

You know what I hear? I hear another halftime speech coming, that’s what I hear.

Leader of the pack

“Tell me something,” I asked Cleaves this week, “if you want to yell at the team at halftime, and Coach Izzo wants to yell at them, who goes first?”

Cleaves laughed. “It just happens. Sometimes, before he gets to yelling, I’ll yell. Sometimes he’ll yell first. Tell you the truth, I think he kind of likes it when I do it. He’d rather have his players do it anyhow.”

Izzo confirms this: “The guys listen more to one of their own than they will me.”

But not if they don’t respect him. And if his career ended tonight, that would likely be Cleaves’ greatest legacy. That he can stand in front of the team, having missed every shot he took in the first half, and speak to them of effort and heart and not going down without a fight — and they totally respect him.

That’s because, although his stats might not always be pretty, there is no doubting who is running this show. Cleaves, the 6-foot-2 point guard from Flint Northern High, does so many things that players don’t even bother to learn anymore. Bounce passes into the lane. Alley-oop serve-ups. Gentle lobs that float just over the defenders’ fingers and land like feathers in the hands of his teammates. He is the sergeant whose troops know he would take a bullet if it meant saving one of them. Cleaves truly does exist out there to make the other guys better.

And when he’s not doing it with a basketball, he’s doing it with his mouth.

Like the way he nudges young Jason Richardson, the freshman who, like Cleaves, came to MSU as a highly touted in-state recruit. Cleaves works with him on his game, tosses endless alley-oop passes his way, but also warns him of getting too big a head. Cleaves uses himself as an example. “I tell him to remember what happened to me, how everyone expected me to be so great when I got here, and I wasn’t. That happens all the time to high school stars, and Jason needs to know it.”

Or the way he stands up for Mike Chappell, the transfer from Duke who, by anyone’s statistical measure, is not having the season people expected. “I think Mike suffered when I got hurt early in the year,” Cleaves said. “If I had been healthy, I could have made sure he got some good passes, some alley-oops, some nice feeds, get him in the flow, so he would have felt more comfortable here. I felt bad when I got hurt, because it hurt Mike, too.”

When was the last time you heard something like that?

A trip to Indianapolis

Here is something Mateen Cleaves does these days, and it should tell you a lot. Whenever his friends drop by his apartment, he encourages them to stay as long as they can. If it’s late and they start to get tired, start dozing off on the couch, he’ll try anything to keep them awake.

“I’ll run over and turn on the TV, real loud, wake ’em up,” he said, laughing.
“I don’t want them to go, you know? I’m trying to cherish every minute I have left of this college life, being able to be a kid, relax, have fun.”

And you wonder why they listen to him? It’s because he is a college athlete, through and through. He is not playing for a draft position. He is not playing for an agent. He is not playing to the cameras. He is playing to win a college game, he is playing for the love of the college guys on the team — and those college teammates know that.

So he gets to yell, even if he is yelling at seniors such as Granger and Morris Peterson. And he gets to yell even if he is missing his shots, because he will first yell at himself, he will apologize, and then he will remind his teammates that he didn’t come back for his senior season, go through training camp, preseason, the Big Ten season, the Big Ten tournament and the opening rounds of the Big Dance — just to exit early.

He gets to yell because he’s earned it, because he means it, because he cares enough to do it. Today is a red-letter day, for the Spartans and particularly for Cleaves. And if they beat Iowa State in the Midwest Regional final at the Palace, observers will say it was worthwhile for Mateen to come back, because, look, he’s returned to the Final Four.

You know what? The special mark of this kid is that, even if they lose, it was worth it. And he knows it.

Doesn’t stop him from chewing out the team, of course . . .

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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