EASTLANSING — There are french fries by his elbow and a hamburger in his hands, a baseball cap tilted on his head and a single earring in his left lobe. There is a permanent smile on his face, happy hellos from his dusty voice, and a stream of stares from excited students in this food court, who know he is, at the moment, the biggest man on campus.
But what keeps the whole thing in balance is a letter that pokes out of his notebook. The return address is a maximum-security prison. Next to the writer’s name, scribbled in ink, there is a number. An inmate number. This is how that letter begins to Mateen Cleaves:
“I got love for you. I’m proud of you, too. It’s been a long time, homie. They snatched me off the street at 16 years old. The life I led, I couldn’t see my future, all I seen was death at a rapid rate. But you know as well as everyone out in the hood…. “
Cleaves shakes his head.
“He was a friend of mine from Flint. But he got caught up in the streets. Now he’s in jail for murder. Seventy-six years.”
“He’s writing cause he needs to hear from people. Seventy-six years. He was a guy just like me.”
Well, maybe not. The more you get to know Cleaves, the more you realize he does not fit an industry standard. He saw death and drugs on the hard streets of Flint, but he dribbled a ball around them. He had guns and gangs on every other corner, but he obeyed a mother who demanded he take his hat off indoors and address everyone as “sir” or “ma’am.”
There was a night, not so long ago, when Cleaves was heading home and saw police cars and yellow tape and his good friend, a kid named Marlon, wheeled out on bloody sheets, gunshots taking his life. Yet there was a day, just last week, when Cleaves threw up a three-point basket and buried an Ivy League school in the NCAA tournament, delighting thousands of Michigan State fans who now pray for such miracles against North Carolina.
Gunshots? Ivy League? Remember that poem by Rudyard Kipling, about “walking with kings, but not losing the common touch”? Here in the food court, and in class, and on airplanes and press conferences and all the trimmings that go with high-profile collegiate athletics, Mateen Cleaves, 20, lives that poem, walking between two worlds.
Or, if you’ve watched him play, threading between two worlds and dishing a blind pass to the open man….
Beyond the Explorer kid
People around the country are beginning to know Cleaves as more than “the kid with those Michigan players when the Explorer rolled over on M-14.” That 1996 accident — which narrowed the microscope on U-M basketball — has been a shadow on his reputation.
“First thing people would say is ‘Mateen Cleaves? You’re the guy in the flipped car!’ ” he admits, between bites of his burger. “They saw me as some kind of troublemaker. People said, ‘How is Izzo going to control him?’ I laughed at that because that’s not the type of guy I am at all.”
The type of guy he is makes friends easily, laughs a lot, yet knows a lot of sadness in his past. The type of guy he is dreams of playing in the NBA yet majors in child development because he wants to teach kids in Flint how to make it out of a hard life.
“What if they say, ‘Aw, you only made it out because you can play basketball’?” I ask.
He flashes a smile that would shame Magic Johnson. “That’s when I’ll pull out my college degree,” he says.
The type of guy he is leads basketball teams almost as soon as he joins them
— with charisma and drive. His high school coach, Cleaves says, put him in vocal command of the varsity when he was 14. And at MSU, Izzo has handed him the reins as point guard with magnificent results, even though Cleaves is only a sophomore.
“The word is you’re not afraid to yell at your teammates,” I say.
“No,” he admits, “but I’m different with different guys. With Antonio (Smith), I grew up with him, so I might yell, ‘That guy’s talking about you. He says you’re weak. You gonna let him do that?’
“With Jason (Klein), he’s more laid-back, so I’ll just tap him on the butt, say, ‘Let’s go.’
“And with DuJuan Wiley, I just have a look. One look, and he knows.”
He shrugs. “Everybody’s different.”
Flint’s failed stars
Everybody’s different, all right. Cleaves can name you other players, guys from Flint who could do 360-degree spin-dunks and jam from the foul line. Guys named Larry, Jody, Eddie. All of them, he says, could have been major-college stars. But Jody “got messed up in the streets.” Eddie’s “still trying to make it.” Larry “got locked up.”
But on goes Mateen, tightroping two worlds, winning admirers. Yes, he made “a big mistake” recently, caught in a parked car where there was alcohol.
“Never again,” he vows sternly.
Do you believe it? Depends on your take. Maybe you admire his basketball, you like his smile, you hear his earnest stories about escaping his past, but you wonder: “Is he for real?”
Then you watch Cleaves rise to go back to class. And in the notebook, next to the letter from the needy inmate, is something he never mentioned. A return letter, sealed, stamped and ready to go.
He’s for real.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.