by | Mar 31, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Let’s try the barber. Surely the barber is safe. Let us go into the small barbershop in Flint and ask the question.

“Do you know Mateen Cleaves?” we ask. “We’re doing a story on Mateen Cleaves and we were wondering-“

“Sorry, I already did three interviews this morning,” the barber says, dipping his combs into a jar of liquid. “I’m too behind now in my customers. Try the pharmacist.”

We go to the drugstore. There is the pharmacist, an older man, who looks like he has been here a long time — at least since Cleaves was born. Promising, we think.

“Don’t mean to interrupt you,” we say, “but we’re doing a story about Mateen Cleaves, and we’re looking for a fresh angle-“

“Mateen again?” the pharmacist says, washing his hands. “Listen. I already told the story about his first bottle of cough syrup, and the time his mother bought him those eye drops, and that cute little incident with the Ace bandage.”

“Already told it?” we say.

“To the three reporters who came in yesterday.”


“Try the bike shop,” he says.

We try the bike shop. We ask for the owner. He emerges from the back, wearing a Michigan State T-shirt.

“Sorry to disturb you,” we say. “We’re doing a story about Mateen Cleaves, and we’re looking for interesting anecdotes from his childhood, things that will give us a clue to his spectacular skill and electric personality.”

The man scratches his head.

“Didn’t I just talk to you guys?”

The leader from Flint

There is a problem. Here is the problem. Now that Michigan State has returned to the Final Four, everyone wants more Mateen Cleaves. Where’d he get that attitude? Where’d he get that smile? How can he be such a leader? More Mateen. More Mateen. But there are only so many sources. And they are all in Flint.

So, in the past few months, there have been feature stories about Mateen — and the other Flintstones — quoting Mateen’s former Flint coaches, his former Flint teachers, the guys who run a Flint community center, the folks in a grocery store, members of his church.

There are comments from Northern High School students, and Jamison Elementary students. An attorney who once sponsored a youth team that Mateen played on was quoted as saying, “We’re very proud of him.”

A sponsor?

Is there anyone left? Cleaves’ basic story is well known: Comes out of Flint, is runner-up Mr. Basketball in high school, picks MSU when other stars are picking Michigan, arrives with great fanfare, then stumbles, then comes back, then leads his teammates to a Final Four, then weighs going to the NBA, then decides he likes it too much here, comes back for his senior season, gets hurt, wills himself to recovery, leads his team to the Final Four again.

But that’s just a bio. Basic stuff. Now that he’s the biggest name at the Big Dance, reporters need more background, more history, more color. Details. We need details.

Good luck trying to find a new one.

“Have you been interviewed yet about Mateen?” we ask his sixth-grade teacher in Flint.

“Twice,” she says. “Try his fifth-grade teacher.”

“Three times,” says his fifth-grade teacher. “Try third grade.”

“Six times,” says his third-grade teacher. “Try kindergarten.”

We go to his kindergarten teacher.

“More reporters?” she says.

Hmm. Is there anyone in Flint who hasn’t been interviewed? Certainly not in Cleaves’ family. His mother — who is at every game, cheering like mad — has been interviewed more times than Hillary Clinton. His father. His uncles and aunts. His cousins. You name it, they’ve been quoted.

Pretty soon, they’re going to change the name of that Michael Moore documentary. It’s going to be called “Mateen and Me.”

“So you say you delivered newspapers to Mateen’s house?” we ask a kid on a bicycle.

“Yeah,” he says, “like I was telling Sports Illustrated…. “

The road to Indy

This is the problem when you become the biggest player in the biggest games in the biggest tournament in your sport. No one is satisfied with the simple story anymore. Everyone wants to find a new angle. A new approach. They all want something original — even if all the material has been used up.

“Is this where Mateen used to buy his comic books?” we ask the owner of the stationery store.

“I’m not talking to the press anymore,” he says.

“Why not?”

“I’ve been burned.”

Forget it. We know Mateen’s talent. We know his love for Flint. We know his affection for his hometown teammates, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell. We know his devotion to his mother. We know he takes over the locker room and gives halftime speeches. We know he deliberately throws high alley-oops to freshman Jason Richardson, just to see if he can get them. His favorite food? His favorite movie? His favorite dog?

All been done. By Saturday’s game, every stone will be unturned. Every fifth cousin will have gotten a call. People will take credit for his shooting, his dribbling, his attitude, his dental work.

What can you do? This is what happens when you come from a town that you are proud of, that is proud of you, that you wear on your arm in a tattoo …

…a tattoo?

We run to the tattoo parlor.

“Hi, guys,” says a man wielding a needle, “you wanna talk about Mateen?”

“You know him?”

“Sure,” he says. “You want the stuff I told CBS, or the stuff I told ESPN?”

“Never mind,” we say.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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