INDIANAPOLIS — It began with a hug. They were just kids, maybe 10 years old, they had really just met. But they hugged because the game was over and they were all sweaty and, well, that’s what great rivals do when the game ends, right? Hug each other?
“We’d seen Magic and Bird do it on TV,” Mateen Cleaves says now, laughing, “so we did it, too. We just hugged.”
This was long ago and far away from the glitter of the Final Four, back in the late ’80s, in a summer league for children, on a hardscrabble court in Flint that echoed with shrieks of children and the squeaking of cheap rubber sneakers. Cleaves had been hearing about “this slim kid,” Morris Peterson, from the other side of town. “They said he could really play.” They talk like that about 10-year-olds in Flint, at least when it comes to basketball.
Peterson, meanwhile, spotted Cleaves the moment he entered the gym.
“He was this short, stubby guy, pushing the ball up court and making some amazing moves,” Peterson recalls. “I asked my father, ‘Who is that?’ And he said, ‘That’s Mr. Cleaves’ son.’ “
From that first game, which finished with a childishly awkward hug, to tonight, the last game they will play together in college, they have sailed some amazing winds. Now, the last big puff. For most of the country, this NCAA championship game between Michigan State and Florida is about a favorite team winning. For Cleaves and Peterson, it is the culmination of childhood, the last big fling before the “real world” beckons.
Remember that graduation party with your college buddies, or that last fun night at the frat house? For Cleaves and Peterson, the point guard and the forward, tonight is that night. After this, they become graduates and pro prospects, they go from teammates to commodities, they will be weighed, tested, scouted, and bid upon, and soon, in the NBA, they will earn more money in a year than their families have seen in their lives. Everything changes. They will never again play for pure spirit and camaraderie.
So while tonight will indeed determine the national champion in college basketball, for Cleaves and Peterson, it is, in many ways, the last innocent night of their lives.
Now that’s a big game.
As close as brothers
Here is how close Mateen Cleaves and Mo Peterson are: They have known each other since elementary school. They have spent every summer together. They went to the same middle school. They played against each other in high school. They chose the same college. They got similar tattoos. They are roommates on campus, and at night, in their apartment, they watch games and fantasize about becoming national champions — and yet they still rib each other about that first childhood game nearly 12 years ago, which Peterson’s team won.
And when they are apart, they are constantly calling each other.
Last week, when Peterson went to Mississippi for his grandmother’s funeral — he was only gone that day — he called Cleaves “just to see how things were going.”
Earlier this season, when Cleaves broke his foot, Peterson helped him get around the apartment, cleaned up after him, even cooked burgers and chicken for him.
They are so close, you can’t split them apart — even when you pit them against one another.
“One of the things I love most about Morris,” Cleaves says, “is that earlier this year, when people were saying, ‘Who’s the real man on the Spartans?’ You know? Is it Mateen’s team or Morris’ team? Is Mateen getting more press than Morris? Is Morris getting more press than Mateen? He refused to get caught up in that. We wouldn’t let anything like that split us apart.”
Here is how close Cleaves and Peterson are: Both could have left last year for the NBA. Both came back. It is not a stretch to say they came back for each other.
“This is my family,” Peterson says. “Mateen and these guys, they’re like my brothers. I didn’t want to leave my family.”
Cleaves says: “Even if we didn’t win the Big Ten, even if we didn’t win the Big Ten tournament, even if we never made the Final Four — coming back would still have been worth it, because I got to be with Morris and the guys.”
Here is how close Cleaves and Peterson are: Tom Izzo often coaches them as one person. “I know what I say to one will get back to the other,” he admits.
“They’re such great friends, they live together and all. So yeah, I admit, I use one to get at the other. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘You gotta tell your buddy to play harder….’ “
Here is how close Cleaves and Peterson are: Outwardly, they are Mutt and Jeff, the soft-spoken Peterson all svelte and lithe, 6-feet-6, soft touch on his jumper; while Cleaves is the bull in a China shop, flying, crashing, 6-feet-2, no soft touch, yet more willpower than a room full of monks.
Inwardly, however, they are nearly the same person: straight out of Flint, their mothers’ sons, grew up on the small courts of Summerfield Elementary and Whittier Middle School, grew up eyeballing each other from across town while idolizing the same people — in particular, a guy named Magic Johnson.
“I remember when I first got to campus, and I saw that 1979 banner hanging from the rafters,” Peterson says.
“That’s all I ever heard growing up,” Cleaves says. “Magic, MSU, that championship team….”
And now, they are 40 good minutes from every kid in Michigan knowing their names.
On a court in Indianapolis
Only people from this state will understand how big a deal that is. For all of our lives, there has been only one championship hoop team from MSU. It is so distinct, people talk about the star and the date in one phrase: “Magic and
Now Cleaves, Peterson and the rest of these heart-driven Spartans can hang their coats on that lofty hook, forcing people to say “Magic and ’79” and “The Flintstones Season” in the very same sentence.
“That is kind of strange to be on that level,” Cleaves admits, “but that’s what you want when you get into sports. You want to leave your footprint in the sand.”
But as we all know, footprints blow away.
Friendships, on the other hand, can last a lifetime.
And after tonight, the thing that has held Cleaves and Peterson together since that first day in the summer gym will be gone: no more games together, unless in some shocking way they end up on the same NBA team.
“I’m always gonna be in touch with Mateen,” Peterson insists.
“I’m never gonna lose touch with Morris,” Cleaves says.
“We’ll be coming to our five- and 10- and 20-year reunions together,” Peterson says.
“No matter where I am, I’ll be calling Morris saying, ‘You got to get more shots off, you got to work on your jumper,’ ” Cleaves says.
Their friendship will never end, they say. But don’t we all say that? Didn’t you say it about someone in college? Did it last? Do you still know him or her?
You want to take Cleaves and Peterson and shake them and holler: “You’re so lucky! Stay where you are! Savor this! Savor this!”
But you look at them, and you realize, they already are. That’s why they came back when they didn’t have to. That’s why they call each other when there’s no need to. That’s why their favorite moments are the late-night ones, when they share a dreamy vision of cutting down nets.
It is the biggest game in college basketball. It is for the crown and the jewels, it will be seen by millions and millions of people. It can make a program for the next 10 years. It can launch a half-dozen careers. It is the most important game for every single player on the floor — including the slim kid and the short, stubby one.
But no matter what, it will end the way their relationship began, with a hug
— either in joyous exultation, or in comfort over defeat — but a hug, a hug that means this was a special thing we tried to do, a truly special moment, I’ll never forget it and I’ll never forget you.
Isn’t that the best you can hope for from college sports?
Began with a hug. Ends with a hug. And because of that, before they ever play this game, Cleaves and Peterson have already won.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).