MAGIC TO MATEEN: A NEW ERA AT MSU

INDIANAPOLIS — It was after midnight now, and the tunnel beneath the RCA Dome was thinning out, as reporters hunkered down to type their stories, fans flocked out in the streets, and work crews with mops, buffers and trash bins began the long task of cleaning up college basketball’s annual championship blowout.

Earvin (Magic) Johnson, wearing jeans and a simple gray Michigan State sweatshirt, leaned against a concrete wall, smiling as he lingered in the humid atmosphere of basketball celebration.

“From now on,” he said, “there are two championship teams at our school. Kids coming in are gonna be talking about wanting to be like the Spartans of 2000–“

Suddenly, a small band of reporters and camera lights came rumbling down the hallway. In the middle, almost engulfed, was a young man on crutches. Mateen Cleaves. He spotted Johnson and yelled, “Ayy!” and Johnson flashed that famous smile and yelled back:

“Make room for the star!”

Cleaves laughed, then was swept away by the press, even on his crutches, and Johnson followed him with his eyes. Almost instinctively, with Cleaves out of sight, Magic raised a fist and shook it three times, just like a fan, whoop, whoop, whoop.

If that wasn’t passing the torch, I don’t know what is.

Green, green day. It’s a new century, a new millennium and a whole new dawning for this Michigan State basketball team. When you’ve never won a championship, you’re never sure you deserve one, and when you have one championship, you’re never sure if it was a fluke. But once you have two? Then three, five, 10 and 20 seem possible.

It is no longer “Will we ever do it again?” but “When do we do it again?” It is what the great programs — Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky — have long had. And it is the legacy of Cleaves, Peterson, Granger, Bell, Hutson, Chappell, Anagonye and the rest.

Twenty-one years in coming.

And 370 days in the making.

“I’ll tell you a little secret,” Johnson said, leaning back against the wall.
“After we lost in the semifinals last year, Tom Izzo pulled me into a room back at the hotel, we shut the door, and we stayed in there an hour and a half.

“He was still upset, but he was asking me about the next season, the things he needed to do. He said, ‘E, I want to upgrade the schedule, play the toughest teams in the country.’

“You know what? He upgraded the schedule and played everybody in the country.

“Then he said, ‘What do you think could be our downfall next season?’ I said,
‘Agents and hangers-on will be your downfall; they can disrupt a team. If you can keep those guys away from your team, you’re gonna have a great chance.’

“You know what? He kept those guys away from his team.

“Then, over the summer, he called me and said, ‘Mateen’s thinking about leaving.’ I said, ‘Let me talk to him.’ So I talked to Mateen and I told him it would be the biggest mistake of his life. NBA scouts were not high on him at the time. He decided to stay.

“And now . . .”

Johnson paused and looked down the hallway toward where Cleaves had just disappeared in a flurry of TV lights.

“Now,” he said, grinning, “here we are.”

The past and the future

Here we are, in the afterglow of a championship that is brand new and yet feels oddly familiar. Why? Because it is tethered to the past. The last title came in 1979, thanks to Magic, who was recruited by Jud Heathcote, who hired Tom Izzo, who recruited Mateen Cleaves, who talked to Magic and came back for a senior season and helped MSU win it all in 2000.

You see how it all connects?

Green, green day. And make no mistake: Monday night’s victory over Florida was more than just a nice little tournament run — hey, look, we won a title.

This was the empowerment of a program. By connecting its past to its present, Michigan State, for the foreseeable future, becomes the school for the basketball-minded in this state. Izzo becomes “the coach who can get it done.” Cleaves and Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger become alumni who will be welcomed at every future MSU event, whose faces will be flashed over the big screens as the crowd erupts into applause.

One title is a scrapbook. Two begin a library. That is the parting gift of this inspiring group of players. They straddled the centuries, began in one, finished in another, started the season playing 13 games without their floor general, Cleaves, and ended the season playing nearly five critical minutes without him, when he left the court after severely spraining his right ankle.

“It’s almost like that was meant to happen,” Izzo said Tuesday, reflecting back on that turning point, when Cleaves tangled his legs mid-air with Florida’s Teddy Dupay and landed awkwardly, bent the ankle, and fell to the floor in agony. “When he left the floor, I went into the huddle and said, ‘You know what, guys? We have a war on our hands. But you played without Mateen for 13 games. For the next few minutes, revert back to what you did.’ “

And they did. Mike Chappell, of all people, the kid who had slumped under heavy expectations, hit five straight points once Cleaves left. Granger added a basket. They clamped down on defense. And before our eyes, the rest of the Spartans — who, except for Peterson, are sometimes unfairly shrouded in Cleaves’ shadow — proved once and for all that this is a T-E-A-M.

It was all over but the shoutin’.

The fans and the school

And so today is the rally in East Lansing, and there is little doubt about the spirit that affair will have. After all, wasn’t one of the nicest moments Monday night the interplay between the student section on the floor behind the basket and the MSU alumni and family section, which sat catty-corned to it? Time after time, a student would spot a familiar face — say, Steve Smith — and a chant would go up: “STEVE! STEVE! STEVE! STEVE! STEVE! STEVE!” — until Smith finally rose and waved.

And then someone would spot Mateen’s mother, and it was “MAMA CLEAVES! MAMA CLEAVES! MAMA CLEAVES!!” — until she obliged, standing and waving.

One big family.

Which is one solid concept. It’s not an accident that this winning team featured three starters from the same city, whose parents, sisters, brothers, uncles and cousins are all friends, and would all feel at home dropping by for a meal or exchanging numbers for advice.

It is not an accident that virtually every player comes from Michigan, Ohio or Indiana, places close enough for parents and siblings to drive in for games — and close enough for a coach to have a heart-to-heart with a parent if the kid is acting up.

And it is not an accident that the Spartans’ head coach is working in his own backyard, and that his closest confidant is not some sycophantic wanna-be yes man, but his childhood buddy, Steve Mariucci, who flew in from the West Coast to be with Izzo for the big game.

And whom Izzo took back to the airport in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

Took him back to the airport?

One big family. Green, green day. A few moments after Magic Johnson wandered off with friends, I noticed Lupe Izzo, Tom’s wife, standing alone in the tunnel, her eyes glazed, as if observing this whole scene from above. I asked her, as a wife, to explain how hard her husband and his team had worked for this moment.

“Well, I remember last year at this time,” she said, “when we lost (in the semifinals to Duke) and we went home before the championship game. Tom didn’t want to stay.

“That night, he went downstairs to the basement and watched the game all by himself. He couldn’t bear to have anyone around….”

She stopped. Her eyes were wet. Then a long tear dropped down her cheek and onto her lips. She made no attempt to flick it away.

“I stood there watching him in that chair, and I wanted to help — as his wife, I wanted to say something, do something, make it better….

More tears now.

“…But I couldn’t do anything, He was all alone, and there was nothing I could do but watch and wait. To go from that to this….”

She squeezed her eyes to catch the teardrops. It didn’t work. It didn’t matter.

The wait was over. The 370 days since that basement. The 21 years since Magic brought home that first banner. Remember the names: Mateen, MoPete, Charlie Bell, A.J., Andre, Chappell, Jason Richardson, Aloysius Anagonye, David Thomas, Adam Ballinger, all the rest. They’re the ones who turned the ship, who made sure that future MSU teams will carry a different burden, one of tradition, rather than skepticism.

That is a new problem to have. Maybe better, maybe worse. For now, frame these scenes: A.J. Granger, pulling up for a smooth three-pointer; Andre Hutson, spinning inside for a put-back; Charlie Bell, the second-shortest starter, banging inside for a rebound; Morris Peterson, rising on the wing, flicking another net-kisser.

And finally, Mateen Cleaves, bad ankle, big heart, bumping down the hallway when it was all over, hearing a familiar husky voice saying, “Make room for the star!”

The old Magic, moving over, the new Magic, limping into the spotlight. Wave a fist. Whoop, whoop, whoop. Green, green day. And oh, what a night.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. 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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