MATEEN’S BIGGEST LOSS YET

Aphone call away. No matter how far you go, no matter how desperate a leap you make from the ugly city asphalt to the privileged, money-scented, luxury hotel rooms of the NBA. One phone call brings you back. One ring on the cordless. One beeeepity-beep of the cell.

Hello? Your old world calling.

It’s your brother. It’s your mother. It’s your mother calling about your brother. In Mateen Cleaves’ case, the news was bad: his older brother, Herbert, 27, was dead. Shot in a drive-by. He and a friend had been on the friend’s porch early Sunday morning, around 2 a.m., in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint, when two cars reportedly drove past. Several gunmen popped out, opened fire. Herbert Cleaves, who they used to call “Sluggo,” was shot in the abdomen.

He was taken to the hospital. He died.

A phone call was made.

And Mateen Cleaves was spinning back, racing north on I-75, no longer concerned about the Pistons’ playoffs chances, or what time the private plane left for the next city. His mother phoned the practice facility to say her son would not be able to make the morning session: There’d been a death in family. Mateen was back in Flint. For all the worst reasons.

“I don’t care how big a star you are,” Pistons president Joe Dumars said Sunday night, “no one in this world is immune to dealing with real life.

“And in the NBA, because we have a lot of guys who come from tough situations, this happens more than people realize.

“Players have to deal with things every day. They might be coming home from a game, or getting onto a plane, and they get a phone call. ‘Your brother’s been locked up.’ Or your brother needs money.”

Or your brother is dead.

Old world calling.

Always brothers

Now, Herbert Cleaves was not unknown to the Pistons, Michigan State, or anyone else familiar with Mateen’s story. According to those who knew him, Herbert was upbeat, smiling, a big basketball fan. He was also, shall we say, in deference to the deceased, a man with baggage. Drugs, in particular.

While Mateen, with his magical smile, became a local hero with the national championship Michigan State team, his older brother was not so fortunate. Both young men came from the same rough streets. But Herbert apparently made a lot of left turns where Mateen turned right.

Never mind. He was still Mateen’s brother. That doesn’t change.

“Mateen loved him,” Tom Izzo, his coach at MSU said Sunday. Izzo remembered first meeting “Sluggo” when he recruited Mateen out of Flint. Sluggo was a big Spartans fan. He would reassure Izzo after visits, saying “Don’t worry coach, we’ll get him there.”

Sunday morning, at 7 a.m., the phone rang at Izzo’s house. It was Mateen, half in shock, needing to tell someone that Sluggo, his booster, was gone. He struggled with the usual phrases, “Why did this have to happen?” and “I can’t believe it”. Mateen’s mother spoke with Izzo and his wife, Lupe, as well.

Still, for all the grief, the conversation had a tone of resignation to it. The thrust was “We tried.”

“It’s so sad,” Izzo said. “Because as tough a city Flint can be, Mateen loves it and he took some pride when we won last year in showing the country that he was from Flint.

“And now this.”

A few weeks ago, Herbert (Sluggo) Cleaves was down at the Palace, asking Pistons personnel, “How’s my baby brother doing?”

And now he’s gone. There is no doubt a part of Mateen that wonders, “If I had done this …if I had done that …”

What can you do?

Support system

This morning, upon reading this story, many feel a wave of sympathy. Even though they never knew Herbert Cleaves, they felt as if they knew Mateen. His high school heroics in Flint, his gritty lead in driving the Spartans to the NCAA title, his first-round draft pick status with the Pistons, and his surprisingly effective rookie season have all been sources of pride for people of Michigan. We like when one of our own succeeds.

But if there is any comfort in this for Mateen Cleaves, it may come when he returns to the Pistons. He will be surrounded by players who know best what he’s going through. Few fans can relate to the ying/yang pull between an NBA millionaire’s current life and the shadow in his rear view mirror.

Dumars knows. It was during the NBA Finals once that the phone call came for him. His father had died, complications from diabetes. Come home now.

One minute, he was throwing up a huge basket. The next, he was stepping into his childhood living room, and people’s eyes were teary and heads were shaking in grief.

“Once I stepped into the house, my basketball life seemed like a dream that had never happened,” Dumars said.

So it probably is this morning for Cleaves. But he should be assured that just as his old world won’t let go of him, his new world won’t go away. It will be there waiting, as will his many fans. He will return, older, sadder, certainly wiser.

This is what he will know: No matter how far you step forward, you can never step away. Old world calling. And you have to answer.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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