by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

INDIANAPOLIS — When he couldn’t fly, he fell. When he couldn’t stand, he crawled. When he couldn’t take the pain, he took it, because you only get one night like this in your life, if you’re lucky, and you’ll take a bullet in the leg if you can get back out there and win. Mateen Cleaves knew it. His Michigan State teammates knew it. And so, after soaring on a crazy, flying lay-up, tangling legs with Florida’s Teddy Dupay as he came down, and twisting his ankle so badly the crowd winced in unison, after crying out in pain and crawling toward his bench, after disappearing into the locker room with the biggest question mark of the college basketball season hanging over his head, Mateen Cleaves was coming back out onto the floor in the championship game, with his team clinging desperately to its lead over Florida.

And before he stepped on the court, he did what they all had been doing. He turned to that sea of green across from the Spartans’ bench. You look homeward when you need your strength, and after every big moment in this championship game, that is what the Michigan State Spartans basketball team did. Looked across this sold-out RCA Dome to see its mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and alumni, to see Magic Johnson, Steve Smith, Jud Heathcote, to see the grandpas of the past and the little brothers of the future never letting up, sending the Spartans strength, urging them to fulfill their destiny that began with a simple preseason ranking five months ago and was culminating in the biggest game of their lives.

“I told the trainer he was going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this,” Cleaves would say.

The ref beckoned him back and Cleaves stepped onto the court, tattoo on his arm, heart on his sleeve.

This morning, he has a ring on his finger.

End of the rainbow

“Was it worth coming back for your senior year?” someone asked Cleaves after the Spartans’ inspiring 89-76 victory over Florida for the national championship.

“Worth it?” Cleaves yelled. “Oh my god! This is what I came back for!”

The perfect night. The perfect finish to his career and his senior teammates. The perfect climax for the team that Tom Izzo began to build when he took over the program five years ago.

Here was a championship that showed that three senior starters are worth their weight in gold, that defense and rebounding still beat fast breaks and a breathless press, that nothing you do in a season goes wasted, because, had Michigan State not played the first 13 games of the year without Cleaves, sidelined with a broken foot, they might never have held such poise Monday night.

But mostly, this was a night that showed what happens when you trust your roots.

So it was Charlie Bell, being ripped into the air and dropped like a paper bag by Florida’s huge Donnell Harvey. Bell drew the foul, got up and stared into that special section of the crowd, his face a picture of intensity.

It was Morris Peterson spinning into the lane, banging off a body, and twisting for a lay-up. He, too, looked to that section, nodded his head, as if to say, “It’s coming, it’s coming, everything we dreamed of . . .”

It was A.J. Granger — the unsung hero of this night, with 19 points and nine rebounds — hitting a three-pointer, and despite his understated personality, almost waving a fist at his family.

And it was Cleaves, who couldn’t shoot or cut or even run full speed after the high ankle sprain, somehow managing to get the ball to the right people, dishing to Peterson for lay-ups, even ripping down a rebound, and looking, once again, to the source of his strength.

The green, green crowd of home.


Home. You see? Because they never forgot where they came from, they have become what they now are.

Champions of the nation.

A fast-paced beginning

What a game. The first half was a flying circus, barely time to breathe, as opposite to Saturday’s grueling semifinal against Wisconsin as trapeze is to chess. The Florida press was supposed to trip up Michigan State, the “experts” said, the way gnats around your eyes can make you lose your reading concentration. What the “experts” forgot — or more likely, never knew — is that State loves to run, far more than it likes to bang.

So here was pass city, Granger-to-Bell-to-Andre Hutson-to-Cleaves outside for a three-pointer. Net! Cleaves-to-Peterson-to-a-streaking-Granger down the lane. Dunk! Bell off a steal to Jason Richardson-to-Bell-to-Richardson for a fast break. Lay-up! It was faster than hockey, and the numbers fell like pinball. In less than 10 minutes, the Spartans had 21 points, exceeding their total first-half output against Wisconsin.

But all this seemed meaningless just under four minutes into the second half, when Cleaves went down, and began his sad crawl to the bench. The Spartans only led by six points, and Cleaves had scored 18. He clearly had been the best player out there.

“Yeah, I was worried,” Izzo admitted afterward, “because Mateen is not the kind of guy who fakes an injury to get sympathy from his girlfriend. But once I saw it wasn’t broken, I told Mateen, ‘OK, you have a few minutes to get it taped and then get back out here.’ And he said he would.”

In the meantime, the Spartans went on, the way they have in the face adversity all season long. Mike Chappell, the transfer from Duke who struggled all year, hit five straight points, the biggest five points of his MSU career. And Granger pulled up for a three-pointer. And Peterson — Cleaves’ best friend and roommate — kept scoring and scoring, 15 points in the second half.

The whole team pulled together, and by the time Cleaves came hobbling back out, the lead had not only held, it had grown to nine points.

The game was won. It just needed to be finished.

The spoils of victory

And so finally, after what Izzo called “a bull’s-eye on our back all year,” the Spartans got to climb that ladder and cut down the nets. And as they took their pieces of thread, they turned to the crowd as if to share every strand

This piece of net goes to Flint, a city that has been on the canvas for so long, it almost has gotten used to being down. But this little victory can change that. You don’t save a city with a sports team, but you begin to save one with pride, and Monday’s victory was a cleansing rinse. Cleaves, Peterson, Bell — and Antonio Smith, who almost did this with last year’s team — will never forget their hometown. And it will never forget them.

This piece of net goes to Izzo, who did things the right way. He waited his turn until Heathcote retired. He built his program. He didn’t go flying all over the country, taking this gig, that gig, this glitter, that glitter. Plenty has been made of where Izzo was born — Iron Mountain — but not enough has been made about where he stayed. Namely, the state of Michigan — his whole career. The only surprise with Izzo is that he isn’t shaped like a hand.

And this piece of net goes to Spartans fans, who, let’s face it, have had their faces rubbed in Michigan’s success for long enough. When U-M won the 1989 championship, MSU fans kept saying, “Remember 1979.” And when U-M outrecruited MSU for Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, then the two best players in the state, MSU kept saying, “Remember 1979.” And when Steve Fisher’s Fab Five went to two straight national championship games, MSU kept saying, “Remember 1979.”

That 1979 championship became the crumpled photo that the GI keeps in the foxhole. The memory is strong, but as time passes, you wonder whether you’ll ever feel the embrace again.

See those fans hugging one another? That’s a pretty strong embrace, isn’t it?

Back to East Lansing

And so, finally, MSU fans get to say, “Move over Magic.” This 2000 team will be remembered for so many things, for Granger’s growth into a major shooting force, for Bell’s tremendous defense and rebounding, for Hutson’s unsung strength and bravery in the middle against every big man they could throw at him.

And, of course, for the Flintstones — Cleaves, Peterson, Bell. How often do three kids from the same neighborhood grow up together, go to school together and win a national championship together?

“I want to cherish this moment forever,” Peterson said. “It really hasn’t hit me that this is the last game I’ll ever play as a Spartan. But if it is, I guess this is the perfect ending.”

He smiled and fingered the large hunk of net that hung around his neck.

“I’m going to give some pieces of this to my family, but the rest I’m going to wear.” He smiled. “Yeah. I’m going to wear this around my neck for the next three days.”

What is the most impressive part of this team? That the Spartans were the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four? That they were the only No. 1 seed to have to face a No. 2 seed? That they came from behind in three of the six tournament games? That they shrugged off the Florida press as if they’d played it a thousand times? That they shot 56 percent and scored 89 points on a championship night when nerves are supposed to ruin your accuracy?

What was most impressive?

It’s all impressive.

And perhaps this last scene is most impressive of all: With moments left in the game, and the outcome decided, Cleaves began to dance.

Dance? Yep. The same guy who began the season with a broken foot, who missed part this last game with a terribly twisted ankle, and here he was dancing in place, a smile as big as Disneyland. What did Sparky Anderson once say, “Pain don’t hurt”?

Not when you win.


They love him back.

Tattoos on their arms, hearts on their sleeves and rings on their fingers. Paint the state and mark the calendar. The team that did it the right is returning to the green, green grass of home.

With a trophy.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays 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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