WHY STAY, MATEEN? FOR A TITLE — AND MUCH MORE

TO: MATEEN CLEEVES, JUNIOR GUARD

MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY

Dear Mateen,

Don’t even think about it.

I know the NBA is out there. I know certain friends and relatives will be whispering in your ear now, saying you can make it big, cash in, get paid for playing basketball instead of giving it away for free.

Tell them thanks, but no thanks. Now is not the time to go.

This has nothing to do with talent. You have plenty of talent. You have enough to be drafted into the NBA, which already puts you in the most elite level of basketball on the planet. Whether your talent is polished enough to be a lottery pick — in my opinion it is not there yet — that shouldn’t be the issue.

The issue should be that locker room you left Saturday night at the Final Four.

Remember the scene? It was quiet and subdued. In one corner was senior Antonio Smith, your soul mate, your fellow Flintstone. He had just played his last game for MSU. His career was over, one game short of the national championship. When he fouled out, with 16 seconds left, he walked off slowly, a bit dazed, as if someone had clunked him over the head with a brick. That’s because his time was up.

And he couldn’t do a thing about it.

In another corner was forward Jason Klein, another senior. He sat slumped in his chair, looking at his feet. He’d missed several open jumpers that could have pushed your team even with Duke. He was replaying them in his head, over and over, you could see the images spinning behind his unfocused eyes.

“Right now, if you could come back for another year — even if you had to take a full load of classes — would you do it?” he was asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “No question.”

You know why? His dreams were plucked too soon.

And he, too, couldn’t do a thing about it.

But you can.

A state of green

Remember how you said after the game, “Something touched me inside when I watched Antonio and Jason and TK (Thomas Kelly) walk off. It was sad. They’ll never wear the Spartan green again.”

You can wear it. You can grab that green baton, come back next year and lead this team on a quest to capture the only thing you didn’t in 1999, a national title.

You should do it. Not because I say so, or because MSU fans so, or even because your coach, Tom Izzo, says so.

You should do it because you have the chance.

It doesn’t come very often.

Older champions always talk of how they were formed by winning a title. The sweat, the faith, the relentless dedication, it all stays with them long after they stop shooting jumpers. It affects who they are. It molds their personalities. Look at Magic Johnson, your guardian angel. His winning is all over his face.

You have a chance at that now. You won a title in high school. That’s good. Maybe you’ll join a championship NBA franchise; odds are you won’t. But this Spartans team could be great next year. Morris Peterson, your leading scorer, is coming back. A. J. Granger, the long-range surprise of the postseason, is coming back. Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson, both starters, are coming back. Then there’s hugely talented Mike Chappell, the Duke transfer who had to sit out this season. And a crop of gifted backups and promising recruits.

All this, in a program that already reached the national semifinals — and is finally getting its due. Surely you noticed, in the last few weeks, how people outside of East Lansing were saying “Mateen” and “Antonio” and “Mo Pete” as if they knew them. The Spartans became the state’s team during this tournament. It’s taken 20 years, but it’s not just about Michigan, Fab Five or maize-and-blue anymore.

It’s about green now. Not as a second choice. As a preference. You’ve helped set the mold. You can help cement it.

If you come back.

Mother knows best

And yet even that isn’t the biggest reason.

The biggest reason is in the laughs, the hugs and the practical jokes that come with being part of a team. It’s that huddle that you guys form before the game, arm in arm, like the comrades that you are. It’s in the college nicknames. It’s in the late-night pizza sessions. It’s in the tattoos that say Flint, your hometown, where you and so many of your teammates were forged. Trust me. You won’t be tattooing the name of your NBA team on your arm.

You said it yourself Saturday. “These guys are my family.” That’s worth a lot. I can’t tell you how many NBA players who jumped out early have told me later how they wished they’d stayed.

Just as I can’t tell you how many college juniors have said — as you did Saturday — “I’m planning to come back, but I have to sit down with Coach and my family and see what’s best.”

They say that, and a month later, they’re standing with an agent at a press conference, announcing their departure.

I don’t believe you will do that. I think you’re too smart. I think Coach Izzo will tell you even his NBA connections suggest one more year. But there will be a lonesome moment, I’m sure, when you wonder, “What if I went? . . .”

Don’t do it. Stay. You’re too special. You have too unique a chance. You’ll end up making more money from the NBA the following year.

And besides, while you shouldn’t listen to me, the fans, or even necessarily your coach, you should always listen to one person. Your Mom.

She wants you to stay, too.

See you in September.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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