It’s perfectly legitimate to question whether Mateen Cleaves has ever truly left East Lansing and MSU.
The 2000 men’s basketball national champion plays for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA’s D-League, yet he often makes East Lansing trips to participate in basketball camps, visit the Spartans men’s basketball team and meet with head coach Tom Izzo.
But Cleaves is trying to make his stay in East Lansing more permanent, as he plans to open a restaurant in East Lansing with the help of former Michigan Wolverine and NBA star Chris Webber, who owns and operates Center Court with C-Webb in Sacramento, Calif.
“We could have done it in Detroit or in Flint, but I wanted my first one in East Lansing, where it all started for me,” Cleaves said. “I’m excited about putting it in East Lansing. I told Chris before he comes he better put in a reservation.”
Although Cleaves hasn’t picked a location or filed any paperwork with the city, he and Webber said the restaurant will be established in the near future.
Cleaves plans on making the restaurant an homage to MSU past, present and future. There will be as much MSU memorabilia from hockey and baseball as from football and basketball.
“There were some nice places (when I was at MSU). I don’t want to say there was a lack of places; we just thought it would be a good idea to put one there,” he said. “We want to bring some new, young energy back to East Lansing. I’m tried and true with Michigan State. I want to be in that area for the rest of my life.”
Picking East Lansing
Cleaves said when he drives down Grand River Avenue, he is saddened when he sees empty storefronts. But he also sees opportunity.
“You really feel bad because when you see a building closed you know jobs were lost,” he said. “But with me, I’m not really worried about that because if you’re scared to take chances you’ll never win. Just like in basketball, if you’re scared to take the shot, you’ll never make it.”
Andy Deloney, vice president of public affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said it’s never been more difficult to operate a restaurant, which means more restaurants are closing. Given Cleaves at one point earned an NBA salary, he doesn’t need to attract as many investors as other independent restaurateurs. Also, many failed restaurants are trying to sell equipment at low prices, real estate is cheaper and restaurants need to get out of their liquor licenses by offering them at low prices, he added.
Cleaves said he plans on adding a liquor license to his restaurant. The city of East Lansing has one liquor license available, according to the Liquor Control Commission.
East Lansing Mayor Vic Loomis, however, said there is a “sufficient” number of restaurants with liquor licenses in downtown East Lansing, which could make it difficult for Cleaves to gain the city’s approval.
“My attitude has been if we can get different venues and get something in downtown we don’t currently have, then it’s something worth taking a look at,” Loomis said. “But if the applicant has a proposal and brings it to us, we judge it upon its merits or lack thereof.”
But Michael Rogers, vice president of communications with the Small Business Association of Michigan, said a liquor license would help expand the appeal of Cleaves’ restaurant to different and more diverse clientele.
“(It) will give him more options for profit because you can attract diners over the age of 21 and a lot of people at mid-range types of restaurants who want a glass of wine or beer with their meal,” Rogers said.
Rigors of a restaurant
Whether Cleaves’ restaurant will stick in East Lansing for the rest of his life depends on many factors.
Cleaves said he, much like Earvin “Magic” Johnson, is focused on making the transition from player to businessman. Johnson opened up several Starbucks coffeehouses, including one at 401 E. Grand River Ave., and has taken on other business ventures.
Deloney said about three of four new restaurants fail in their first year. Cleaves, though, has the advantage of Webber’s tutelage, which could help the restaurant weather the problems new restaurant owners face.
“There’s a certain way they have to be run,” Webber said. “He’s being smart. He wants to put one on his campus because he’s actually going to be there at a lot of these events to make sure students are involved and teams are involved.”
Deloney said name recognition helps for start-up restaurants, and putting a restaurant in East Lansing where Cleaves has celebrity status will help his restaurant. He said that strategy worked for Michael Jordan in Chicago, as people identified with Jordan by visiting his restaurant.
Mikos Jenkins, a computer engineering junior, said he would eat at Cleaves’ restaurant because of his MSU connection.
“He was in the NBA and he came from here,” Jenkins said. “It’s all about showing support I guess for a fellow alumni.”
Whether people come for the name or not, Webber, who played with Cleaves in Sacramento, said Cleaves’ work ethic from the basketball court will translate to the restaurant business and ensure success.
“He has to treat this as a sport,” he said. “Just like how he worked hard all his life in basketball and stayed late at practice and researched other teams, he has to do the same for this.”
Cleaves’ life isn’t all about basketball now, though. And by sticking to his MSU roots, Cleaves has plenty of role models to follow in taking that first step into the business world.
“I idolize guys like Magic Johnson who can show the world that they’re more than basketball players,” Cleaves said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do now.”