Win like Flint
In the mid-1990s, 4 Flint high schoolers brought their game to MSU. More than a decade later, their footprint remains
Mateen Cleaves was on the ground in agonizing pain.
There were 16 minutes and 18 seconds left in the 2000 NCAA National Championship game, and Cleaves was in anguish.
Seconds earlier, MSU’s All-American captain and senior point guard tussled with Florida’s Teddy Dupay on a breakaway layup, causing Cleaves to land awkwardly on his right ankle.
On his hands and knees, he crawled toward the MSU bench. Minutes later, he was propped up on a table in the locker room while the Spartans pressed on without him in the biggest game of their lives.
“After all the things in my life, Lord, I thought I was done,” Cleaves remembers.
“I felt it snap — and, if you look, I was on the ground screaming, ‘It’s broke’ — but if you see the way my ankle went out, that was the tape that snapped.”
Cleaves hobbled to the training room with athletic trainers, school officials and security guards in front of more than 43,000 people at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
But not before he absorbed one final bit of instruction from his head coach.
“When he went down and he said, ‘It’s broke, coach,’ I remember grabbing him and saying, ‘I really don’t care if it’s broke. I need you to finish the game,’” Tom Izzo said.
“He hobbled off, went back there, and when he came back, I saw it up on the board — him walking down that tunnel — and I go, ‘No s—-.’”
While Cleaves returned to the floor like a world heavyweight champion entering the ring, the Spartans actually had boosted their lead from six to nine with their leader in the locker room.
Cleaves never was concerned. There were two men on the floor that night — and a bench worth of comrades who would follow them anywhere — that were like brothers to Cleaves.
To the world, Antonio Smith, Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell were known as the Flintstones, four young men from a tight-knit, poverty-stricken community that was consumed by basketball.
That moment of perseverance from their leader — of hitting a wall, picking yourself back up and plowing through — characterized them and what they stood for.
“We just found a way to win,” Cleaves said.
“We found a way to come together, no matter what the situation, all the way up to the national championship game when the guys rallied around me. We were on a mission. It was no fun and games for us. We were on a mission.”
‘A lot of challenges’
That night in Indianapolis, Woodrow Stanley never had someone tell him they were from a suburb, only from Flint.
Stanley, then the mayor of Flint during the Flintstones era and now serving Michigan’s 34th House District, took his wife and daughters down to the floor and was overcome with the pride for his city.
“I didn’t have a single person that identified from being from any place else than Flint,” Stanley said.
“That was the way it was the entire time of that celebration. Everyone was proud to be from Flint. From a very significant extent, that was the cause of the exploits of those young men who were down on the floor.”
More than one-fourth of Flint residents live in poverty. The violent crime rate in 2008, the most recent year the FBI has reported data, reports 2,297 violent crimes in Flint — more than five times the national rate.
“Kids don’t think outside the streets of Flint,” Cleaves said.
“They think, ‘My dad was a drug dealer, my mom was on drugs, so that’s what I’ve got to do.’ They think that s—- is cool. I talk about college and make it seem like heaven.”
In January 2009, the Genesee County unemployment rate was 16.6, higher than both the U.S. average (10.4) and Michigan’s (14.9), the worst of the 50 states.
“Most communities that would experience a level of economic hardship the community of Flint has faced would be leveled to the ground,” Stanley said.
“If you travel around Flint, you see a lot of things that are happening. There’s no doubt there’s a tremendous amount of struggle.”
But if there’s one thing they love in Flint, it’s their basketball.
“At 10 years old, playing against each other, that was our way out. We knew that at an early age,” Cleaves said.
“People say it was a part of your life and all that. Basketball wasn’t a game, it was our life. ”
Basketball went beyond the free-throw line and around the rim.
“A lot of people in our neighborhood loved Michigan State,” Cleaves said.
“When (Izzo) came to my house for my visit — and I had coaches from Cincinnati, Syracuse, Florida State, even Michigan — they cleaned up. They tried to clean up the neighborhood. They couldn’t make it that much better, but they tried.”
Having their best high school prospects go on to Division 1 programs meant the world to fans, but the passion starts much earlier in life — something Peterson, now with the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets, often is reminded of when he sees ticket scalpers.
“I had games that were always sold out, and people would scalp tickets like we were in the NBA or college,” Peterson said.
“If you wanted tickets to our game, you had to get them early or pay way above cost for them. That goes to show how much people love their basketball. Our elementary games would be sold out.”
The games pitted the young Flintstones, best friends who would sometimes ride to games together, against one another. Cleaves and Smith teamed up at Northern, Peterson at Northwestern and Bell at Southwestern.
“It was a circus out there,” Smith said.
“The whole crowd was knowledgeable, any pickup game you join. They wanted to see the best out of us. That’s what’s missing today. A lot of players think we owe them something, but they owe it to the community to go out there and play hard. It’s that blue-collared work ethic.”
That is exactly where Izzo, the young Iron Mountain, Mich., native entered. Cleaves said Izzo fit right in when he would come watch streetball pickup games, not something many coaches could manage.
“The advantage of growing up in the (Upper Peninsula), I say people are people,” Izzo said.
“Sometimes we start stereotyping people. I didn’t stereotype anybody because I didn’t know anything. I recruited those guys hard but I believed in them. I don’t know why — I just felt comfortable with them.
“I saw one thing: Tough guys that cared about people. That’s not an easy combination.”
That same pride — each of the men has “FLINT” tattooed on their biceps — keeps the four close to their roots.
Smith is coaching high school basketball in Flint and setting up after-school tutoring and mentor programs. Bell, an NBA player with the Milwaukee Bucks, still keeps a home in the area where he spends summers with his family. Cleaves, recently hired by Fox Sports Detroit as an analyst for the Detroit Pistons, refuses to leave his hometown until he sees his dreams of bettering the community come to fruition.
“It’s bad, man. It’s really bad. I feel bad for these kids,” Cleaves said.
“That’s why I’m back. I just can’t leave right now. I’ve got to get tutor programs and community programs set, then I can leave and come back. But right now, this city needs me. It needs us. It needs guys giving back to the community.”
Antonio Smith was the ringleader; the man who took the first step and laid the first brick.
Also the only one without a championship ring or an NBA stint, he’s often the last name brought up.
A bruising and intimidating frontcourt player — who could have had a future in football — with a booming voice to make the toughest of Spartans stop and listen, Smith took a chance on a program that was playing second fiddle in the state.
“We came from a neighborhood where you have to work, work, work, and that’s the kind of person we saw in (Izzo),” Smith said.
“He not only said it, he showed it.”
Izzo was forced with the tall order of pushing a program competing against the reverberations of the legendary Fab Five. The Spartans were off the radar, rarely playing on television. The mantra of hard work, rebounding and toughness had not been instilled. Then Smith committed.
“When I took my first visit to campus for a football game, that same day, I came back home and went to my high school track and started running,” Smith said.
“I said to myself, I have to get there.”
Smith went on to average better than eight rebounds per game in his final three seasons with MSU, being named captain all three years.
“Tone was really more like who I am,” Izzo said.
“And I say that because I’m the blue-collar guy who wasn’t the superstar. And you talk about things like chemistry or caring about a teammate — when a manager would get chewed out at practice for something and you’d go to the training table that night, who was Antonio sitting with?
Cleaves, who followed Smith from one level to the next, knows the foursome never would have been the same without his good friend committing first. Cleaves also knows he’d never have his ring.
“He started it, Antonio,” Cleaves said.
“He schooled us. He installed so much into us in the three years he spent with us, it was like he was out there. I just felt so bad. He deserved a national championship.
“He don’t get the credit he deserved. He was the first one to go to Michigan State. We followed him.”
The day Mateen Cleaves knew he wanted to be a Spartan was the same day he thought Tom Izzo would never have him.
A highly touted quarterback from Flint Northern, Cleaves was participating in 7-on-7 drills when he and his teammates got into a scuffle with a rival school’s team.
Cleaves was so ashamed, he was afraid to walk over to Izzo — a football guy in his own right — watching from afar.
“I wanted coaches to have nothing but good things to say about me,” Cleaves said.
“I walked up to coach with my head down and he was like, ‘That’s why I want you to be on my team — because you’re tough and I love you Flint guys and how tough you are!’ I thought he was going to lecture me about getting into fights. From that point on, I pretty much knew I wanted to go to Michigan State.”
Cleaves, who grew up with a mother working on Flint’s General Motors assembly lines and a father in education, had a dream to see himself on CBS’ coverage of the NCAA Tournament and eventually on its annual staple, “One Shining Moment.”
The bright-eyed, wide-smiled point guard decided East Lansing was the best fit to make those dreams come true. That afternoon, on the playing fields of Flint, also was an important one for the man who would help him realize those dreams.
“I just saw the passion for winning,” Izzo said.
“There were some things with that group I never questioned. I never questioned their wanting to win. Like (Earvin “Magic” Johnson), I never questioned them about putting winning before anything else. Those were qualities that if I could get my son or daughter to have, I’d let Mateen baby-sit them every day.”
Those in the MSU basketball circle know, and those who aren’t can quickly discern — Izzo’s son’s middle name is no coincidence. His birth name — Steven Mateen Izzo — is in honor of the All-American who touched his coach’s life.
“(Former MSU head coach Jud Heathcote) told me, ‘Enjoy him,’” Izzo said.
“They come around once every 20 years. Magic was one, he was one.”
Cleaves ended his career as MSU’s only three-time consensus All-American, played in three Final Fours and has assist records that might never fall.
Izzo still often references the former captain and Cleaves remains an everyday part of the program. Such as earlier this season, when the Spartans took a tumble.
“I get this text from (Mateen): ‘This is who you are. This is where you’re best. Talk to you soon,’” Izzo recalled.
“The next day I call him, say, ‘Why don’t you come down?’ That afternoon, he’s down, sitting right here talking about it. ‘Who can I talk to? Who can I call?’ And, you know, it’s funny. Because Earvin “Magic” Johnson does the same thing, 25 years his elder.”
Charlie Bell says they used to implement the Jordan Rules against him at Southwestern.
The defensive strategy named for the former Chicago Bulls superstar — let him get as many points as he wants while shutting down his teammates — never worked, Bell says in triumph.
“I still mess with Mo Pete that every time we played Northwestern, we used to kill him,” Bell said.
“I think I had 38 against them when I was a freshman. I still mess with Mo Pete, saying that was my gym, it wasn’t his.”
Bell, the youngest of the four Flintstones, put the finishing touches on the group by his second year at Southwestern.
Averaging 30.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game as a senior, Bell came to MSU a Parade Magazine All-American.
He started as a freshman at MSU, earning recognition as the Spartans’ defensive stopper. But he says it never would have happened without following the paths of the Flintstones before him.
“In the summer, I would go and play open gym and you would see all those guys come back and play and give you advice on what it takes to get there,” Bell said.
“That was something that was big for me. Some places, like with the Fab Five, you never see those guys back on campus. Even to this day, our guys come back and play.”
Morris Peterson makes a special phone call every Mother’s Day.
In addition to dialing his family in Flint, he makes a call to a different family he grew into over the years.
“Every Mother’s Day, he still calls my wife,” Izzo said.
“It’s bizarre. You see these guys from this rough, tough area. They’ve all made it now. But I think, like myself, I don’t think they’ve ever forgot where they come from.”
Maybe the most unheralded — but most athletic — of the four in high school, Peterson garnered little attention at Northwestern. He registered as a redshirt his first year at MSU and came off the bench in the 1997-98 season. Then, he exploded as a junior.
“Everything kind of fell into place,” Peterson said.
“Once we won our first Big Ten Championship, guys got hungry. Guys started staying at school in the summer. A lot of programs, kids would go home for the whole summer. But being down the road, we took a class or two, worked on our games and when our season started, we felt like we were supposed to beat whoever was in front of us.”
Staying at MSU for the summer became a regular thing. Players worked out, focused on their shooting and improved their conditioning. Sometimes, they used unconventional methods to do so.
“Mateen and I never played together in the summer,” Peterson said.
“We always played against each other and always made it a point because I knew if I had to check him, I had my work cut out. And he knew we weren’t going to let each other loaf. We had that mentality that we felt like we were better than whoever was in front of us.”
Cleaves secured the tip-off on that Monday night in Indianapolis, heaved it crosscourt to Peterson who launched a deep 3-pointer. It clanged off the iron but Bell was there for the tip-in.
The Spartans were on the board with the ball touching only Flintstones. And the rest, as they say, was history.
“We always knew we were going to win,” Bell said.
“There wasn’t a doubt in our mind. The whole attitude that season was that nobody can beat us. It was national championship or bust.”
Ten years later, a group that receives much of its recognition from Cleaves often is left absent of praise for Peterson and Bell, who have continued their careers in the NBA.
While Cleaves left the RCA Dome floor with the Spartans clinging to a six-point lead, he returned with the Green and White leading by nine.
“It was one of the loudest reactions I’ve ever heard,” Peterson said.
“He came out and the whole arena was standing up. I had goosebumps. After that, we were ready to roll.”
CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz likened it to a heavyweight champion entering the ring, calling Cleaves one of the greatest leaders to ever play college basketball. Nantz’s broadcast partner, Billy Packer, said Cleaves was playing on one leg, barely able to walk. That night, Izzo said Cleaves had “the heart of a lion.”
Critics didn’t think the Spartans had the athletes (that goes for two-time NBA Dunk Contest winner Jason Richardson, an MSU freshman that year) to compete with Florida in the title game.
It was the Spartans’ first national championship game since Magic led MSU to its first title in 1979. But Cleaves said the team was so focused, the coaches didn’t need to enforce curfew or check the hotel rooms.
Izzo said he canceled the last practice before the title game, at Cleaves’ behest.
“Once we beat Wisconsin, you talk about focus — you could see it in guys’ eyes,” Cleaves said.
“In film session, shootaround, breakfast, pregame meal, layup line and game time. We were like robots tuned in. One thing we were saying, the game is won. We just have to go through the motions. We weren’t cocky, but the confidence was there. The swagger — the swagger was uncontrollable.
“We went out there and it was all business. There was no doubt.”
And as for the big stage? To the Flintstones, it was another day in the park. Another streetball game.
“When we got to Michigan State, you talk about pressure — that wasn’t pressure,” Cleaves said.
“Here in Flint, you see guys bet on elementary games, you see money being passed back and forth in the stands. People always talk about pressure. It wasn’t any pressure. When you grow up in that environment, a guy would come up to you and tell you, ‘We need this game.’ And we knew that meant.”
Win like Flint
Mateen Cleaves was crying.
Seconds earlier, he had sprinted off the bench to midcourt with a smile bright enough to light Indianapolis. Arms outstretched, he leapt into Peterson’s arms.
Now, his arms were around Izzo, also in tears.
“He wanted to play in a championship, he wanted to play on TV, he wanted to hear “One Shining Moment” — that was all he lived for,” Izzo said.
“The emotion of that was something I’ll probably never feel again, no matter what I do. A guy took a chance on me. I put some crap on him. Together, we got to live our dream.”
Some things haven’t changed. The streets of Flint still are run-down, but you still can find a basketball game at the YMCA, in the parks or at an open gym.
Some things have changed — Peterson now takes his alley-oops from NBA point guards, Smith teaches the Flint Northwestern freshman basketball team his own personal rendition of the famous War Drill and Izzo, back in East Lansing, is trying his best to instill the mentality of four men in his next championship-hopeful team.
Then, there are some things Izzo guarantees will never, ever change.
“He’s going to be one of those guys that transcends time,” Izzo said of Cleaves, the leader of the Flintstones.
“People here at Michigan State — it doesn’t matter if it’s your generation or 10 years from now — they’re going to know who Mateen Cleaves is. And as long as I’m alive and in this job, they’re going to know who that Flintstones group is.”
That takes care of East Lansing. But 50 miles east, there might not be another basketball community that knows how to win like Flint.
“It’s a Flint thing,” Cleaves said.
“People genuinely had a passion for us. It wasn’t a game. It wasn’t something to do. We put our city on our arm and wore it with pride. It was a Flint thing. Other kids do it for a fad. But when you represent Flint, you’re saying something. There were a lot of surrounding areas that never wanted to be attached to Flint. Now, we’re the Flintstones because of what we did.”