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Breslin Student Events Center to welcome former cagers, Pistons

October 18, 2000

Five days after MSU’s Homecoming, Mateen Cleaves and Antonio Smith will return to their old stomping ground Thursday night.

The two former Spartan basketball players will return to Breslin Student Events Center with their new team, the Detroit Pistons, for an NBA exhibition game against the Utah Jazz.

After leading MSU to its first national championship in 21 years last season, the Pistons drafted Cleaves with the 14th pick in the first round of June’s NBA draft. As point guard, Cleaves averaged 12.1 points and 6.9 assists in his senior season at MSU.

Smith, a productive rebounding power forward, ended his Spartan career a year before Cleaves with a Final Four loss to Duke in 1999. He played last season with the Grand Rapids Hoops of the Continental Basketball Association, averaging 4.2 points and 5.0 rebounds.

Now he is trying to latch on with the Pistons.

“It’s going pretty good, I’m having a lot of fun,” Smith said. “Guys here are more focused. They’re here for a reason.

“I’m just trying to help the team any way I can, whether it’s playing defense or diving for loose balls.”

While Cleaves signed a guaranteed contract with the Pistons, Smith still needs to have an impressive training camp to make the 12-man squad. Smith fills a role similar to current Pistons veteran Jerome Williams, a scrappy, rebounding forward.

“I’m learning how to react in certain situations,” Smith said. “(Pistons veterans) Michael Curry, Ben Wallace, and Mikki Moore are showing me how to handle things.”

Smith and Cleaves both grew up in Flint, and with Toronto Raptor Morris Peterson and senior guard Charlie Bell they form MSU’s infamous Flintstones.

Returning to East Lansing will be sweet for both players.

“The fans (at MSU) show great support for guys even after they leave,” Smith said. “It’s a great opportunity for my mom to see me play and for me to see the (MSU) coaching staff again.”

Cleaves will not only be playing in front of his parents, but also a hometown crowd that will focus on his every move despite proven NBA stars like Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jerry Stackhouse sharing the court with him. He said he won’t let the attention change the way he plays.

“I’m just going to be a regular guy and play my game,” he said. “I can’t get caught up in who’s watching me, I gotta do what I do.”

In June, Cleaves was so happy to be drafted by the Pistons, his favorite team as a child, that he danced his way up to meet NBA Commissioner David Stern after his name was called.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to stay at home and play basketball,” Cleaves said. “I’m going to have the same role (with the Pistons) that I had with MSU - to lead the team when I’m on the floor.”

He said his transition from college to the NBA is going smoothly.

“In the NBA, everyone is good. They’re bigger, stronger, faster, and more importantly, smarter,” Cleaves said. “Everyone in the pros was a star in college, so I’m playing against a lot of Mateen Cleaves now.”

As for the 2000-2001 edition of the Spartans, Smith said the team can equal last year’s championship run.

“They’re going to do a great job if they stay focused,” Smith said. “Charlie (Bell) is a senior now and he leads by example. The seniors have been through some tough times and some good times.”

The Pistons’ season will begin Oct. 31 against Peterson and the Raptors in Toronto.

The Pistons and Jazz will tip off at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

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