Saturday, May 18, 2024

Cleaves is just what Pistons need to win

March 26, 2001

What a difference a year makes.

After a stellar career as one of the greatest players in MSU history, rookie Mateen Cleaves is now getting a raw deal from the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.

And I saw it firsthand March 15, when I went with a friend to the Piston’s home game against the Los Angeles Lakers, a game where Cleaves played a whopping three minutes.

Despite going scoreless in the 125-119 overtime loss, Cleaves tallied an assist and was - despite a sellout crowd of 22,076 - the Palace of Auburn Hills’ biggest cheerleader, slapping high fives with teammates and pumping fists in the air after exciting plays.

That’s just the kind of competitor he is.

And it’s that type of attitude the Pistons need to get back to respectability.

It’s just a shame Cleaves has been stuck on the bench in the majority games since the February All-Star break.

What happened? He was started eight games before the overrated, commercialized NBA weekend.

Now unfortunately, he’s got the best seat in the house.

How on earth do you keep a proven winner on standby, especially on a lackluster 25-42 squad in desperate need to find some consistency within the organization?

So take note, George Irvine, and give Cleaves a chance to shine, because you could get used to sitting as well - on your couch at home once you are relieved of your duties as head coach.

Cleaves needs a fair shot and he needs it now, especially with the Pistons still in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Yeah, I know what you’re saying, “Pistons, playoffs, whoopee!”

But the fierce leader needs all the experience he can get to show the organization he’s capable of being that aggressive playmaker he was in college.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s during a first-round playoff series, which the Pistons have been notorious for falling apart in for almost a decade.

Something is just flat-out wrong here; it’s not like he’s playing behind Hall of Fame selections or anything.

NBA journeyman Dana Barros and Chucky Atkins - with his second team in as many years - are mediocre to say the least.

Plus, ball-hog Jerry Stackhouse, who fires 30 to 40 shots a night just to stay among the league’s top scorers, isn’t as great of a team leader as he’s hyped up to be either.

Cleaves brings intangibles to the Pistons that can’t be coached, just ask Garner Pleasant, his assistant coach at Flint Northern High School during the squad’s 1995 state championship season.

“He was the hardest worker I have ever seen,” said Pleasant, now a head coach at the Saginaw Valley Conference powerhouse. “There were other guys more talented, but he worked and worked to improve and get an edge over those guys.”

Pleasant is also well aware of Cleaves’ ability to motivate others.

“Mateen was such a great leader in high school that you could take the worst defensive player ever and Mateen would make that guy play the best defense of his life,” Pleasant said.

There’s a savvy about Mateen, a blue collar attitude that the Pistons have been lacking since they were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1991.

He can help bring the excitement back and turn Mo-Town into Moe-Cleaves town.

It has to hit hard for the proven winner to be on the outside looking in at a MSU squad he helped build, that’s still alive in their hunt its for a second straight title.

To see my favorite Spartan get lost in the beaurocratic shuffle on my favorite NBA team just isn’t fair.

Champions deserve better than that.

Eric Lacy, a State News men’s basketball reporter, who does Mateen’s “dagger in the heart” gesture after dunking on 8-foot rims against elementary school kids, can be reached at lacyeric@msu.edu.

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