At MSU, the basketball program is a family.
Sitting near the head of the dinner table is Mateen Cleaves, the only three-time All-American in MSU history and the catalyst of the 2000 national championship team. Cleaves has grown both personally and professionally since his playing days as a Spartan, but one thing hasn’t changed — he still bleeds green.
His career as a Spartan player ended more than 15 years ago but his impact and legacy are still resonating with the program.
“We always wanted to be mentioned with the North Carolinas, the Dukes and Kentuckys,” Cleaves said. “That was my goal when I went to Michigan State, not just to be ranked and be a good school when I was there, but to always be in that conversation. Now, as a 37-year-old man, not boastfully but humbly, I sit back and smile that I had a hand in helping do that.”
With MSU’s ninth potential Final Four in the headlights, Cleaves thinks both as a fan and college basketball analyst that the Spartans have a “really good shot” to make it to Indianapolis.
A national semifinal is just one of the final destinations of a process Cleaves described as one of the driving forces behind MSU’s runs in March.
Never losing faith
The Spartans were a legitimate bubble team at one point this year, but weeks later, MSU is a Final Four favorite. Home losses to Texas Southern, Illinois and Minnesota could have derailed MSU’s confidence, but they didn’t.
As frustrating as things got at times, Cleaves said it was never hard to watch his team.
“One thing about it, I understand the process because coach Izzo — you lose two pros and a four-year starter in Keith Appling, it’s a process,” Cleaves said. “I understood that. Whenever you go and out play a Kansas, Notre Dame, Duke early. I get mad every time we lose, yeah. But I understand it, and it’s never hard for me to watch my family. I knew they’d pull it together.”
Senior forward Branden Dawson and senior guard Travis Trice have each gone to two Sweet 16 rounds and an Elite Eight. This year, they took the reins and for a brief period, the now 18-year old NCAA Tournament streak was in jeopardy.
Cleaves, among other Spartans, talked to players and his message was clear— learn something from every game.
Whether it was a win or a loss, something could always be taken away from the game, he said. To Dawson and Trice, he reinforced how important it was for them to be the leaders of MSU’s charge.
Now playing in the Sweet 16, it looks like Cleaves’ words have hit home with this team.
Backbone of alumni
Following MSU’s win over Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament, head coach Tom Izzo preached about the impact of former players on his teams. Cleaves, one of the most iconic Spartans, is also one of the most active voices along with others like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Draymond Green.
For Cleaves, he’s just reciprocating his own experience as a player. He said players like Eric Snow would come back and practice with the team, opening up opportunities for casual hangouts, advice sessions, and partnered workouts. Johnson was available for quick phone calls as well.
“Steve Smith was the one that really took me under his wing and mentored me and took time out to answer questions that I ever had,” Cleaves said. “That meant the world to me.”
Cleaves said that because he’s had the feeling of support himself, he understands its importance to current players. The basketball program is an expanding family, and when a recruit signs his letter of intent, it’s a binding decision to become the newest family member.
“Once you’re in, we always help in any way we can,” Cleaves said.
Cleaves is no stranger to success in March, appearing in a Sweet 16, a Final Four and a national championship game from his sophomore to senior season. His postseason career followed a rate of steady growth before finally capping his MSU career as the Most Outstanding Player in the 2000 Final Four.
Leading up to MSU’s national title, the “process” that Cleaves described started with the arrival of summer. After coming up short in a national semifinal loss to Duke, redemption was on the mind. Throughout the year and in preparation for the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans were united in their approach.
“It wasn’t anything new to us,” Cleaves said. “We had our mind set on winning a national championship and that was the goal.”
Add in coach Izzo, who sacrifices sleep for scouting reports and game plans, and everyone was on the same page, Cleaves said.
He told this year’s team to seize the moment. It’s a challenge that comes on the biggest stage but at MSU, making the tournament just isn’t enough. The program wants to win championships — not participation awards.
The path to reaching this goal is treacherous. The tournament can be a minefield for the top teams, with upsets seemingly occurring more and more frequently.
While beating a team like Kentucky in a seven game series would be daunting task, a team only needs one game to outplay the opponent.
“You don’t have to be the best team, you just have to be the best team for 40 minutes,” Cleaves said.
Reaching beyond basketball
Cleaves was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 2000 and played seven years in the NBA before a couple more overseas. He still finds himself near the game of basketball, most recently as a studio analyst for Turner Sports during the NCAA Tournament.
His role with March Madness means the world to him, he said, but it’s not the only thing he strongly cares about.
Cleaves has created the 1 Goal 1 Passion organization with the intent of helping underprivileged youth across Michigan. He offers basketball camps and a program called Books and Basketball, which works to strengthen reading and comprehension skills in children. Hope for the Holidays is also a campaign dedicated to bringing gift packages and assistance to families in need.
His passion for helping the community was instilled by his parents and he’s doing everything he can to “push the envelope.”
“A lot of kids, especially in Flint, they don’t even dream anymore,” Cleaves said. “They don’t believe. I drill that into kids every day, don’t be afraid to dream and work towards a dream.”