Kid From Flint

Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Mateen Cleaves remembers the National Championship Game against Florida in 2000, and how a team of seniors was shaped by a young coach named Tom Izzo.

I was just trying to find Coach Izzo.

On the court, it was madness. Lights flashing and music blasting. Cameras were everywhere. “One Shining Moment” was just starting to play on the Jumbotron. Someone handed me a brand new white hat that read: Michigan State 2000 National Champions. I was trying to hold back tears. I needed to find Coach Izzo.

Weaving through the crowd, I found him. We shared a big bear hug. Together, we looked up and watched “One Shining Moment.” It was very emotional for me. I tell people all the time — that was the first time in my life I cried tears of joy. That was just a magical moment. Something I will never forget.

To understand the type of emotion I was feeling in that moment, you have to go back to the living room of my parents’ house at 512 Grace St. in Flint, Michigan. I was an 18-year-old kid sitting at the dinner table with a young coach with a funny name. Coach Izzo had come to recruit me. He was a first-year coach with the confidence of a veteran.

He looked right at me and my parents, and said, “If you come to Michigan State, we’ll win a national championship by the time you leave.”

Hold up. That sounded good and all, but I didn’t know how true that could be. This was the same year the Spartans had just finished sixth in the Big Ten and lost in the second round of the NIT. You know, at the time Michigan State wasn’t getting McDonald’s All-Americans every year. The ‘90s had been the University of Michigan’s basketball decade. Now this first-year coach was in my house guaranteeing a national championship?

But that’s the thing about Coach Izzo — there’s something about him that makes you want to be part of what he’s doing. Going to MSU to play for him turned out to be one of the best decisions in my life.

Every player who’s ever played for Coach Izzo knows that he cares about them. You might see him getting into a guy’s face or challenging a player, but there’s a lot that people don’t see. Throughout the course my career, I probably sat in his office a hundred times talking about how my mom and dad were doing, how are classes were going, how life was going — even joking or talking about TV shows … things that have nothing to do with basketball. He did that with everyone. He made the effort to know you as an individual. He cared about us as people, not just basketball players.

And I think that’s why his players would go out and run through a brick wall for him.

With Coach Izzo, his philosophy isn’t, What you can do for me? That’s not him. He’s is the total opposite of that. He’s a genuine person who cares about the man you become. But he’s going to hold you accountable. Because he wants you to be an All-American. He wants you to graduate. He wants you to win championships. He wants you to have a chance to play in the NBA. And most of all, he wants you to be a good person. So he’s going to challenge you every day.

Coach Izzo always put me through the gauntlet. He was tough on me. But I think that’s why we have such a great relationship. I had way more to learn than I thought I did. When I first got on campus, I never understood that if I passed a guy the ball and the other guy missed the shot, it was my fault. It took me a while to get that. He would stop practice to cut into me, even though the other guy made the bad play. And he’d say, “You should know where every guy wants to get the ball — everybody’s sweet spot. You’re the point guard. You should know everybody’s game as good as they know their own game.”

And I didn’t get that as a freshman, but over the years I started to understand what he was saying.

I remember one game — it might have been my sophomore year and I was having a pretty good year — but I was struggling and he took me out. I was mad because I wanted to play every minute of the game. I wanted to be the star. But I was turning the ball over and making mistakes. I said, “Coach, why are you taking me out?” And he told me, “This is a nationally televised game. I’m just going to take you out so you don’t embarrass yourself anymore.” I was fuming but he just gave a little smirk. I sat and sat. I felt like I was sitting out forever. Later, he came back down the bench: “Are you ready now?” And I was.

It’s funny, during my freshman and sophomore years, when I was frustrated with Coach Izzo, I’d call my parents. I’d explain how he was being harder on me than the other players or asking too much of me. My parents always took his side. Always. I say that it’s funny now, but it was frustrating back then! My parents trusted Coach. They encouraged me never to make excuses. So if he got on me, it was always “All right, Coach.” It was always, “I can do that, Coach.” By my junior year, I would go knock on his office door to watch game clips with him routinely. One day, he noticed I was catching stuff in the game clips before he caught them. It was just a little moment but it was special.


Back to the national championship game. Michigan State vs. Florida, for all the marbles.

We were No. 1 coming into the tournament but Florida was intimidating. Leading up to the game, people were saying we’d get outrun by them. They had a lot of talent. They had a really good coach in Billy Donovan. Mike Miller was just a killer player. I mean, they had Donnell Harvey, a future first-round pick, and Udonis Haslem — and we know the career he’s had in the NBA. With Matt Bonner, who was a freshman, that’s four pros on one team.

People were saying we couldn’t beat Florida’s press. As a point guard, I took that personally. We liked to play fast but people thought we were slow because we were just in a conference where a lot of teams tried to slow us down and play half-court ball. But we wanted to run — we loved it. I knew there were a lot of loopholes in their press, and I knew it would be a game where we could really get up and down and let our horses go. We had some of the best wings in the country that year, when you look at Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Mike Chappell and coming off the bench, a young, McDonald’s All-American in Jason Richardson.

In the end, we won because of experience. There’s no substitute for experience — there just isn’t. As seniors, we knew we were playing against a Florida team with mostly freshmen and sophomores. That’s a big difference.

I remember my sophomore year, getting to the Sweet 16, and I was pretty much excited just to get to the Sweet 16. My junior year, we were just excited to get to the Final Four. Then all of a sudden it’s senior year, and you know this is your last run. No coming back, no tomorrow. You lose the game, that’s it. People always tell you, “Play every game like it’s your last.” But once the NCAA tournament starts your senior year, it is your last. And I think that helped us because we played with a sense of urgency.

Myself and Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger — we couldn’t forget about the Final Four loss to Duke the year before. That whole summer up to that national championship game, we would break every hurdle with, “One, two, three, let’s go champs, champs, champs.”

When we looked at Florida, we thought, OK, you guys are really good, but maybe you need another year to get there. This is our year.

The camaraderie of a team of seniors is something that’s hard to describe. We just spent four year getting to know each other. All those times sitting up in each others’ apartments and having to bum up $5 or $10 to go halves on a pizza, going to the movies together, genuinely caring about each other. That’s why we’re still close to this day. Every guy on that team — we all stay in contact still, not just because we won a national championship, but because of the time we spent with each other. We genuinely liked each other and that was funny because you had inner city kids like myself, from Flint, Michigan, and you had guys like A.J. Granger, kind of a country kid coming from Ohio, all hanging out together like brothers.

Something happened during warm-ups that reminded us about the importance of experience. About an hour before the game, a bunch of Florida guys were goofing off, doing trick shots, shooting from half court — that kind of thing. They were loose and that’s fine. But I felt like they were too loose. This was the national championship! And we took it as disrespectful. It motivated us a lot. We were out there in a full sweat, going through our team and individual workouts, and they’re shooting half-courters. You know, maybe that looseness is what got them to the national championship game, I don’t know. But we were all business. Oh man, if Coach Izzo had caught us doing that? He probably would’ve broken a chair on the sidelines before the game. But it wouldn’t have happened because he created a culture where we policed ourselves, for the most part. Everybody was locked in and that year was our year to win it all. It wasn’t fun and games for us.

A team of seniors is rare nowadays. I don’t knock the kids that are one-and-done, but I appreciate every day I was at Michigan State. That may sound cheesy but I loved every minute of college. I could’ve come in to MSU saying, I’m going to do two years here and I’m done. But I didn’t. My goal was to go to the NBA but my whole thing was to let it happen. That’s something I always encourage kids to do: while you’re in college, enjoy it. You should have the goal to play in the NBA but embrace college. I’m telling you, at the end of the day, it will be some of the best times of your life. After my sophomore year, there was a little NBA talk. After my junior year, definitely. I could have gone top 15, top 20 in the draft.

By my senior year, I finished with a championship and that’s something nobody can ever take from me. That’s why it was so emotional to hug Coach Izzo during “One Shining Moment.” I was just thinking about that little kid from Flint, who was envisioning a championship. To me, that’s the true meaning of March Madness.

For more Tales of Madness, visit our  Tales of Madness page.