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Cleaves embodies Spartans' fortitude

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- Mateen Cleaves, noted as a bad shooter, took on Michael Jordan splendor with three quick 20-foot treys. Finding a higher Monday night gear. Seizing the national championship moment.

Before tipoff, Michigan State's czar ordered his Spartans to "leave it all on the floor!" With ease, the gritty senior splintered Florida's renowned press, generating layups for the Big Ten studs.

Spartans nudged toward domination. They were adults taking Gainesville's gifted kids to a big, loud Indiana woodshed. Coach Tom Izzo substituted masterfully, neutralizing Florida's deep bench. Deep? Spartans run deep.

In the RCA Dome, it'd become The Green Mile, with Spartans having 3-to-1 advantage over UF orange and blue. Massive happiness was being delivered but not without a swatch of fear.

Cleaves, after another crack of the Gators' press, made a punishing little shot, elevating for a 5-footer that put Michigan State up by six with 16:18 remaining in the last step of the Big Dance. Teddy Dupay, an outmanned 5-foot-10 defender, gave Mateen a nasty but unintentional clip at the ankle just as the ball was nuzzling into the net. Cleaves went down like a hammer smashing a nail.

[AP photo]
Mateen Cleaves yells in celebration.

He tumbled, grimaced and grabbed the right ankle. Same foot he broke a few months ago, missing 13 games. His Indy pain excruciatingly visible. Mateen rolled over, then crawled on all fours across the polished floor, in search of Michigan State's sideline.

Where there had been roof-shaking roars, a funereal quiet came. This could have been a derailment of Michigan State's championship express. Involving a fellow not just cheered at his school, but loved. Genuinely.

A stumpy senior from blue-collar Flint, Mich., he has linebacker mentality. Derrick Brooks in short pants. Instead of riding a gurney, Cleaves limped down a hallway for medical assessment. In the stands, his mother's face was blank. Stunned.

With the fierce, spiritual leader of the favored Spartans seemingly crippled, could it have been an 11th hour crevice through which Gators might have climbed, rallying over a now-aimless Michigan State to win?

No way. Not with Cleaves' fellow seniors, A.J. Granger and Morris Peterson, coming to dramatic life to fill the void. Florida was getting powerful play from Udonis Haslem, but the Spartans were older, more savvy and better.

Mateen would be like a mini Willis Reed, a legend from so long ago for the NBA champion New York Knicks. A wounded soldier refusing to miss the greatest of battles. Bringing a presence if not a full body.

Cleaves' ankle was sprained, but his heart unharmed. "I dropped a couple of tears in the locker room," he would say. "It got very emotional. But they were going to have to amputate to keep me out. Not the game of my life."

Back down that arena hall he soon came, with winces. Returning to warm, memorable cheers. Michigan State people in green were screaming, all but weeping. Florida followers, with notable class, also applauded the gutsy act of a marvelous champion.

Cleaves had maybe 75 percent of his physical skills. Perhaps less. But the heart, the mind, the leadership and the man were there. Fellow Spartans rallied around Mateen. A lesson for so many.

Michigan State won by an 89-76 knockout. Post-trauma, Cleaves scored no points. Didn't matter. He finished with 18. More than enough. First national championship for the Sparties since 1979, when Magic Johnson was the man. Twenty-one seasons later, he was in the 19th row, cheering in a green sweat shirt. Still smiling and 6 feet 9.

Cleaves, for all he's done, should maybe outrank even Earvin Johnson in Spartans hoops lore. He will never come close to Magic as an NBA player, but for the old school in East Lansing, there's perhaps never been a basketball player more imposing.

See you later, Gators. It was a grand, heart-pumping NCAA Tournament run. Not expected to survive the East Region, the Gators overturned top-ranked Duke, then popped Oklahoma State to make their second Final Four in seven seasons. Second ever.

Don't hint at the word fail.

Runners-up will do.

Thursday night in Gainesville, a celebration will be at the O'Connell Center. Yes, celebration. Despite the wounds of Monday night, these young, entertaining Gators will wind up rated No. 2 in America for the season, a place Florida hoops has never before gone.

Among the Gators, only Kenyan Weaks is a senior. If all goes by form, Florida should be even better a year from now. But you never know. Mike Miller plans to now analyze his NBA draft possibilities. It's possible he could be one of 13 lottery picks, guaranteed instant millions of dollars.

Miller should not go. He's not ready for the pros. Needs at least another collegiate season, 20 well-packed additional pounds and a lot of Cleaves-like maturity with the noggin part of his skills.

Cleaves, he's not apt to become an NBA star. But, hey, maybe his shooting touch isn't so clangy, seeing that flurry of threes. If there's a market for savvy, leadership and heart in the pros, this fellow will have a solid, non-blue-collar job for a long time.

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