Diversity

Mateen Cleaves, A 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.

*MSU v Florida Cleaves

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 Gray 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.

Continue Reading on The Players Tribune…

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