Pain can't stop Cleaves from claiming hero's role

April 04, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State would have been satisfied if Mateen Cleaves turned back the clock 21 years to Magic Johnson. But Cleaves didn't stop until he reached 30 years and became Willis Reed.

The images will burn forever: Cleaves limping off the court. The crowd roaring as he returned from the locker room. The hero hopping in place in the final moments, dancing in painful celebration.

Johnson was in the stands, watching Cleaves play the final 12 minutes with a sprained right ankle, admiring leadership that not even he provided when Michigan State won its only other NCAA men's title in 1979.

Cleaves couldn't run. He couldn't cut. He couldn't move laterally, or walk without a limp. But he kept bouncing around the court, barking out instructions, protecting his ankle, but offering his heart and soul.

At the conclusion of Michigan State's 89-76 win over Florida, Cleaves leaped into the arms of fellow senior Morris Peterson, his child- hood friend from Flint, Mich.

"I let him down easy," Peterson said, smiling.

The Spartans played so well, they might have won if Cleaves hadn't come back. But Cleaves inspired his team, just as Reed had inspired the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

He was the best player on the court in the first half, the most courageous in the second.

"This guy has the heart of a lion," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Cleaves' injury occurred as he collided with Florida's Teddy Dupay along the baseline with 16: 18 left, and Michigan State leading 50-44. The Spartans had thoroughly outplayed Florida to that point. But suddenly, they were in jeopardy.

Cleaves lay flat on his back along the end line, an MSU trainer attending to him, the Spartans' cheerleaders kneeling next to him, his teammates huddling around Izzo for instructions.

He rose to a great ovation, but the MSU supporters were furious that no foul was called, and the cheers turned to boos as he hobbled off the court.

"It was very painful," Cleaves said. "I tried to walk on it, but I couldn't put any pressure down. We just went back in the locker room, added some more tape to it and put on a brace.

"It was still hurting a bit but it made it easier to play. I dropped a couple of tears in the locker room. The trainer was, like, `We're going to get you back in there, tape you up.' "

Back on the court, an enraged Izzo jabbed his finger in the face of an official over the non-call on Cleaves' drive. But Michigan State's mood lifted immediately when Duke transfer Mike Chappell hit a three-pointer on the ensuing possession.

"We knew we had to start making a run. We couldn't make a run," Florida's Mike Miller said. "Any time we cut it down, we just couldn't stop them."

Actually, the Gators never cut it down -- they went more than three minutes without a basket, and were outscored during Cleaves' absence 8-6.

With 13: 24 left, Cleaves returned to the bench, the crowd following and cheering his every step. With 11: 54 left, he limped to the scorer's table to re-enter the game.

Was there any chance he wouldn't return?

"Oh no," said Cleaves, who did not score after his injury, but finished with 18 points. "I was definitely going to go back in. I told the trainer, he was going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one."

He returned with MSU leading, 58-49.

And then Peterson took over.

A basket in transition. A three- point play the hard way. His first three-point basket. Then two more threes.

Peterson finished with a team-high 21 points, and for the tournament scored 75 of his 105 points in the second half. Another Flintstone, Charlie Bell, assumed ball-handling responsibilities after Cleaves' injury, and helped Michigan State's backcourt outscore Florida's, 27-0.

But this victory was a team effort, a near-perfect performance, a coaching masterpiece.

Izzo isn't as slick as Florida's Billy Donovan, as revered as Wisconsin's Dick Bennett, as accomplished as Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. But he's 66-12 over the past two seasons, including 17-1 in March.

The Spartans were the only No. 1 seed to survive past the Sweet 16. They finished the season with a 12-game winning streak. And last night, they scored more points against Florida than any team this season.

So much for Florida's vaunted press, superior depth and youthful energy. Michigan State accom- plished virtually everything it wanted, beating the Florida press repeatedly, substituting efficiently and getting solid production from its bench.

Cleaves played a brilliant first half, scoring 13 points and hitting all three of his three-pointers. Granger contributed nine points to compensate for Peterson's 2-for-7 shooting. But the true star was Izzo, who repeatedly spelled his starters, and forced Donovan to take off his press.

The normal strategy against a press is for the point guard to receive the inbounds pass. But Izzo ran a basketball version of the hook-and-ladder, with Cleaves sprinting downcourt to receive the second pass. The tactic repeatedly yielded points in transition.

The Gators looked out of sync, but did they even have a chance? Michigan State hit 15 of its first 20 shots to start the second half. Chappell, a disappointment most of the season, contributed five points in Cleaves' absence.

A fan in the student section held a sign that said, "Tonight we party like it's 1979," a reference to Michigan State's other title, when Johnson and Co. defeated Larry Bird and Indiana State. And what a party it must have been, from Flint to East Lansing to the northern peninsula.

The memories will burn forever:

Magic Johnson, Willis Reed, Mateen Cleaves.

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