"Mateen Cleaves is an All-America, probably an NBA player," Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said after the game. "When a game's on the line, blue-chip guys step up. That's Mateen. That's why he is who he is."
Cleaves, trained by his mother, took no responsibility for the shot. "God was with me. He carried the ball into the basket," he told reporters. Frances sat nearby in a plastic chair, watching, beaming.
His faith has not always been so unambiguous. In October 1995, when Cleaves was a senior at Flint Northern High, one of his closest friends, Marlon Veal, was shot dead by a Flint police officer during a foot chase. Veal was 18. Cleaves describes Veal as a good kid who did bad things, a curbside drug dealer who made maybe $300 a week. But if you didn't have a pair of basketball shoes or a ball to play with, he got you what you needed. At the funeral, when the preacher talked about God this and God that and Marlon's heavenly resting place, Cleaves's mind was drifting far away. "I thought he'd just jump out of the casket," Cleaves says. "He was always playing games."
For a long time Cleaves blamed the Flint police for Veal's death. A lot of people in Cleaves's neighborhood in Flint still feel that way. On the side of the vacant house in which Veal was killed, just a few blocks from the Cleaveses's family house, there is a spray-painted message RIP BRO. F—-THE PO-PO. For a long time Cleaves wrote the initials MV on the heel of each of his basketball shoes.
Cleaves's roots in Flint are deep. One of his three tattoos reads FLINT. Another reads FRANCES. (Cleaves is also close to his father, Herbert, who lives in Flint, too, though his parents are divorced.) The third tattoo reads GSP, for Grace Street Posse, the cadre of kids—Marlon Veal was among them—with whom Cleaves grew up on the north side of Flint. The Grace Street kids still figure in his life.
On Oct. 10, during homecoming weekend, Marlon Veal's brother, Michael, attended a dance in a Michigan State dormitory attended by 300 people, including Cleaves. No alcohol was served. Veal, who is 23, is not a Michigan State student, but he was not the only outsider there. An off-duty Detroit police officer attended the dance, too. During the party several fights broke out. The off-duty police officer used his pepper spray in an attempt to quell the fighting. In the melee his handgun disappeared. Campus police were called in to restore peace. No one was arrested, but the campus police conducted an investigation. Six weeks later, on Nov. 30, Veal was arrested and charged with assault for allegedly hitting a Michigan State student with a chair. At least one witness said Cleaves was a peacemaker during the fights. At least one other said Cleaves punched the off-duty police officer. Cleaves and Veal declined to discuss the incident. Frances had only one tiling to say about it: "If Michael did what they say he did, then he misrepresented our neighborhood." That, naturally, would disappoint her. Still, she prays for him.
The fourth paragraph in a news story about Veal's arrest in the Dec. 1 edition of the Lansing State Journal read, "Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said others may be charged." Neither Cleaves nor the people around him knew what to expect. On Dec. 2, against Duke, Cleaves had one of the worst games of his college career. Soon after, at the suggestion of his mother, he stopped writing MV on his basketball shoes.
"Mateen has to realize he's the most visible athlete at MSU, maybe in all of Michigan," says Izzo. A year ago, East Lansing police arrested Cleaves on a misdemeanor charge of possession of alcohol by a minor, which in this case was an unopened can of beer. Izzo came up with a punishment he thought fit the crime: He benched his guard for half a game. (Cleaves also paid a court-ordered fine and did community service.) Izzo says Cleaves should be allowed to lead the normal life of a college student. "Mateen did nothing wrong at that dance," Izzo says. "I'm not going to stop a kid from going to an on-campus, nondrinking party. He's just got to be careful. I told him he's got to watch who he hangs with. But that doesn't mean you forget the people you've known all your life."
After the loss to Duke, and the loss to Connecticut three days later, the Spartans were 4-3 and sinking fast in the polls. They won their next seven games against un-ranked opponents, but on Jan. 6 they lost a Big Ten game, to Wisconsin, which was ranked 24th at the time. Then came the game that turned Michigan State's season around. On Jan. 9, on a Saturday night in East Lansing, Michigan State played Michigan. The Spartans were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1978-79 national championship team. Magic Johnson, the kingpin of that team, was in the house. Breslin was shaking. Cleaves was warming up when somebody approached him and said, "Earvin wants to see you, right away." Cleaves ran off the court and met Johnson, who got right to the point. "I've been watching some of your games," he said. "It looks like you're not having any fun."
"I think I'm trying too hard," Cleaves said.