His grandmother had a voice that made men weep, it was so beautiful. Mateen Cleaves never knew his mother's mother, Betty Livingston, but he knows about her voice. A voice like Billie Holiday's, he's been told. Her boyfriend sent a demo tape to Capitol Records, and Capitol sent a man out to find her, but he never did. When Betty was strung out on heroin, booze, morphine or something else, nobody could find her. When Frances Cleaves buried her mother, a young woman burying a young woman, her emotions were jumbled. Betty's pain was finally over, but all her promise was gone, too. Frances made a vow that day: At every turn she would seek out greatness, nurture greatness, celebrate greatness. That was her job, when she wasn't on a GM assembly line. That was why God put her on this earth.
And that's what she's done. Look at her baby, Mateen, the youngest of her five children. You see the exuberance with which he plays basketball? That's God at work, Frances will tell you. Mateen is a junior at Michigan State, a 6'2" point guard and the floor leader of a team that, after defeating Iowa 80-65 last Saturday, is ranked fifth in the nation. He is one of the best at his position playing in college today, that's what NBA scouts will tell you. His shot—he launches it from down around his right shoulder, sixth-grade style—is not a thing of beauty. His numbers (11.9 points per game, 7.1 assists, 2.2 steals) won't blow you away. What he does is beat you. At week's end Michigan State was 20-4, leading the Big Ten at 9-1 and with high hopes for March. The Spartans know that as Cleaves goes, so goes their team. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been saying for months that he hopes Cleaves is ready for the NBA draft in June, even though Mateen says he wants to return for his senior year. For if Cleaves proves down the stretch that he's ready for the pros, it means the Spartans will have had a superb season.
Wherever the Spartans go, Frances Cleaves goes. That's why she was in State College, Pa., on Feb. 9, checking into the Nittany Lion Inn. She had spent 17 hours riding five buses to get there from Flint, Mich., the barren factory town north of Detroit where she lives, just to see Michigan State play Penn State. With her nails done in Spartan Green and the letters MSU stenciled onto half of her wardrobe, she stands out when she comes to town. In the gift shop of the Nittany Lion Inn that day, three white-haired Penn State alumni happened upon her. Quickly they became enraptured.
"It says 'Flintstones,' because we have four players on the team from Flint, Michigan," she said, explaining the wording on the T-shirt she was wearing. She began pointing to four cartoon characters in the vicinity of her stomach. "This is Charlie Bell; he's just a sophomore. This is Antonio Smith; he's a senior. This, of course, is Mateen. They're all starters. And this is Morris Peterson. He doesn't start, but he leads the team in scoring. Four kids from one city on a single basketball team. How do you like that?"
The three Penn State alums nodded enthusiastically. Apparently they liked it quite a lot. They snuck a look at the back of her T-shirt, where there was an outline of the state of Michigan. Only one city was identified, marked by a basketball. It was Flint, of course. "When those boys were coming up, they'd play against each other in summer leagues and whatnot," Frances continued. "I always told them, 'Never let it become personal, because you never know when your opponents will become your teammates.' "
This season, in which the Spartans hadn't lost at home in 11 games through Sunday, a new song has caught on in the student section of the Breslin Center in East Lansing. It is sung to the tune of the Flintstones theme song.
Flintstones. We're the Flintstones.
We're the best ballplayers in his-tor-eee.
Mo P—from Mateen Cleaves,
ally-ooping is their spe-shul-tee.
he's the man who plays defense.
he's the man with the Windex.
play the Flintstones,
you'll have a tough time,
a really tough time.
Watch out, it's Spartan time!
But on the road, in State College, on a dreary, damp night, it was the Spartans who were having a tough time, a really tough time. With 2:16 left in the game, Penn State, a team with much talent and a dim record to show for it, had a 68-65 lead. Cleaves was having a good passing game but a lousy shooting night, taking 10 shots and making just two of them, scoring only nine points. Then, in the final minute, he showed his game. With 50 seconds left he drained a three-pointer to tie the score at 68. Then with 31 seconds to go and the score unchanged, the Spartans got the ball back. During a timeout Penn State figured Cleaves would be the guy to take the final shot, and in their huddle the Lions were devising methods to stop him. In the Michigan State huddle, the Spartans were thinking differently. They were trying to find a way to get the ball to a shooter, maybe Jason Klein, a 6'7" senior with velvety hands, or perhaps one of the Flintstones. Izzo runs practices with military precision, but at crunch time he takes suggestions from anyone who has a good one. The players were sitting on tiny camping chairs assembled hastily on the court. There was a lot of noise. In the final seconds of the timeout, Cleaves said, "I'll take the shot."
His confidence is boundless, which is amazing, considering what he, and therefore the Spartans, endured during a two-week span early in the season. They lost three games, all on national TV, all against Top 10 teams, in large part because Cleaves played about as poorly as he ever does. On Nov. 20, at Temple, he had 17 points—along with 10 turnovers and several bad fouls. The Spartans lost 60-59. On Dec. 2, in a 73-67 loss to Duke in the Great Eight tournament in Chicago, Cleaves shot 3 for 17 from the field. Three days later, at Connecticut, Cleaves shot 2 for 15, and the Spartans lost 82-68. Questions were being asked. This is the guy who was an All-America last year? This is the guy some people are talking about as an NBA lottery pick? This is the guy who wants the ball with the Penn State game on the line? Yes, yes, yes.
Penn State followed its game plan. For most of the final 12 seconds at least two Nittany Lions were guarding Cleaves. He dribbled through the traffic jam, head down, inching his way toward the foul line, finally creeping just inside it. With .4 remaining he tossed up one of his sixth-grade specials. Mostly net. The Spartans won 70-68.