Morris Peterson became a man at JC Penney. Or so he thought. Morris, five years old at the time, was on a shopping trip to the Genesee Valley Mall in Flint, Mich., with his mother, Valarie, and his two older sisters, Tonda and Trina, when he spotted a diminutive bearded fellow in a beige suit. The curious boy walked up to the dwarf, looked him in the eye and scurried back to his mother, who explained that this was a fully grown person. A man. Young Morris compared their heights and proclaimed, "I'm a man!" For the next hour, as his mother and sisters continued shopping, Morris shuttled between the little person and his family, squealing, "I'm a man! I'm a man! I'm a man!"
By the time the Petersons returned home, Tonda had become so weary of her little brother's mantra that she whispered a plan to her mother. After Valarie unlocked the front door, she reached inside for the broken broomstick she kept handy to ward off possible intruders, turned to Morris and said, "If you're a man, then take the stick and lead us into the house."
Morris peeked into the dark entryway, looked at the stick in his hand and began wailing. "Mama, I don't want to be a man," he cried. "Pleeeeease, don't make me be a man!" On that day Morris assumed the first and most enduring of his many nicknames: Man.
Until recently that moniker has been tinged with irony. It has taken him almost five years at Michigan State to grow into it, to embrace it, for Man to truly become the Man. Now, no one is more responsible than Peterson, a 6'7" forward, for the steamrolling play of the No. 6-ranked Spartans, who through Sunday had run off five straight wins by an average of more than 25 points to improve to a Big Ten-leading 7-1 and 17-5 overall.
On Jan. 30 Peterson nailed 5 of 7 three-point attempts and finished with 18 points in a 91-66 rout of Illinois. Two nights later, in an 82-62 romp past Michigan, he scored a career-high 32 points, grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and had a double double in the second half. And in Michigan State's 85-66 humiliation of Connecticut, ranked No. 7 at the time, last Saturday in East Lansing, Peterson led the Spartans with 16 points and displayed his full repertoire. During back-to-back possessions in the first half, he threaded an alley-oop pass to forward Jason Richardson for a dunk and deposited his own alley-oop slam on a fast-break pass from guard Charlie Bell. Early in the second half he drained consecutive three-pointers from the left wing to muzzle any notion the Huskies may have had of making a comeback. Overall through Sunday, Peterson was scoring 17.3 points per game, shooting 46.0% from beyond the arc and averaging 5.9 boards for the nation's best rebounding team. He's doing it all despite averaging only 12.0 shots and 27.5 minutes in Michigan State's egalitarian offense. " Peterson's a prototype wing player, a guy who's close to unstoppable," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after Saturday's display. "If his team wasn't so balanced and deep, he'd be scoring 25 a game, and we'd all be talking about how he's the best player in the country."
The origins of Peterson's explosive run this season can be traced to the afternoon of Oct. 25, when he was enjoying a nap on the couch in the apartment he shares with senior guard Mateen Cleaves, who arrived home with the news that he would miss the first two months of the season because of a broken right foot. "Don't feel sorry for me, Pete, because I'll play through you," Cleaves said. "It's time for you to take over and be the All-America you know you are."
Part of Peterson tingled with excitement at this unexpected chance at the limelight. Part of him was a little scared. Pleeeeease don't make me be the man.
Peterson's first test came on Dec. 1, against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, four days after the Spartans had blown a 15-point lead and lost to Texas. At the shootaround the day before the game against the Tar Heels, Peterson saw Cleaves crying as he gazed up at Michael Jordan's retired jersey in the Smith Center and then down at his fractured foot. This was the kind of game in which one player might have to step forward and lift the Spartans on his shoulders, and Cleaves had always been that player.
Against North Carolina the next day, the player known to the Spartan Nation as MoPete (Pete to his coaches and teammates) took command. He scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes, prompting Cleaves to grab teammate Brandon Smith on the bench and announce, "Hey, world, this is Morris Peterson." Peterson finished with 31 points, six rebounds and five steals as Michigan State handed then No. 2-ranked North Carolina an 86-76 defeat. After the game the normally reserved Peterson blushed when asked about the sequence in which he snuffed a Tar Heels' rally with a three-point basket and retreated downcourt with his index finger to his lips to quiet the crowd. "Who was that guy?" Peterson asked. "I guess a little Mateen came out of me."
Peterson and Cleaves were born 12 days apart at Flint's Hurley Medical Center in the summer of 1977. They grew up separated by just eight blocks and first met as seven-year-olds on a playground basketball court. Peterson entered Northwestern High a year earlier than Cleaves arrived at Northern High, so they were never teammates, but they often checked each other in high school games or in pickup duels at Ballenger Park. While Peterson credits many of his moves to Cleaves, his humility can be traced to the women who ruled his family after his parents' divorce in '83. At age five Morris challenged Valarie to a game of one-on-one. He quickly jumped to a 6-0 lead in a game to seven and began taunting his mom. Bad idea. Valarie, who has been the basketball coach at Holmes Middle School for the last 21 years, hitched up her skirt and blocked all of her son's shots until she'd won the game 7-6. "I remember crying and screaming, 'Mama, you're not supposed to beat me,' " Morris says. "I learned that day what it means to be a competitor."