By Matt Caputo
Mateen Cleaves knows how to dance. Back in 2000, Cleaves led Michigan State to the national championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Cleaves, the Spartan’s career steals leader, is Michigan State’s only three-time All-American. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year twice – leading college and conference in career assists with 816. After four years at Michigan State, the short and stocky entered the NBA draft.
Cleaves slid into the League early in the first round. The Pistons took him with the 14th pick in the first-round, but Cleaves struggled to fit in after his rookie season. Although he was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie Team, he didn’t make the playoff roster when he was shipped to Sacramento, where the Kings went to the Western Conference Finals. Since then, the majority of his NBA career has been spent trying to keep his dream alive. He bounced from the Kings to the Cavs before making his first stop in the D-League with the now defunct Huntsville Flight. He’s shuffled back and forth between the big and little leagues, even spending decent stretches of two seasons with the now non-existent Seattle Supersonics, where he played sparingly. Though he’s been to camp with the Nuggets, Celtics, Raptors and Nets, he hasn’t found a permanent place on any roster. Over the last three seasons, Cleaves has brought a ton of veteran knowledge to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League.
SLAM recently spoke with Cleaves about his March Madness memories, NBA and D-League career after practice with the Jam.
SLAM: What are you up?
Mateen Cleaves: I’m hanging in there. I just got out of shoot-around; we got a little game tonight. We’ve got to play the Dakota Wizards tonight and pretty they’re decent. I couldn’t watch today because we had practice, but I’m fitting to go and watch the tournament right now.
SLAM: What are your Final Four predictions?
MC: Oh man, I filled out about three different brackets. I got Michigan State, UCONN, Pitt and Memphis or something.
SLAM: This time of year, you have to think a lot about the 2000 National Championship.
MC: You always do. I think Magic Johnson told me that it gets better every year. He said that you wouldn’t appreciate it until you get older and that’s how it is. I still get chill bumps, the memories come back and the phone start righting, you know (laughs). It’s always a good time of the year. People took for granted how athletic our team was and how good we were in transition. I think we showed that against Florida when they tried to press us. Coach Izzo had a hell of a game plan, him and the rest of the staff.
SLAM: What’s your most vivid memory of the 2000 Title?
MC: Finally just winning it! I sit down with my brothers and my father and watch the tournament every year. As a kid, you fantasize about being in it and winning it, but at that time it was only a dream. We started out with Valparaiso, the next game we beat Utah, after that we beat Syracuse and Iowa State. We played Wisconsin and we beat Florida. To actually have it happen was priceless.
SLAM: What was the most intense moment?
MC: I would say, it was probably when we were playing Syracuse and we were down. Coach called a time our and Morris Peterson came in and we called our favorite play a “back-door lob.” Mo said “Coach, I think I can make it.” I came off a screen-and-roll, turn around and come back, dribble at Mo’Pete and he cut backdoor. He caught it and it went through. We went on to win and it was a great moment for us.
SLAM: What made that team a championship team?
MC: What made us special was that we needed our entire team to play well if we were going to win. Everybody on that team brought something different. Morris Peterson has did a lot of things, Charlie Bell was our do-it-all type of guy, AJ Granger played a hell of a role and made great plays. Andre Hutson was probably the most underrated player on that team. I don’t think he really got credit for how great he played throughout that whole year, not just in the tournament. We had Jason Richardson and David Thomas coming off the bench. We didn’t care who got the credit or who scored the most points; our main goal was to find a way to win by any means necessary. We all depended on each other.
I’m constantly in touch with those guys, like Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell. Coach invites us back for a football game and a big dinner ever year. We all managed to stay in touch over the years.
SLAM: Coach Izzo’s son’s middle name is “Mateen,” after you.
MC: Man, that’s an honor. Our coaches put in so much work to build the best possible game plan. The players played, but the coaches did a hell of a job preparing us. Coach Izzo was big on playing one game at a time and not looking ahead. Our theme that year was “leave it all on the floor.” Basically, we didn’t want to come back to the locker rooms with an ounce of energy left. That’s something we kind of took to heart.
SLAM: Can you compare playing in the D-League to playing major DI ball?
MC: It’s different, to be honest. DI, especially like Michigan State, - it’s two different leagues. In the D-League, you’ve got some traveling guys and some guys who I think could play in the NBA. Everybody here is hardworking and trying to move on to the big leagues. Other than that, I can’t compare the two to be honest.
SLAM: You’ve moved from the NBA to the D-League to the NBA and back. How much have you seen it change in your time there?
MC: It has changed. They’ve done a heck of a job. I played in Huntsville, Alabama and the bus rides were eight hours. Nowadays these guys are flying mostly everywhere. The league has grown. Even the Coaches have NBA experience, they have played in the NBA and they have grown. I’d like to take my hat off to the people that are running it, because they’re doing a heck of a job.
SLAM: You’ve got a lot of experience now, that’s for sure.
MC: I done been in every possible situation. I been an All-American, the superstar on the team, I’ve been the guy on the end of the bench that don’t play that much and has to just come to practice and work hard. Every situation I’ve been in has helped me out. In the D-League, and even when I was overseas, I’d come to practice and work guys out, so, being in all these situations has helped me a lot. There are little things you can do that make everybody better.
SLAM: How long do you see yourself continuing to play?
MC: Everybody I’ve spoken to tells me to play as long as I can and play until I get it out of my system. The veterans and the older guys tell me to keep going until I can’t anymore. I’m not going to play until I’m crippled, but I’ve got a good three or four more years. After that, I do have a passion to want to coach.