Friday, March 26, 1999

Cleaves and Izzo have special bond

AP Sports Writer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One is from a blue-collar city. The other is from a small town on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

        But the different backgrounds of point guard Mateen Cleaves and coach Tom Izzo never got in the way. Their bond has helped Michigan State get to the Final Four for the first time in 20 years.

        Cleaves grew up in Flint, Mich., a tough city known for making cars and trucks. Izzo is from Iron Mountain, where his boyhood pal was San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci.

        Somehow, Cleaves and Izzo are a perfect fit.

        Izzo seems to know when to push, when to be hard, when to ease off. Cleaves, whose play energizes the team, sometimes strays. But he's smart enough to know he has a safety net in Izzo.

        “I can call him up at three in the morning,” Cleaves said. “I can just say, "I can't sleep right now, I need somebody to talk to.' And that's the kind of guy he is.”

        Over the three years Cleaves has played for the Spartans, he and Izzo have found a way to become friends. They are active in community affairs in East Lansing. They feed the homeless together, visit children in hospitals, and drive out to counsel young offenders in a prison near the campus.

        “He's helped me grow up as a person,” Cleaves said.

        Of course, it might not work if Cleaves couldn't play. Or if Izzo couldn't coach.

        “Mateen is my best player,” Izzo said. “But he's also our hardest worker, which I think is something all coaches hope for. He's my best practice player. He's a guy that comes to practice every night.”

        The Spartans (33-4), who play top-ranked Duke (36-1) on Saturday night at Tropicana Field, are easily the least glamorous team in the Final Four. They have taken winning ugly to new highs — or, more accurately, new lows.

        That's because Cleaves doesn't always bring his “A” offensive game. But he's the best defender on the team, and he's always in command, even when he can't find his shot.

        “When I look at some of the guards we've had, Mateen could be head and shoulders above a lot of those guys as far as defense,” Izzo said. “That doesn't mean total game.

        “And he's got an attitude, that he finds a way to make shots or get the ball in the right people's hands.”

        Izzo is sometimes accused of being soft on Cleaves. He admits there might be some truth to that.

        “I respect where he came from, and he respects where I came from,” Izzo said. “I went from this small town and have found a way to buck the odds and make it here. He's come from this tough environment, where a lot of kids don't make it and don't survive, and he's finding a way to make it.

        “So, I think there's some similarities there. We're both kind of fighters.”

        Izzo cannot imagine his team without Cleaves, easily the Spartans' most charismatic point guard since Magic Johnson guided them to the national championship in 1979.

        “It's funny,” Izzo said. “We've got a melting pot on our team, guys from big cities, guys from rural areas. But for some reason, they all gravitate to him.

        “I told him one day, "You know, you're the Pied Piper. Don't ever walk off a cliff because the guys will follow you.' It's amazing.”