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Another magic run; Michigan State: Mateen Cleaves may be no Magic Johnson, but like the former Spartans star, he's led his team to the Final Four with his tough and charismatic presence.


Twenty years after an effervescent young talent named Earvin Johnson led Michigan State to the NCAA championship, another young, charismatic point guard has delivered the Spartans to the Final Four.

That's where all analogies and comparisons of Michigan State's past and present should end, however.

Mateen Cleaves is no Magic Johnson, but his No. 2-ranked Spartans do possess some magic of their own going into Saturday's national semifinal against No. 1-ranked Duke in St. Petersburg, Fla.

How else do you explain a team with no true scorer getting this far in the NCAA tournament? How else do you account for a team with no true center -- and whose tallest player is 6 feet 8 -- in this stratosphere? How else do you rationalize a point guard who can't shoot straight being the inspirational leader of a Final Four club?

You explain it all by saying the Spartans are greater than the sum of their parts. They will give away inches under the boards, but not rebounds. Their offense may lack artistry and appear primitive at times, but no one plays more ferocious, physical defense. They don't shoot very well from the three-point line, but when they need threes, they get them.

And it all starts with Cleaves, the lifeblood of this 33-4 team.

"It's funny," Michigan State coach Tom 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 how they all look to him."

Antonio Smith, a 6-8 power forward, has been looking at the 6-2 Cleaves for some time now, often in amazement. As far back as elementary school in Flint, Mich., they have been basketball buddies.

"In fourth grade, we had this dream," Smith said. "He told us we would win the state championship, then go to college together and win the national championship."

In 1995, Cleaves made good on the front end of that prediction. He and Smith led Flint Northern High to the state Class A championship. Two years later, Cleaves joined Smith on the East Lansing, Mich., campus. Now, they're in the Final Four together.

Cleaves has never been found wanting for confidence or leadership. It comes as naturally to him as running the fast break or whipping a wraparound pass.

"I was always a leader as a kid," he said. "I always had a bunch of kids behind me. It hit me when I went to high school and played varsity quarterback as a freshman. Here I was, a leader in the huddle at 13-14, with 18- and 19-year-olds."

What Cleaves also cultivated as a youngster in economically depressed Flint was pride in his hometown, enough to sport a Flint tattoo on his shoulder. There seemed to be no end to the Flint heroes who went off to star in some distant athletic arena.

Glen Rice went to Michigan, Trent Tucker to Minnesota, Roy Marble to Iowa, Jeff Grayer to Iowa State, all for basketball. Andre Rison passed through Michigan State on his way to the NFL. Theirs is a rich legacy of hope and triumph passed down through the ranks.

"Growing up in Flint is something I'm very proud of," Cleaves said. "I was talking to Andre Rison recently. It's like a family, everybody from Flint. We have people in the NBA and NFL. We have a lot of people doing a lot of things. The tattoo is letting people know I'm from Flint and proud of it."

Of the four Michigan State players from Flint -- Cleaves, Smith, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell -- only Bell does not brandish a Flint tattoo on his shoulder. All but Peterson start, and he's the team's leading scorer. So renowned is this group that Michigan State's pep band plays the "Flintstones" theme song at games.

Izzo says that Flint influence has rubbed off on the Spartans and made them tougher mentally and physically.

"The guys from Flint have really helped us," he said. "A lot was made about Flint, Mich., but if you come out of there, you do have to be tough. I think they've made our team tougher."

The toughness was self-evident in the Midwest Regional in St. Louis, where Michigan State overcame a 3-for-14 shooting night by Cleaves to beat Oklahoma, then wiped out a 13-point deficit to beat Kentucky.

Having ousted the bluebloods from Kentucky, the Spartans now take on Duke's royalty. Cleaves, for one, does not appear to be in awe.

"We're not going to let anyone tell us what we can't do," he said. "We're there, we're going to try to win it all."

Cleaves, averaging 11.7 points and 7.1 assists this season, was only 2 years old when Michigan State won its last title with Johnson and Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent. The Spartans had to beat Lamar, LSU, Notre Dame, Penn and Indiana State -- with Larry Bird -- to claim the championship as a No. 2 seed in a 40-team field.

It turns out Johnson had a hand, at least indirectly, in helping steer the Spartans to St. Petersburg this year, too. When Cleaves' game bogged down early in the season, Johnson paid a January visit to East Lansing to offer some advice. Boiled down, Johnson's message was to lighten up and have fun playing the game.

"At the beginning of the year, there were a lot of expectations on me," said Cleaves, a junior who could turn pro next season. "I kind of stopped having fun playing basketball. I was thinking I had to have a perfect game.

"I got to the point where I'd get mad at myself for missing shots or turning the ball over every once in a while. I was thinking too much out there. It wasn't fun."

Whether it was Johnson's advice, or the fact that Cleaves spent hours in the gym over Christmas break honing his game, his season turned around. The Spartans haven't lost since the night he spoke with Johnson -- a span of 22 games.

Despite shooting only 41 percent, Cleaves not only was named an All-American, but also the Player of the Year in the Big Ten for the second straight season. He deflects criticism of his game as easily as he breaks the press.

"I don't get caught up in what people say," Cleaves, 21, said. "A lot of people are never satisfied. You can block all that out by winning. They can say what they want about me, but all they can say is, 'He keeps winning.' That's what I want to be known for."

Michigan State at a glance

Founded: 1855

Location: East Lansing, Mich.

Nickname: Spartans

School colors: Green, white

Enrollment: 34,089 undergraduates

Famous alumni: Former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson; co-discoverer of Pfiesteria Jo Ann Burkholder; UNESCO's Adnan Badran; supermarket chain owner Don Marsh

Tuition and fees: $4,930

Academic ranking: U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges 1999 Annual Guide" ranked Michigan State in the second tier of national universities, joining universities such as North Carolina State and Auburn. Its academic reputation score is 3.5 out of a possible 5.0.

Party lines: Michigan State is not ranked among the party schools according to Princeton Review's 1999 edition of "The Best 311 Colleges." It ranked No. 5 as a school where "professors suck all life from materials."

Last trip to Final Four: 1979

NCAA basketball title: 1 (1979)

Pub Date: 3/25/99

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