2 guys from neighborhood give Spartans 1 more shot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's to a pair of old-fashioned, stay-in-school success stories. Here's to college basketball the way it ought to be. And last but not least, for Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves and forward Morris Peterson, here's to friendship.

They were born 12 days apart at the same hospital in 1977. They grew up eight blocks apart in Flint, Mich. They've been playing basketball together for so long, Peterson can recall a game in fifth grade when his team beat Cleaves', and his future Michigan State roommate reacted, well, like a little kid.

"I can remember him on the ground with his head down crying, pounding the floor," Peterson said yesterday. "I looked at him like, 'What's wrong with him?' "

They were always opponents, playing on different teams from the time they were 7 all the way through high school. Cleaves can recall Peterson's team winning their first-ever meeting, and the hard-fought battle ending with a post-game hug.

"We would see guys like [Larry] Bird, Magic Johnson back in the day -- great players hugged after the game," Cleaves said.

There have been so many games, pick-up games and summer-league games, high school games and college. Tonight is the last game they will play together, unless they be come NBA teammates. Tonight is the NCAA men's tournament final, and if there's any order left in this world, Michigan State will win.

Of the 10 players in Florida's rotation, seven are freshmen or sophomores. Michigan State, on the other hand, starts three seniors and two juniors. Peterson, a fifth-year senior, will graduate in May with a degree in community and family services. Cleaves is on schedule to graduate in August with a degree in communications.

It's the Flintstones vs. the Rugrats, and experience doesn't always prevail. But Cleaves and Peterson know the sting of Final Four disappointment -- they combined to miss 20 of 33 shots in last year's semifinal loss to Duke. As far as they've come, isn't it time they received their just reward?

Neither pretends to be perfect -- Peterson arrived at MSU as a gunner with a poor work ethic and little interest in defense; Cleaves has had a series of minor brushes with the law. But both the soft-spoken small forward and emotional, gregarious point guard seem to have their priorities in order.

Cleaves' parents used to drag him to protest marches and make him walk on picket lines, trying to instill in him a sense of community. Peterson's mother is a middle school teacher; his father is an assistant vice principal whom he describes as his role model.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said yesterday that there is "no doubt" that both players could have left for the NBA after last season, but that might be stretching it -- Cleaves still doesn't project as anything more than a low first-rounder, and Peterson was unlikely to become a lottery pick as the Spartans' sixth man.

Are the details even important? High school and college players routinely enter the NBA draft before they are ready, much less worthy. Cleaves, in particular, easily could have opted to turn pro, even though Magic Johnson -- a player who spent only two years at Michigan State -- advised him against it.

But here's the thing:

Cleaves likes college.

"The main thing is all the friends you meet," he said. "You meet people from all over the world. It's just a great feeling to be around the guys, to sit around, play video games, just hang out and watch TV all night.

"I know a lot of guys that have played in the pros. It seems like it's somewhat of a business atmosphere. You have some guys 19-20 years old that like to play games, do this and do that. And you have some guys that are 28-29 with kids who go home to their families.

"I just like the college atmosphere. We're not kids. But we're somewhat kids. I really enjoy being around the fellas. That's one reason I came back. I wasn't ready for that lifestyle, the business aspect of it."

That's the answer most fans want to hear, but financial hardships often force top players to leave school early, and those who stay do so at their own risk. Cleaves missed 11 weeks after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot in late October. Yet even then, he had no second thoughts about his decision.

"Once I hurt my foot, a lot of people thought I had regrets about not leaving. I didn't," Cleaves said. "If we wouldn't have won the Big Ten championship, Big Ten tournament championship or got to the Final Four, I still would have had a great time coming back."

Izzo, though, feared that Cleaves had blown his opportunity.

"He didn't question it. But I did," the coach said. "I worried about it for him, because I knew how hard he had worked all summer."

Well, everything turned out for the best. Cleaves served as almost a second coach during his injury, even chastising Peterson for failing to take a potential game-winning shot against Kentucky in December. His teammates are accustomed to such outbursts. Cleaves lectured them at halftime of Michigan State's Sweet 16 victory over Syracuse, even though he was 0-for-6 from the field.

"If you know Mateen, you know he's going to give 110 percent," Peterson said. "When he says something at halftime, you know it's from the heart. Everything he says comes from the heart. I haven't seen a guy who works harder than him, ever. It's just a respect factor. All he asks is for guys to play their best."

It was that way when they were children. It will be that way tonight when they play for the national championship. Cleaves has turned Peterson into such a cutthroat, they're not above pairing up and cheating their teammates in cards.

"We sit around and joke and talk about our younger years a lot," Cleaves said. "It's great to know a guy that long, be from the same city, grow with a guy, be his roommate in college, play on the same team. It's something special."

Something that makes staying in school all the more worthwhile.

"Hopefully, I can get a sixth year and try to come back," said Peterson, the fifth-year senior.

Izzo smiled.

"I'd vote for that."

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