April 3, 2000
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The national championship was theirs for the taking, but in the time it takes to roll an ankle, it was almost gone.
Four years ago, Tom Izzo turned up on Mateen Cleaves' doorstep, a struggling coach desperately pursuing his first big recruit. This was in Flint, Mich., a gritty, gray town where the future rarely extends beyond the end of an assembly line.
Izzo promised Cleaves he was going to build a program to rival the Dukes, Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the college basketball world. He could have told him stories about Magic Johnson and shown Cleaves the faded national championship banner hanging in the gym from 1979, but that was about it.
Izzo didn't have the players those other programs had, he didn't have the blue-chip recruits, either - all he had to sell Cleaves was a promise. And himself.
On a Monday night four years later, all of it was about to come true. Michigan State was rolling over Florida in the championship game, knocking down shots, winning the loose balls, breaking the Gators' vaunted jaws - their full-court press - at will. And in the middle of it all was Cleaves.
There were slightly more than 16 minutes left to play when he tried to finish off a drive to the basket, dueling every step with Florida's Teddy Dupay. They swapped shoves, chest bumps, elbows and then got their feet tangled. As Cleaves planted his right foot, his weight moved to the outside edge of his sneaker and the full weight of his body rolled over it.
In the stands, Frances Cleaves' heart leapt into her throat. "I know he's strong and I knew his resolve was going to make him come back if he could," his mother said.
Michigan State's lead, as big as 13 points, had shrunk to 50-44. Momentum was slipping away.
This time, Izzo made a promise to the team, "He'll be back. Let's not get our heads down."
The coach can explain all kinds of things, but how he knew Cleaves would return is not one of them. Izzo and his star share many traits - toughness, instincts, courage and a way of seeing the floor. But ultimately, this came down to a feeling in his gut.
"This guy has the heart of a lion," Izzo said afterward.
It was as close to a medical opinion as he was prepared to offer.
"He has worked for this for four years."
And that was the other thing that drew them close - a commitment to see this through together. After the Spartans reached the semifinal last season, Cleaves could have left Michigan State, cashed in his chips and taken his chances in the NBA. The same was true for Morris Peterson, the Spartans' slender scoring machine and another alum of Flint's tough playgrounds.
But every time they looked over at Izzo, what stuck out in their minds were the sacrifices already made, not the rewards that lay ahead. Their resolve was tested even before the season began, when a broken right foot sidelined Cleaves for 13 games. Izzo had to find someone else he could trust to run the team on the floor and Peterson struggled to become more of a leader. But it must have been toughest for Cleaves, stuck on the sideline and watching helplessly.
Yet that was a distant memory as Cleaves sat in the locker room Monday night watching the trainer tape his ankle.
"I was going to start crying, `Oh no, not now, I really want to play, win this game," he said. "They were going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one."
On the court, meanwhile, a whole other dynamic was at work. Izzo was yelling at Dupay and the guys Cleaves had carried through the early going started looking out for themselves.
"I said, `We have a war on our hands. Somebody's got to step up right now,' " Izzo said.
The first somebody turned out to be Mike Chappell, a Detroit-area kid who chose Duke out of high school, but transferred to Michigan State and sat out a season to be part of the team. He scored five points in the run that carried the Spartans to a 58-50 lead by the time Cleaves hobbled back out of the tunnel and toward the bench at the 12-minute mark.
Suddenly, the Spartans' intensity level soared, as if somebody had cranked the dimmer on a light switch. Peterson started popping up on both wings, throwing in jumpers. Cleaves, who scored early, turned provider late. An eight-point advantage swelled to 15, then 20, and finally to put the game beyond reach.
"Four years ago, we made some promises," Izzo said. "Now we've answered