Who Is Mateen Cleaves?

This is Mateen Cleaves time of year. This anticipatory excitement that the March Madness myth making is all about. This hype leading up to the Thursday and Friday tournament matchups. This countdown as the hours dwindle down. This nerve wracking moment for the players who can’t sleep. This same strategy by every coach begging defense. This network camera mosaic, trying to fit it all in. This mother lode of brackets and sports gambling, and then, the tearing up of the bracket sheets in disgust as an 11 seed shocks a 6 seed.

It is the pageantry that makes this tournament the best two week competition in the country, from a purely theatrical sense. And it is the very thing that made Mateen Cleaves famous.

Now there is something else Mateen Cleaves is famous for besides leading the Michigan State Spartans to a title in 2000 and winning Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament.

Mateen Cleaves has been charged with sexual assault. He was arraigned on those charges yesterday. And so now he is part of his own theatrical episodic reality show that will play out over the next several months, starring himself as the accused. Featuring the victim. The jury. The lawyers. The social media commentary.

It brings to mind what happened last winter to another former college player and basketball analyst. Greg Anthony was caught purchasing sex in an undercover prostitution sting and was arrested. It made the headlines just as Cleaves being booked made the headlines. CBS promptly removed Anthony from their coverage. (Anthony reached a deferred prosecution agreement. He returns to March Madness coverage this year).

Mateen Cleaves charges are far more serious than Anthony’s ever were, prompting former coaches and teammates to wonder is this the Mateen Cleaves they know?

On September 15th, a 24 year old woman was taken to a motel in Mundy Township, southwest of Flint. She said she was kept against her will and sexually assaulted, according to a spokesman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office.

39 year old Cleaves- yes it’s been 16 years since he was the heroic Spartan floor general- has been identified by the accuser as the one who is responsible. He has been charged with unlawful imprisonment, assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration, second-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of third degree criminal sexual conduct, according to prosecutors. If found guilty, a 15 year prison term is on the high end of the punishment scale.

The attorney for Mateen Cleaves, Frank J. Manley, said the charges have been “catastrophic” to Cleaves, and his family, and his career. He described the charges as “outrageous” and “false.” The charges are the result of a criminal investigation which began in October.

Kim Worthy, the prosecutor, said “the evidence in this case will show that the alleged actions of this defendant were not only criminal, but arose out of a sense of entitlement sometimes found in prominent people.” Already she is laying out her strategy. Cleaves has a privileged sense of reality where he thinks he can take what he wants and not suffer consequences.

For those who know Cleaves, there is shock.

“I don’t see him doing anything against somebody’s will. I think I know him well enough for that. I’m saddened for him and his family.” (Tom Izzo).

According to the complaint, Cleaves had been drinking with a group at a bar after a charity event. It was one in the morning when he left with the alleged victim. Alcohol will be at the center of the case and more than likely be used to argue consent on Cleaves part, and at the same time, used to discredit the accuser’s memory.

Who is Mateen Cleaves?

He is the answer to a trivia question. How did the NCAA investigation into the University of Michigan get its start? Because of something benign that included Mateen Cleaves.

On a recruiting trip in 1996, the car he was traveling in rolled over. The NCAA began an ordinary investigation into the auto accident and it led them someplace far darker and deeper that included a Detroit pipeline for players who played at Michigan and a corrupt/benevolent booster, Ed Martin. Suddenly, it was much bigger than a car crash on the NCAA’s mind.  Documents supported the fact that Ed Martin had been funneling money to Michigan players for years including Detroit high school phenom Chris Webber. Cleaves was from Flint and not part of the Martin closed circle, so the investigation had nothing to do with him other than coincidence. By the fate of his car crash, he got the whole thing rolling.

A few months later Cleaves began his college career at Michigan’s rival, MSU, and was a three-time All-American, Big Ten Player of the Year, floor leader extraordinaire, all time steals leader. He broke the Big Ten single game and career assist record with 20 dimes. In 2000, he won the NCAA tournament, giving Coach Izzo his lone championship. Michigan State retired his jersey.

College success did not lead Cleaves into something more substantial in the NBA. His career was brief. He wasn’t quick enough, didn’t have explosion, didn’t finish through contact. He didn’t score with any kind of efficiency, shooting a putrid 38.9% in his brief career. He averaged less than 12 minutes and 2 assists a game, and played in 167 NBA games. Many considered Mateen Cleaves a NBA bust but the 2000 draft was notoriously weak, very few All-Stars (3) and not one Hall of Famer. Cleaves was one of 4 players out of 29 first round picks not to register 1,000 points in his NBA career.

All of which says nothing about whether he is guilty of what he is accused of, sexual assault, imprisonment, criminal sexual penetration. It’s a tough pill to swallow for the city of Flint that has had a tough year trying to battle a water crises that for months was ignored by the governor, even as the children of Flint were getting sicker and sicker. Now this. One of their own caught up in a legal nightmare.


photo via llananba