Last year, when highly regarded and 5-star basketball recruit Miles Bridges announced he would be attending Michigan State University to play for Head Coach Tom Izzo, one thing came to mind. That was the fact that Bridges played his high school basketball in the city of Flint, Michigan. A city that has been in the news this past year for its water, not its basketball players. Ever since Tom Izzo went to recruit a few players from Flint, Michigan, Michigan State and the Flintstones have been synonymous with Spartans basketball.
It also made a lot of people remember the first group of heralded players who left the streets of Flint and headed to East Lansing to play basketball. Known as the “Flintstones”, a total of four highly regarded recruits decided to work together and try to bring a national championship to the Spartans.
As it turned out, three of those players were there when the team accomplished that feat in the 2000 NCAA season. Mateen Cleaves, Morris Petersen and Charlie Bell led the 2000 version of the Spartans all the way to the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. Antonio Smith, known as the fourth Flintstone and the first one to join the Spartans, graduated a year earlier in 1999 but still had a big part of what happened the following season.
In Indianapolis, the Spartans first faced Big Ten rival Wisconsin in the National Semifinals. In a hard-fought contest, MSU got the victory 53-41 to advance to the championship game against the Florida Gators.
Despite losing Cleaves to an ankle injury less than 4 minutes into the second half, the Spartans were able to come away with an 89-76 to win it all. Cleaves ended up returning to the game even though he was in pain and still limping badly from his injury.
But let’s go back to this group of youngsters who eventually earned the “Flintstones” name and take a look at their journey from the streets of Flint to the campus of Michigan State.
Flint is not a small town, but it’s also not so large that athletes could grow up playing sports and never run into each other either. For Smith, Cleaves, Bell and Petersen, they grew up playing either on the same basketball team together or playing against each other.
As the years went by, these players were able to develop a bond, most likely because they were all from Flint but also because they were very good basketball players who would have a chance to advance to playing college basketball once their high school days were done.
Smith was the first player to commit to the Spartans. After graduating a year earlier than Cleaves from Flint Northern High School, he made the decision to join Izzo and play in East Lansing. Cleaves and Petersen joined Smith the following year and were joined by Bell just a year after that.
“Antonio was the main reason I think all the Flint guys came here,” Cleaves said. “Antonio made the first step. I had a good relationship with him, we played with each other, grew up in the same neighborhood, so Antonio took that first step and I think he’s the main reason the other guys came.”
As they started making their mark on the Spartans it was clear that all of the young Flint players made a point of how proud they were to be from the city of Flint as they worked together as teammates at MSU.
Cleaves and Smith decided to show their loyalty to their hometown by going out and getting tattoos with the word “Flint” etched into their right shoulders to show their pride. Soon the two were badgering Bell and Peterson to join them.
“We kind of made them go get them,” Cleaves admitted. “People across the country think Flint is just violence and plants closing. It’s a lot of down-to-earth, hard-working people.
“We’re proud of Flint,” he added. “That’s why we want to let everyone know we’re from Flint, because we’re proud of it.”
MAKING HISTORY TOGETHER
After a 16-16 record and an NIT appearance in the 1996-97 season, expectations rose when Cleaves and Peterson joined Smith the following year. They did improve but still had to settle for an NIT berth with a 17-12 overall record.
A 22-8 season followed in Cleaves and Peterson’s sophomore season as the team reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. But the team broke through in a big way in 1998-99 with a 15-1 Big Ten mark and a 33-5 overall record and a final four appearance.
At the final four, MSU dropped a 6 point game to Duke to end their season.
The following season began with high hopes, but they began the season without Cleaves after he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during the off-season. He returned right after the first of the year and the Spartans played well enough to earn a share of the Big Ten title with Ohio State.
The Spartans ended up winning the Big Ten title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. From there, they ran the table as the “Flintstones” led the team to the 2000 national title as they beat Florida, 89-76 in the final. Cleaves, Peterson and Bell were all named to the NCAA All-Tournament team. Michigan State and the Flintstones will be forever etched in college basketball history lore.
WHERE ARE THE “FLINTSTONES” NOW?
After his playing days, Cleaves found work as a broadcaster for both Fox Sports Detroit and as an analyst for CBS sports. He was also recently cleared of all charges in an alleged sexual assault case brought against him earlier this year.
Peterson played 11 productive seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2011. He currently serves as an analyst for – The Sports Network – covering his former team, the Toronto Raptors.
Bell tried his hand at professional basketball where he played with varying degrees of success for twelve years alternating between the NBA and several International teams. He is currently an assistant coach with the Texas Legends of the NBA Developmental League.
The fourth “Flintstone”, Smith returned to his roots and was most recently working security at a Flint Alternative High School and also serves as an assistant coach for both the JV and varsity teams.