Flint's blue-collar mentality produces top-flight talent

Somewhere, mixed among the myriad mementos of his Michigan State coaching career, Tom Izzo has a key to the city of Flint.

The celebratory souvenir was presented to Izzo after a championship parade that ran through the streets of the blue-collar town that lays claim to three members of the Spartans' 2000 NCAA national title team.

But in Flint, a city once known for its flourishing auto plants and prideful working-class population, basketball success stories are nothing new.

In Flint, where every inner-city temptation is rampant, basketball is a way of life.

Sunup to sundown, basketball is played and preached, in places like Ballenger Park and Berston Field House where household names like Mateen Cleaves, Glen Rice, Jeff Grayer and Justus Thigpen all cut their teeth.

Not just to play, but to survive.

Flint, located about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, was once defined by its work ethic that poured out of successful General Motors plants. But when the auto industry was hit hard in the 1970s, layoffs sent the city of 131,000 into a tailspin.

Flint became known more for its crime, where gangs ran the streets and where trouble wasn't hard to find.

But basketball continued to hold a sacred place there, packing out dimly lit high school gyms on Tuesday and Friday nights as people flocked to see teenagers play a game they believed could take them places.

"For a lot of kids, basketball is their only way out of Flint," said Cleaves, who spent eight years in the NBA after helping Michigan State win that 2000 NCAA title. He now plays for the Bakersfield Jam in the NBA Developmental League.

"When you're from Flint, you're known for your toughness because you're surrounded by all the violence and the drugs," Cleaves said. "But when you're on a basketball court, you're safe because all of the people making trouble know to keep it outside and to do their dirty work somewhere else."

Cleaves, whose mother worked 22 years in the auto plants, knew basketball was his ticket out.

But before he, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and Antonio Smith all earned basketball scholarships at Michigan State, they grew up learning to play in a city known for producing basketball talent.

There was Thigpen, Flint's first professional player, signed by the American Basketball Association's Carolina Cougars before going on to play in the NBA and overseas.

There was Grayer, who was a first-round draft pick after starring at Iowa State and playing for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

And there was Rice, who led Michigan to the 1989 NCAA national championship before going on to star in the NBA, winning a world championship with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"They had a run for a while there that was just unbelievable," Izzo said. "Flint was putting out players like they were putting out cars."

For Cleaves, who became part of the heralded Flintstones at Michigan State, carrying on the legacy carried responsibility. Cleaves returns to his hometown each summer, working at basketball camps and teaching the game to a new generation.

He routinely sees the Flintstones tattoo that he and his Michigan State teammates made popular.

"I tell kids -- you have to wear that with pride, not just as part of your style," Cleaves said. "Being from Flint means you play hard and you play the right way."

Flint's basketball heroes remain in high regards. Peterson, who plays for the New Orleans Hornets, began the Flintstones basketball camp as a way to give back to his hometown.

Area youngsters come to the summer camp in droves, anxious to learn from one of the city's NBA superstars. But Peterson's camp served than more than just a basketball teaching opportunity.

It was a chance to show campers that through hard work, anything is possible. It was a lesson Peterson learned years before from other players, and it helped lay the groundwork for his basketball success.

"I feel like it's my job to look out for the next generation," Peterson said in an interview before his camp in 2007. "I want to make sure that they come up the right way."

And perhaps there has been no greater benefactor of Flint's basketball factory than Izzo. While the city isn't currently producing the kind of college talent it did in the past, Izzo believes the talent pool there may slowly be making a comeback.

Izzo sees a defining edge and pride that comes from calling Flint home. He also notices a competitive drive, honed on mean streets where players used basketball to escape trouble.

"It's a hardworking, blue-collar community," Izzo said. "There's a lot of problems and there's a lot of crap, but there's a lot of players that have come out of there.

"But there is a pride there and that's why I love those guys."

Jeff Arnold is a sports writer in Michigan.