By Mitch Albom
ST. LOUIS - In the audience Saturday at the Final Four, among the 46,000 hoop junkies, sales executives, movie producers, parents, contest winners, beer guzzlers, hip-hop stars and lucky locals who knew somebody who knew somebody, there were two former stars for Michigan State, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson.
They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater. They were teammates in the magical 2000 season, when the Spartans won it all. Both now play in the NBA, Richardson for Golden State, Cleaves for Seattle.
And both made it a point to fly in from wherever they were in their professional schedule just to sit together Saturday. Richardson, who earns millions, flew by private plane. Cleaves, who's on his fourth team in five years, bought a ticket and flew commercial.
It was loyalty, sure. And it was exciting, no doubt. But in talking to both players, it was more than that. It was a chance to do something almost all of us would love to do: recapture, for a few hours, the best time of their lives.
"In the pros, you don't hang out with your teammates; everybody has their own life, their wife or their kids or their girlfriends," Richardson said. "And anyhow, you're together on the plane, at the arena, on the bus, 82 games a season. When you have time, you're just looking to get away."
"You gotta miss those college days," Cleaves said. "We were a family at Michigan State. In the NBA, you're just not as close."
The times of a lifetime
When athletes talk about leaving college early, I always wish they would forget for a moment the financial gains or their draft lottery position. I wish they would think about the fun.
I'm not talking about the fun of seeing yourself on "SportsCenter." You can do that in the pros, too. I'm talking about the fun you take for granted as a 19-year-old because you've never known anything else. I'm talking about plopping on the dorm couch and laughing about nothing, or squeezing in an old car and making dumb jokes about how your buddies smell, or sharing a sub sandwich at 3 in the morning, or putting your speakers out the window of your room, or hanging in the cafeteria for hours on end as the table changes characters, some coming, some going, all friends.
"In the pros, it's funny, you got all these nice houses and nice cars," Cleaves said, "as opposed to when you were kids riding bikes, staying over each others' places, going half on a pizza. Remember when you had to borrow $2 from the next-door neighbor just to have enough to get it, you know?"
He laughed, and the laughter alone is exactly what I'm talking about.
Leaving school too soon
Richardson admitted that when he watches his old school play, and he hears the school band and the cheerleaders screaming, "You want to put your old jersey on and get some of your eligibility back."
The irony, of course, is that so many players give it away. Richardson did. He left after his sophomore season. And, like most high draft picks, he went to a lousy team. Nobody is happy when you lose. The game became a job. Sure, it paid well. But Richardson never seemed as wealthy as when he called his old schoolmates and told them the things he now was able to buy.
There's a lesson there. If it isn't rich unless you share it, maybe it's the sharing that's rich.
You can do that in college, every day, share life in a way that becomes impossible once you graduate to separate homes and private lives. How many of us wouldn't trade a year's worth of professional accomplishment for one more year of sharing dorm pizzas?
I remember, as a kid, some older relatives offering this advice: "Don't be in such a hurry to grow up. It's not as great as you think."
You looked around the stands Saturday, and you realized the truth: that you never know how right they are until you're the one saying it.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch "Monday Sports Albom" 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.