How I Came Up: Sports Broadcaster Mateen Cleaves
Hoopster makes seamless transition from athlete to commentator.
Mateen Cleaves's jump from pro sports to broadcasting required more than the athletic ability he relied on to play basketball in college and the NBA. For that, he needed his personality and charisma.
The 35-year-old Flint, Michigan, native has embarked on a second career as an analyst and commentator for several popular TV and radio programs, including Fox Sports Detroit, CBS Sports Network and SiriusXM radio sports talk shows, College Sports Today and NBA Off the Dribble.
But that’s all after a, ahem, successful college basketball career that saw him selected as a three-time All-American, two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and win the 2000 NCAA championship with Michigan State (while being chosen the Final Four's most valuable player). His college exploits would lead to his induction this year into the state’s Sports Hall of Fame; earn him a six-season stint in the NBA with four teams including the Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings; and some court time in Greece and Russia.
Loop 21 recently spoke to Cleaves about his transition from the hardwood to the broadcast booth, which qualities translate into his new career, and the importance of networking even when you're already well known.
Loop 21: What was your first job?
Mateen Cleaves: I was a show salesman. (Laughs.) I worked in a store called Imperial Sports. My mom made me get a job to see what it was like it didn’t last that long.
Loop 21: Describe the important transition in your career path, from playing sports to covering them.
MC: Actually, it’s been a smooth transition. I’m one of the lucky ones. But I had a ton of help, to be honest with you. I was at a point where I didn’t really know what I was going to do after basketball. I knew I wanted to help kids – they had a soft spot in my heart. Other than that, I had no clue what I was going to do.
Loop 21: So it’s safe to say that you didn’t always know you’d be a broadcaster. Who or what helped push you in that direction?
MC: My manager, Willa Cooper, and I just started talking about it. Some how, some way, broadcasting came up. I’d been interviewed on numerous sports programs, and everybody was asking me why I wasn’t on TV! At the time, it was something I never even thought about. I just got into it. A guy named Allen Griggs, one of the producers at Fox Sports Detroit, asked me to come in for a practice run. It took off from there. I want to say a couple of days later I was on the air live, talking about the Pistons.
Loop 21: Do you feel that college prepared you to perform in that job?
MC: College definitely helped me to make the transition. My major was communications. But even more so, it was the way that I’ve interacted with people and treated people throughout my life. That helped me more because of the networking part of broadcasting.
Loop 21: On a scale of 0-5, five being very important, how important has your professional network been to your current success?
MC: Definitely a 5. That’s been the most important thing. I never got too big for anybody, even when I was on top. Being the top point guard in the country or being All-American on campus, I was always humble and treated everybody the same way. Every interview I did [as an NBA player,] I never looked down on anyone. I don’t care if you were an intern, a producer, or a “higher up.” That’s helped make my transition run so smoothly.
Loop 21: Do you feel like you had an advantage because of your success as a professional athlete? And what tips can you offer on building a professional network to someone who doesn’t have your background?
MC: I definitely had an advantage because of my sports career. When you are an athlete, you have people reaching out to you. They see you in a different light because you did play sports and had success in that. I’ve always treated people humbly. My advice… you’ve got to hustle. You’ve got to get out and interact with people. It’s also about the “follow up.” You can get cards and exchange emails and numbers. My manager and publicist are always on me about following up. I’ll meet a million people, but I have to come back and send an email -- “It was nice to meet you.” That just leads to other doors opening up.
Loop 21: How important was having a personal vision to your success?
MC: Being an athlete helped me to set goals. I set goals to go out and make the varsity team, to go to college, to play football or basketball, to make it to the NBA. That’s the same thing I did for broadcasting. Once I decided to get in it, I was all in! I wasn’t trying to do a million things. I said, “If I’m going to be a broadcaster, then I need to get my vocabulary up. I need to start watching other broadcasters.” Coming from sports, I would always leave the basketball court and watch video of the game. And I would always learn from my mistakes. It’s the same thing in broadcasting. I sit there and I laugh at myself. I kick myself sometimes. My wife will sit there with me. She critiques it. She’s rough on me as well. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to grow. I don’t know it all.
Loop 21: Those are good tips. What else do you do to get better as a broadcaster?
MC: I started reading books out loud. I’ve been sitting in front of the mirror, talking to myself, asking myself questions and answering them.
Loop 21: Did you have personal mentors that played a pivotal role in your success?
Loop 21: What has been your biggest challenge to date?
MC: The biggest challenge is just learning something different. I played sports my whole life. I had no practice at [on-air commentary]. Venturing off and trying to be successful in it is like trying to learn a whole different life. I really look up to a guy like a Jay-Z or a Puffy (Sean Combs) or Magic Johnson… guys that are entrepreneurs, who are able to step out of the arenas that they are comfortable in.
Loop 21: What personal quality makes you successful?
MC: My personality helps me. I live every day to the fullest. I love life. I constantly have a smile on my face. When you meet me, there’s nothing fake or phony about it. I’m a people’s person. My work ethic is also a big factor.