Remembering Michigan State's Flintstones
Exactly 20 years ago today, the Flintstones launched Michigan State from the bedrock to the top of the college basketball world.
The Spartans defeated Florida 89-76 in the national championship game behind Flint natives Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, and Charlie Bell, whose roots coined their collective nickname based on the animated sitcom.
It remains Michigan State's only Division I men's basketball title since the Magic Johnson-led Spartans were victorious in 1979 and the lone national championship on head coach Tom Izzo's sparkling resume.
While Michigan State hasn't been the last team standing since 2000, the Flintstones' legacy continues to live on two decades later.
Building a champion
The 1999-00 Spartans' championship DNA was formed long before their title run. The Flintstones era began when Antonio Smith committed to Michigan State in 1995. His arrival in East Lansing came at a pivotal time, with an unproven Izzo taking the reins following the retirement of longtime Spartans bench boss Jud Heathcote.
It was a risk for such a highly touted recruit, but securing Smith's commitment laid the foundation for what was to come and was influential in Peterson, Cleaves, and Bell following suit.
"He was the first one to take a chance," Izzo said of Smith, according to Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal. "He helped bring in the Flintstones. More or less, he set a lot of the culture we wanted. His toughness."
The quartet, which made up the original Flintstones, brought Michigan State to the Sweet 16 in 1997-98 and its first Final Four in 20 years the following season. Smith graduated after the 1998-99 campaign but that didn't stall the program's ascension. His teammates were molded by his toughness and rugged style of play, as they played a physical brand of basketball that Izzo's Spartans squads have become synonymous with.
Michigan State carried high hopes into the 1999-2000 season and didn't disappoint, capturing both the Big Ten regular-season championship and conference tournament title for the second straight campaign.
Cleaves became the Spartans' undisputed heart and soul. The vocal floor general recorded a Big Ten-leading 179 assists while orchestrating the nation's third-most efficient offense.
Peterson moved into the starting lineup for his final season after spending most of his collegiate career as a reserve. The left-handed sharpshooter thrived in his new role, recording a team-high 16.8 points per contest and shooting 42.5% from deep.
Lastly, Bell served as the team's Swiss Army Knife. He was a reliable offensive option, a capable secondary playmaker, and was an active presence on the glass. Most importantly, Bell was often tasked with locking down the opposition's best player. In each of his four seasons wearing the Green and White, Bell was named Michigan State's Defensive Player of the Year.
With the Flintstones leading the way, the Spartans were never seriously threatened in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State won each game by double digits and had an average margin of victory of 15.3 points en route to winning the national championship. Cleaves was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player and joined Peterson and Bell on the NCAA's All-Tournament Team.
The memories of 2000 were not soon forgotten in Flint. The hometown pride and camaraderie showed between Cleaves, Peterson, and Bell as they led the Spartans to college basketball's pinnacle was an inspiration for many in the troubled area.
In the coming years, Flint would send many aspiring professional basketball players to Michigan State, including current Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges. While the future NBA lottery pick was still an infant during the Flintstones' monumental triumph, their story hit home with Bridges and other young ballers in his community.
"They were definitely a big influence on everybody in Flint, especially basketball players," Bridges told Sam Perley of Hornets.com. "It just gave us hope that we could make it out because it's so small. We were looking at other guys from L.A., Detroit making it out. It just gave us hope that we could make it out of Flint."
Bridges is among multiple players from Flint currently playing in the Association. Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris also hail from the area. Both grew up with Bridges and attended the same basketball camps hosted by various members of the Flintstones. Now, the trio are paying it forward in hopes of sparking the next generation.