Morris Peterson became a man at JC Penney. Or so he thought.
Morris, five years old at the time, was on a shopping trip to
the Genesee Valley Mall in Flint, Mich., with his mother,
Valarie, and his two older sisters, Tonda and Trina, when he
spotted a diminutive bearded fellow in a beige suit. The curious
boy walked up to the dwarf, looked him in the eye and scurried
back to his mother, who explained that this was a fully grown
person. A man. Young Morris compared their heights and
proclaimed, "I'm a man!" For the next hour, as his mother and
sisters continued shopping, Morris shuttled between the little
person and his family, squealing, "I'm a man! I'm a man! I'm a
By the time the Petersons returned home, Tonda had become so
weary of her little brother's mantra that she whispered a plan
to her mother. After Valarie unlocked the front door, she
reached inside for the broken broomstick she kept handy to ward
off possible intruders, turned to Morris and said, "If you're a
man, then take the stick and lead us into the house."
Morris peeked into the dark entryway, looked at the stick in his
hand and began wailing. "Mama, I don't want to be a man," he
cried. "Pleeeeease, don't make me be a man!" On that day Morris
assumed the first and most enduring of his many nicknames: Man.
Until recently that moniker has been tinged with irony. It has
taken him almost five years at Michigan State to grow into it,
to embrace it, for Man to truly become the Man. Now, no one is
more responsible than Peterson, a 6'7" forward, for the
steamrolling play of the No. 6-ranked Spartans, who through
Sunday had run off five straight wins by an average of more than
25 points to improve to a Big Ten-leading 7-1 and 17-5 overall.
On Jan. 30 Peterson nailed 5 of 7 three-point attempts and
finished with 18 points in a 91-66 rout of Illinois. Two nights
later, in an 82-62 romp past Michigan, he scored a career-high
32 points, grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and had a double
double in the second half. And in Michigan State's 85-66
humiliation of Connecticut, ranked No. 7 at the time, last
Saturday in East Lansing, Peterson led the Spartans with 16
points and displayed his full repertoire. During back-to-back
possessions in the first half, he threaded an alley-oop pass to
forward Jason Richardson for a dunk and deposited his own
alley-oop slam on a fast-break pass from guard Charlie Bell.
Early in the second half he drained consecutive three-pointers
from the left wing to muzzle any notion the Huskies may have had
of making a comeback. Overall through Sunday, Peterson was
scoring 17.3 points per game, shooting 46.0% from beyond the arc
and averaging 5.9 boards for the nation's best rebounding team.
He's doing it all despite averaging only 12.0 shots and 27.5
minutes in Michigan State's egalitarian offense. "Peterson's a
prototype wing player, a guy who's close to unstoppable," UConn
coach Jim Calhoun said after Saturday's display. "If his team
wasn't so balanced and deep, he'd be scoring 25 a game, and we'd
all be talking about how he's the best player in the country."
The origins of Peterson's explosive run this season can be
traced to the afternoon of Oct. 25, when he was enjoying a nap
on the couch in the apartment he shares with senior guard Mateen
Cleaves, who arrived home with the news that he would miss the
first two months of the season because of a broken right foot.
"Don't feel sorry for me, Pete, because I'll play through you,"
Cleaves said. "It's time for you to take over and be the
All-America you know you are."
Part of Peterson tingled with excitement at this unexpected
chance at the limelight. Part of him was a little scared.
Pleeeeease don't make me be the man.
Peterson's first test came on Dec. 1, against North Carolina in
Chapel Hill, four days after the Spartans had blown a 15-point
lead and lost to Texas. At the shootaround the day before the
game against the Tar Heels, Peterson saw Cleaves crying as he
gazed up at Michael Jordan's retired jersey in the Smith Center
and then down at his fractured foot. This was the kind of game
in which one player might have to step forward and lift the
Spartans on his shoulders, and Cleaves had always been that
Against North Carolina the next day, the player known to the
Spartan Nation as MoPete (Pete to his coaches and teammates)
took command. He scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes,
prompting Cleaves to grab teammate Brandon Smith on the bench
and announce, "Hey, world, this is Morris Peterson." Peterson
finished with 31 points, six rebounds and five steals as
Michigan State handed then No. 2-ranked North Carolina an 86-76
defeat. After the game the normally reserved Peterson blushed
when asked about the sequence in which he snuffed a Tar Heels'
rally with a three-point basket and retreated downcourt with his
index finger to his lips to quiet the crowd. "Who was that guy?"
Peterson asked. "I guess a little Mateen came out of me."
Peterson and Cleaves were born 12 days apart at Flint's Hurley
Medical Center in the summer of 1977. They grew up separated by
just eight blocks and first met as seven-year-olds on a
playground basketball court. Peterson entered Northwestern High
a year earlier than Cleaves arrived at Northern High, so they
were never teammates, but they often checked each other in high
school games or in pickup duels at Ballenger Park. While
Peterson credits many of his moves to Cleaves, his humility can
be traced to the women who ruled his family after his parents'
divorce in '83. At age five Morris challenged Valarie to a game
of one-on-one. He quickly jumped to a 6-0 lead in a game to
seven and began taunting his mom. Bad idea. Valarie, who has
been the basketball coach at Holmes Middle School for the last
21 years, hitched up her skirt and blocked all of her son's
shots until she'd won the game 7-6. "I remember crying and
screaming, 'Mama, you're not supposed to beat me,'" Morris says.
"I learned that day what it means to be a competitor."
When Valarie could no longer stomach playing against her son,
Morris began losing instead to Tonda and Trina, both of whom
would earn basketball scholarships to Alabama State. Finally,
one day Morris challenged his 62-year-old grandmother, Clara
Mae. Valarie insists that Clara Mae let him win. "You had to
know Pete back then to understand why we tortured him," Valarie
says. "He was so cocky that the girls in our house made a pact
that we'd defeat him or die trying. All that humbling made a
gentleman out of him."
By the time he reached his junior year at Northwestern, Peterson
was still humble, but he was a player, averaging 22.4 points a
game that season. Still, he wasn't heavily recruited because he
was perceived as one-dimensional, a gunner. Meanwhile, Cleaves
was on his way to becoming Flint's alltime leading career
scorer. Cleaves's Northern High won the state title, and Cleaves
played in the McDonald's All-American game. He was recruited by
elite programs all over the country. As for Peterson, his best
scholarship offers came from Michigan State and Minnesota.
When he got to East Lansing, Peterson initially performed as his
detractors had figured he would. He was nicknamed Shotgun for
his penchant for shooting and his apathy on defense. "I used to
call our team together and say, 'Hey, Pete, did you find anybody
on campus yet that you can guard?'" Spartans coach Tom Izzo
says. "Everybody would laugh, but I was dead serious." A broken
thumb sidelined Peterson for what should have been his freshman
season in 1995-96, and he wasn't allowed to accompany Michigan
State on a trip to the Maui Invitational as punishment for
skipping classes. "There were many nights back then when I'd be
sitting at home thinking about eating a sandwich or maybe going
to shoot in the gym," Peterson recalls. "I always chose the
His epiphany occurred on Nov. 29, 1997, during a game against
Gonzaga, when Peterson, a southpaw, broke his right wrist
dunking an alley-oop pass from Cleaves. Valarie rushed to the
locker room and began to commiserate with her son about another
lost season, but Morris uncharacteristically barked back that
his season wasn't over yet. He returned 18 days later wearing a
bulky cast running from his elbow to his fingertips that made it
awkward to shoot, so he had to play defense to get any time on
the floor. His teammates dubbed him with yet another nickname,
the Club, and he began working both ends of the floor with a
passion. Later in the season, after Peterson's cast had been
removed and he started regressing into his Shotgun mentality,
Izzo twice threatened to have the cast put back on.
Last season Izzo used Peterson as his sixth man to provide a
spark off the bench, and Peterson led the Spartans in scoring
and became the first player in the Big Ten to be voted
first-team all-conference as a reserve. Peterson is so
accustomed to life in Cleaves's shadow that when Izzo phoned him
last March with the news, Peterson said, "Are you sure, Coach?
Did you mean to call Mateen?"
Starting this season without a true point guard and facing a
brutal nonconference schedule that included away games against
Texas, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Kentucky, Michigan
State largely depended on Peterson to camouflage its sputtering
offense. Cleaves watched restlessly from the bench, warning
Peterson not to play too unselfishly. "It's amazing that when
Pete came here, he was all about scoring points, and sometimes
this year he's worried too much about getting the other guys
involved," Izzo says. "Sometimes I tell him, 'Get selfish, like
in your freshman year. Revert.'"
In a 60-58 loss at Kentucky on Dec. 23, Peterson passed up a
potential game-winning shot in the final seconds and found
Cleaves waiting for him after his postgame shower. "Next time,
you take that shot," Cleaves told him. "If we're going to lose,
let's lose with you, because you're our man." Three weeks later,
with a healthy Cleaves back in the lineup, the Spartans trailed
Indiana 62-59 with 15 seconds left. This time Peterson took a
pass from Cleaves and nailed the game-tying three-pointer in a
game the Spartans won 77-71 in overtime.
Suddenly the dynamics between Peterson and Cleaves have been
altered. NBA scouts say Peterson will be chosen ahead of Cleaves
in the first round of the June draft. Yet despite his success,
Peterson hasn't forgotten his roots. He still keeps the Club on
the top shelf of his locker as a reminder to play an all-around
game. The guy who once chose the sandwich is now known for
sneaking into the Breslin Center to practice free throws at 2
Last Saturday, Calhoun, whose Huskies have also faced Arizona,
Duke and Syracuse, called Michigan State "easily the best team
we've played." As the Spartans mobilize for a return trip to the
Final Four, Izzo possesses plenty of weapons with Cleaves and
talented role players such as Bell, A.J. Granger, Andre Hutson
and the game-breaking freshman, Richardson. But the blueprint is
the same as it was in November: mo' Pete. "Pete has progressed
the furthest of any player since I came to this school [as an
assistant] in 1983," Izzo says. "I've told him, 'If you finish
this season strong, you will be my coaching success story for
the next 20 years.'"
Morris Peterson finds himself standing on another threshold,
eager to lead the way this time.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER TAKING CHARGE Hutson pulled down the loose ball after Granger drew an offensive foul on the Huskies' airborne Albert Mouring.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO THE MAN An injured Cleaves (lower right) could only look on as Peterson futilely tried to carry the Spartans to a win at Kentucky.
COLOR PHOTO: MONTE ISOM MAMA KNOWS BEST Valarie schooled Morris on and off the court.
"If his team wasn't so balanced and deep," says Calhoun, "he'd
be scoring 25 a game, and we'd all be talking about how he's the
best player in the country."