Mitchell's memories stuff of legends
Feb. 1, 2013
By Gary Ozzello
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - Most athletes and coaches remember certain games or certain plays from a specific season.
Not Mike Mitchell.
"I remember every game in 1990," the former Colorado State all-star swingman said about the Rams' march to the NCAA Tournament his senior season.
Mitchell had transferred to Colorado State a year prior and sat out as a redshirt after having played three seasons at Fresno State where he averaged in double figures in scoring.
At Fresno State, Mitchell made his presence felt immediately becoming the first freshman to join the opening day starting lineup under a coach with long and deep CSU ties: Boyd Grant.
Grant would later retire at Fresno State before Mitchell's career ended - but only for a short period of time.
He would soon return coaching at his alma mater in 1987-88, guiding Colorado State to a third-place finish in the National Invitation Tournament with a school-record 23 wins.
A year later, prized pupil Mitchell followed him to Fort Collins after having earned all-conference honors at Fresno State.
With one season of eligibility remaining following his transfer, Mitchell made the most of his career wearing green and gold. He watched as the Rams won the Western Athletic Conference title in 1989, then beat Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to a Syracuse team that boasted a starting lineup and top reserve that would all play in the NBA.
A year later, it was Mitchell's turn to shine, as he led Colorado State to a 21-9 record, and a second consecutive WAC title and NCAA berth.
While Mitchell remembers every game from his final season in Fort Collins, he also cherishes the memories of his teammates.
"I have not found another team that I played on that I felt like every player knew his role, and played his role," said Mitchell with fondness of his time in Fort Collins.
"And I knew Coach Grant and Coach Litz (associate head coach Fred Litzenberger) from Fresno State."
The year on the sidelines gave him a chance to know his new teammates as well, players he still calls friends.
"Guys like Andy Anderson, Jamie Hines, Mark Meredith, Lynn Tryon, Tracy Jordan, Matt Sharp and Eric Friehauf - just amazing teammates," he said. "We all knew our roles. There were no egos, no arguing, no worrying about who was going to do what. Everyone knew their roles and everyone played their roles."
Grant, who formerly at played at Colorado State in the 1950's under legendary coach Jim Williams, had immediately injected life into the Rams' program upon his return.
Grant's third squad at CSU featured those players Mitchell named, a team that served notice early that season they would be a force nationally.
Toting an 8-2 record just before the arrival of the New Year, Mitchell led the Rams to the championship of the Mile High Classic in Denver. In the first round, the Rams downed perennial power North Carolina, 78-67, a game in which Mitchell scored 34 points and had seven rebounds while Meredith added 17 points and tied Mitchell for team honors with seven rebounds.
It was a Tar Heels team coached by hall of famer Dean Smith that featured players such as future NBA players Rick Fox, Scott Williams, King Rice and Hubert Davis.
A night later, Mitchell scored 23 points and Anderson added 21 in a 77-51 win over UMass, coached by John Calipari.
The wins pushed the Rams into the national rankings and toward a second consecutive league title and NCAA bid.
But the WAC title didn't come easily.
Playing Brigham Young in Moby Arena in front of a sold-out crowd, the Cougars were tied with the Rams for the WAC's top spot entering on the final weekend of the season.
With only seconds remaining in the game, Mitchell tipped away a pass late in the game along the south sideline and fed Meredith for a game-winning layup.
With a second title in hand, the Rams faced Alabama in Long Beach, Calif., in the NCAA Tournament. It was a Tide team featuring "Big Shot Bob" Horry and David Benoit, future NBA stars. Without the services of Anderson, who suffered a knee injury, the Rams fell to Alabama.
But Mitchell's career was far from over, as was the list of accolades he gathered. He was a first-team all-conference choice, and the first Ram since CSU joined the WAC in 1968 to earn "Player of the Year" honors. Mitchell later played in the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) all-star game in Denver, featuring a lengthy list of college all-stars.
Mitchell's basketball talents provided him a chance to see the world. He first played professionally in Australia, then in France and Ireland, including time as a member of the Irish National Team, before retiring in 2005. During one of his stops in Europe, he crossed paths with former teammate Meredith, the latter playing in Switzerland at the time. Mitchell also played in Germany, and was inducted in the Giessen 46ers hall of fame when he concluded his stint with the team.
His travels have made Mitchell many contacts, and convinced him the basketball world is indeed a small place.
A former CSU assistant under Williams, Dave Spencer, was one such contact, and at Spencer's urging, Mitchell joined the coaching ranks, first at Cal-Riverside.
The travel and recruiting proved to be a drain, so Mitchell instead opted for summer time work in the WNBA with the Chicago Sky. Through that time, he met former Rams' All-American Becky Hammon, and the two exchanged memories about their careers at Colorado State.
"She's the Steve Nash of the WNBA," Mitchell said admiringly. "She takes some shots you can't imagine, and they go in!"
Mitchell had the chance to the WNBA up close, and admired the play not only of Hammon, but stars such as Cappy Pondexter and Diana Taurisi.
"What I noticed is how hard they play, and how talented they are," he said.
Mitchell has since joined one of the top prep programs in the country - Santa Margarita High in Orange County - in arguably one of the nation's most competitive leagues. The conference boasts such national powers as Mater Dei (Mitchell's alma mater), Servite, St. John Bosco, Serra, and Orange Lutheran.
And Mitchell arrived at Santa Margarita in an uncanny manner.
The head coach is Jeff Reinert, a former BYU assistant who later coached at Utah Valley State. One of his coaching colleagues at Santa Margarita is Nathan Call, a name familiar to many Ram fans for his play at BYU, and a former teammate alongside Mitchell during summer league games.
"I really enjoy the coaching," Mitchell said of his present position. "The school is right down the street from my house, so I get to see my kids a lot. There's not travel and no recruiting."
Family is vitally important to the 6-foot, 7-inch Mitchell, who was adept enough to play both in the backcourt and along the front line during his college and professional career.
He and his wife, Sherri - an elementary school teacher for the past 17 years - have four children between them. Mike was on the road in the WNBA for a game in Houston when he got a call that Sherri was in early labor, just 29 weeks into her pregnancy with Jaden Me'kai.
"We played Houston at 2 p.m. By 6, I was on a flight, and at the hospital by 10 p.m.," he explained. "He was born early: 2 pounds, 12 ounces," he explained. "But he fought threw it. He's our miracle baby."
While Mitchell won't be able to join many of his teammates and other former players for Ram Legends Weekend this year, he plans to in the future, despite his role as an assistant high school coach at Santa Margarita in Orange County, Calif.
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