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  Sun, October 17, 2004


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The sum of Sam
Fate has been cruel to Raps coach, but it's made him what he is today
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

Sam Mitchell was sitting in his office the other day, talking about having his heart broken. It was 1985, the last day of training camp, and Bill Fitch, the head coach of the Houston Rockets, called Mitchell into his office.

Mitchell was coming off a stellar career at Mercer University. He was the Rockets' third-round draft choice and he had played his heart out.

Fitch also called in Steve Harris, the Rockets' first overall choice.

He pointed at Mitchell.

"This guy outplayed you in training camp," Mitchell remembers Fitch telling Harris. "The only reason you're staying is you're a first-round draft choice."

And then Bill Fitch cut Sam Mitchell.

Life isn't fair. Don't complain. The next guy might have it worse.

That, in a nutshell, is the coaching and life credo for the Raptors 41-year-old coach.

Life is good. It is rich. It is at times numbingly funny and shocking in its brutality and in its kindnesses.

"Look," Mitchell said. "It comes down to this. You don't cry. You keep working. You don't spend your whole life bitching and complaining. It's pointless. Move on."

If life were fair, Sam Mitchell would not have lost a beloved older brother, Fessor, who died a week before he was supposed to come home from Europe to an NBA contract. A chimney in the home in which he was staying malfunctioned and Fessor suffocated.

If life were fair, Sam Mitchell, who would outlast Steve Harris by eight years and outscore him by 20,816 points, would have been an NBA player four years and millions of dollars earlier.

He wouldn't have had to resurrect his career with the Tampa Bay Flash of the United States Basketball League, spend two years in the CBA with the Rapid City Thrillers and then two more years in France before hustling his way to a 13-year career with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers.

---

Sam Mitchell spent his first nine years in the East Highland district of Columbus, Ga. He lived with nine brothers and sisters in a one-bedroom apartment. When an aunt and uncle needed a place, Sam's father, Sam Sr., and his mom, Betty, invited them to stay. After all, how much difference can there be between 12 people and 14.

Sam Sr. brought eight children from a previous marriage when he married Betty.

"There wasn't enough room," said Betty Mitchell, remembering those years. "And what little there was, was covered with beds."

The bedroom was the kids' room. Three beds, three kids to a bed with another on the floor. Betty and Sam Sr. slept on a pullout couch in the living room.

Sam Sr. died in 1996 at the age of 71 and it was the work more than the years, that killed him. He was just worn out.

HARD, DIRTY WORK

Ma and pa worked at the Swift Mill Textile factory. It was hard, dirty work. Forty hours after deductions brought you $100 and change and Betty and Sam saved for a new house, five dollars at a time.

With his parents working extra hours at the mill, Sam and his brothers were raised by a neighbour named Lula Walker, Big Mama.

Big Mama was the grandmother Sam never had, but if he misbehaved between school and home, Lula Walker fixed things.

"Big Mama did not play," said Betty Mitchell. "She loved the children and she disciplined them."

Nor did she ever take a dime for looking after her neighbour's kids.

"It bothered me that I couldn't give her any money for all she did for us," Betty Mitchell said, "but one thing she would let us do is buy her some little grocery items. She liked that."

The cemetery is the Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ga. When Betty and her son go to the Green Acres Cemetery to see Sam Sr., they take flowers for Big Mama too.

Big Sam was trapped in a poverty cycle at childhood. He quit school in the third grade to work and look after his mother. He could barely read, but he could add and subtract like a human calculator and he was a pillar in his son's life.

"I had a father, that's what helped me," Mitchell said. "Lots of kids didn't."

If Big Sam played pool for money and gambled, it was with an eye toward putting a few more dollars toward the food budget.

Once Sam Sr. decided his son needed a suit. He took the boy to a local store where a clerk took his measurements. A few days later, father and son went to pick up the suit. They parked in front of the store. The man who had taken the measurements slipped the suit through a back window of the family's weathered Buick and kept on walking.

"That's how I got my first suit," Mitchell said, delighting in the memory.

But there was always enough to eat and some clothes and a neighborhood that inculcated Sam Mitchell. The only white people he saw were the police and the police didn't come to East Highland unless there were bodies to be picked up.

He was in fourth grade before he was taken across town for a meal in a restaurant. College recruiters, white men, had come to see Fessor.

"The coaches said: 'We'll drive you, Where would you like to go?' We told them we wanted to go to McDonalds."

And so it was that at nine years old, Sam Mitchell went for his first burger at McDonalds.

About that time, he saw a man get shot. He and his mother were walking down the street. A bartender shot a customer with a 12-gauge, blew him through the door in a dispute over a five-cent paper cup.

Sam and Betty had two goals: To get their kids out of East Highland and to make sure none of them ever spent a day working at the mill. They succeeded on both counts.

Sam Mitchell is a father of four. He is two years removed from an NBA career that was notable for his willingness to do the hard things on the court -- box out, dive for loose balls, set screens.

BUSTED HIS BUTT

The Raptors hired him because, in the words of general manager Rob Babcock, "Sam busted his butt every night to play in the NBA. You are your experiences. That's vital."

Those experiences came at the hands of his dad and his mom and sometimes over the knee of Big Mama.

They came in watching how Fessor readied himself for a career that would be stillborn by tragedy.

They came in a crumbling school where, if you were lucky, the ants didn't get into your lunch.

They came in East Highland where you knew everyone and everyone knew you and the bad guys kept the gifted athletic kids on the straight and narrow.

"They did bad things," Sam Mitchell recalled, "but they never wanted you to do bad things."

Mitchell learned who he was by watching a father who could barely read but who always insisted his son finish his homework and that he never, ever be late for anything.

"Most NBA players come from places like what you're talking about," observed Raptors forward Donyell Marshall. "Sam will be a good coach because he'll appreciate what he has and remember what it took to get here."

Mitchell's message to the sometimes pampered men of the Toronto Raptors is simple enough. The game is work.

"Your years in college will get you your first contract," Mitchell said, "but if you don't respect the game, it'll come back and bite you on the ass."

Basketball isn't any more or less fair than anything else. Bill Fitch taught Sam Mitchell that.

"You can choose to set a goal," Betty Mitchell said, "or you can choose to give up. If you quit, if you give up, then that's the end of you.

"Sam, he just wouldn't quit."







Do you like the new-look Raptors heading into the 2013-14 NBA season?
  Yes, new GM made great moves
  No, they will still be a terrible team
  Unsure what to make of it


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