Mitchell has been in the trenches

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:49 AM ET

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Raptors laid such an egg against the Golden State Warriors, the final game of their four-game, West Coast swing last month, that head coach Sam Mitchell slammed his bone-weary team with an unscheduled practice upon touch down in Toronto.

That was after a five-hour flight and very little sleep.

There were some grumbles, of course, and somebody accused Mitchell of being a drill sergeant.

Not to his face, mind you. But even if he did, the second-year head coach wouldn't have minded.

Mitchell was never a drill sergeant, but he was a second lieutenant and the man takes great pride in his military background.

The Raptors coach was not always the immaculately dressed, cool-as-ice dude you see today.

During his first year of high school in Columbus, Ga., Mitchell was a bit of an outcast, a shy kid, who elected one day, after the U.S. Army held a presentation at his school, to sign up for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC).

What he really loved was basketball, but after being cut from the school team from grades 7 through 11, the young man needed structure in his life.

And something to do after school.

The ROTC seemed to be a good match. So much so that Mitchell remained in the military reserves right through his days at Mercer University, where he became the school's career leading scorer with 1,986 points.

"It was the discipline that attracted me. I'm the type of person who likes a lot of discipline and being involved with a team," Mitchell said yesterday, before his club jumped on a plane for tonight's tipoff against the Washington Wizards.

"It taught me to feel confident in myself, that there was nothing I couldn't do. And how to deal with stress, both mentally and physically."

How to deal with stress: Yes, Mitchell has had to deal with a bit of stress this season, although that lessened somewhat with two road wins last weekend. He credits the lessons he learned as a reserve officer with his ability to remain positive in the face of his 3-15 club's tough season.

After signing on for six years of inactive duty, Mitchell attended basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the famed 82nd Airborne. There, he trained as a combat arms engineer and learned to function and thrive with little or no sleep.

The irony is not lost on Mitchell, who has confessed there have been many nights this season when sleep was just wishful thinking.

He remembers being involved in war games one night during training when his unit was 'attacked' by U.S. Special Forces, which snuck up on the sleeping reservists and drew red lines across their necks, where they would have been cut had there been real hostilities. Second Lt. Mitchell did not fall asleep, but he does remember the night being pretty hairy.

"At one point, I'm looking out towards the darkness and I'm thinking 'Damn, those bushes just moved,' " he said.

Mitchell didn't realize it at the time, but they were Special Forces boys, aiming to cause some trouble.

BIG QUESTION

The big question is, had there been a war, and he was called, would Mitchell have gone off to fight?

"I would," he said. "They instill you with such a sense of pride."

Mitchell believes that he might have remained in the army reserves for the rest of his working life if not for an incident that occurred in the summer of 1985, when he was coming off a training course, completely exhausted.

"I was told by an officer that I had been drafted by the Houston Rockets (third round, 54th overall)," Mitchell said with a laugh. "And I said: 'Thank you, Sir. Can I clean my weapon and go to sleep now?"


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