Ex-Raptors coach back in Big Smoke

Former Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell will be back in Toronto as an assistant for the Nets....

Former Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell will be back in Toronto as an assistant for the Nets. (Reuters file photo)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:35 AM ET

TORONTO - Former Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell makes his triumphant return to Toronto on Friday night as an assistant with the New Jersey Nets.

Alright, the triumphant part might be a bit of a stretch.

It’s not exactly up there with Gen. Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines, though Sam’s appearance in Toronto is certainly cause for some acknowledgement.

And perhaps not everyone will be glad to see him back.

Apparently, he has some detractors, although I don’t really understand that.

In my books, Sam Mitchell deserves a place of honour in the Toronto Media Hall of Fame, if there was such an animal.

To me, and I would dare suggest, to most of the guys who dealt with Sam during his four plus years with the Raptors, he was a breath of fresh air.

And I say that with some sarcasm, but with much more affection.

Sam Mitchell is and was a lot of things: Hard-working NBA journeyman, NBA coach of the year, family man, crazed golf fanatic.

I’m not exactly sure what kind of a coach he was — I’m not one of them basketball know-it-alls — but I do know that current Raptors coach Jay Triano has only good things to say about the man.

“I learned an awful lot from him,” Triano said.

“He delegated a lot of responsibility so we could grow as coaches. That was the first thing he said when he hired us — he hoped that we would be a head coach one day. And that was the same thing he said the day he got fired — he wished us all the best and hoped that we’d get a chance to become a head coach.”

Sam cared about his coaches and his players (though he apparently nearly thrashed a couple ... hello Rafer Alston) and pretended to hate us media guys, but I don’t think he really did.

He always gave us crap for not going to church on Sundays, for drinking too much (he called us “beer guzzlas”) and for dressing like slobs.

He was one of the funniest, most politically incorrect guys ever.

For that, we are forever grateful.

He was born and raised in Georgia and went through a lot of stuff growing up, but, to me, he was completely colour blind.

If he didn’t like you, no matter what your race or creed, you were doomed to an avalanche of (usually very funny) ridicule.

With Sam, there were no sacred cows.

He almost always said what was on his mind.

Raptors media guru Jim LaBumbard said they called him “CNN” when he was a player in Minnesota, because he talked 24/7.

LaBumbard’s got a million stories about Sam, including the time he was explaining to the Toronto media how he was a kinder and gentler person and how he recently turned the other cheek when an angry homeless guy screamed at him for something.

“You see,” Sam said.

“A couple of months ago I would have gotten out of my car and punched him.”

I had sort of a love/hate relationship with Sam.

That is, he loved to rag on me, and I hated it (kind of).

He became so exasperated with me once that, in a matter of seconds, he dreamed up a scenario of how to put me in my place ... He was going to throw me in a giant barrel filled with gay porno magazines and other, uh, paraphernalia, and then toss me over Niagara Falls, so when the authorities fished me out, everyone would think that I committed suicide because I was spurned by my gay lover.

He announced this plan to one and all after practice one day.

I tried to explain to Sam I wasn’t gay, (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but he didn’t want to hear about it because it would wreck his story.

Which brings me to another one of Sam’s shenanigans which I’ve touched on before.

Near the end of one season, the Raptors were playing a road game and I interrupted his pre-game planning to ask a question (apparently a dumb one).

“Stumpy,” he drawled. “I’ve had enough of your your bullshit. I’m giving you a choice. I’m going into that locker room right now and I’m going to tell the players that you’re gay or you’re in the Klu Klux Klan. Pick one or the other.”

“You better tell them I’m gay,” I said.

Sam then marched in the locker room and yelled: “Listen up everybody. Stumpy here is gay.”

The only guy in the room was Morris Peterson, who looked up from tying his shoes, shrugged his shoulders and replied: “Okay coach” and then continued tying his shoes.

Once the Raptors were in Vegas for the Summer League action and I asked Sam if I could interview the team’s rookie, P.J. Tucker.

“P.J.” Sam screamed across the gym. “Stumpy here wants to interview you.”

“Okay, coach,” P.J. replied.

“But watch what you say,” Sam continued.

“He don’t like black people.”

Of course, everyone in the gym broke up at that one, except me and P.J.

And it did make for a bit of an awkward interview.

I’m not sure if Sam played favourites with his players.

He certainly didn’t with the media. He treated us all with equal disdain when he was in one of his moods, like when someone would ask a question with an obvious answer.

Sam’s reply was always, “Duh?”

But he really did seem to like Matt Bonner, the Red Rocket.

One thing that bothered him greatly, though, was Bonner’s tendency to stop in his tracks when a play broke down, turn towards the bench, and shrug his shoulders.

That used to drive Sam crazy.

Sam was certainly aware of Bonner’s great popularity with the fans at the ACC and told the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith and I that when they eventually erected a statue of Bonner in front of the ACC, it has to be of him shrugging his shoulders.

And then sure enough, during a game, a play broke down and Bonner looked over toward the Raptors bench and shrugged his shoulders, at which point Sam wheeled around and screamed at Smitty and I on press row: “Get the statue ready!”

And then there was the time when he was showing a couple of gals from the CBC how he would interview female athletes if he was a reporter.

But we won’t get into that one.

All I can say is, one of the gals looked amused and the other looked horrified.

Sam insisted on numerous occasions that I was the dumbest guy ever.

But he wasn’t always pulling our chain.

Sam also loved to talk about his parents and how their work ethic rubbed off on him, and about the injustices in America and with their political system.

Sam was actually a very compassionate person.

I remember he took us to the Oklahoma City Memorial to remind us that not all evil was from somewhere else.

Welcome back, Sam.


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