Return of the Legend

"Hook" Mitchell -- the best there ever was, before he went to prison -- and the redemptive power of basketball

"When you see his smile," Barbara continues, "it means something. And it means the nation needs to hear his story. ... Hear what he has to say, because I'll tell you -- this is something you'll be able to tell your children, your grandchildren. You guys get to meet and know a celebrity, right here in our own area."

Mitchell shakes his head. "I wouldn't really call myself a celebrity," he says in his pinched bluesman's rasp.

"But you are. You're brave enough to share with them and talk to them." The teacher turns to her students, some of whom have already seen the film. "Share with me what you felt when you saw the video. What did you feel?"

Mitchell signs a T-shirt from his own line, 
called "NOT MJ."
Paolo Vescia
Mitchell signs a T-shirt from his own line, called "NOT MJ."
In his first year at Contra Costa College, 
Mitchell scored 25 points per game.
Courtesy of Shirley Jones
In his first year at Contra Costa College, Mitchell scored 25 points per game.

One girl replies: "I thought he took his life for granted because he was talented, and he abused his body using drugs. ... I think in some ways it's a miracle, because you look at him now, he looks like a totally different person." Mitchell grins again.

Barbara calls on a boy near the door. "What did you feel?"

"I felt inspired."

"I felt inspired," the teacher repeats.

She calls on another. "It's scandalous how people offered him drugs at a young age," the boy says.

"Scandalous," the teacher parrots. "Everybody has choices, right? Learn from him, because he's a role model for you. Get it together. ... And you can say in your lifetime, 'I reached out and actually touched this person.'"

It's a big leap: Hook Mitchell, until recently Prisoner No. 95095, now a celebrity, a role model, an inspiration -- a savior, even -- to our youth. But one thing Mitchell always could do was jump.

Basketball was born a city game -- a wholly American sport at that, with none of the European DNA we find in our other arenas -- and throughout its history, the greats of the blacktop have been lifted to the level of urban folk heroes, part of the fabric of their cities. Oakland's greatest returned in April; is it any surprise people were asking for his autograph? "I ain't even playing basketball," Mitchell says, "and I have more notoriety now than I did back then."

Everyone wants to touch the Legend. A UPS driver hops out of his truck just to shake Mitchell's hand. A kid wanders into a gym in street clothes, sees who is playing, and dashes out to grab his basketball gear. A radio station mentions Mitchell is speaking at McClymonds, and the school has to turn away cars at the gate. The AND 1 Mix Tape Tour, a sort of hip-hop Globetrotters, swings by Oakland, sets aside a jersey, and begs him to play. Jay-Z hopes Mitchell will run with his Rucker tournament team. Reebok wants him to wear its clothes. Maybe the Warriors will give him a tryout.

Or how about this: Last year, Eugene LaBarre, a dentist and teacher at the University of Pacific School of Dentistry, watched the Hookeddocumentary's West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Black Film Festival. Inspired, he wrote a letter to Mitchell, then at Konocti Conservation Camp in Lower Lake, telling him his "life story is very moving" and offering "good dental care -- no strings attached!"

Soon after his release, Mitchell, long without several of his front teeth for reasons he won't discuss, had a mouth full of temporaries, free of charge. Later, Mitchell showed up at McClymonds, where he worked during the school year, shooing kids to their classrooms a couple of hours a day. "He had a fresh haircut, and he had his teeth, and he was just as proud as can be," says Alonzo Carter, a longtime friend and the school's football and track coach. "To see him like that, I had to catch myself. He's back."

"He's a whole other person," Carter goes on. "He'll tell you in a heartbeat, 'Man, I love you.' That's something, huh? It catches me off guard. 'I love you.' 'Uhh, well.' Coming from him, those are strong words."

The documentary, which opened in film festivals last year and debuted on NBA-TV earlier this month, has had a great deal to do with what Mitchell calls his "transformation." (He also refers to his incarceration as his "correction," because, as he explains, "I had to correct some things.") Directed and produced by Michael Skolnik and William O'Neill of Kicked Down Productions, in partnership with Fader Films, Hooked is in part a celebration of the Legend -- with NBA stars and Oakland products like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd testifying that he was "the best player to come out of Oakland" -- and in part an earnest admonition. "Something clicked," says Skolnik, who came across Mitchell's story while researching another project about prison basketball. "I don't know what exactly it was. It was partly the film. Maybe he said, 'Wow, this is something serious. My life is important, and people actually care.'"

Mitchell, who is staying in a friend's spare room in Richmond, is invariably described as humble, or, more precisely, humbled. (That's in some ways attributable to his rededication to Islam, though today, just a few of his friends call him by his Muslim name, Waliyy Abdur-Rahim.) "He presents himself in a very humble light about everything," says Milan Drake, a friend who's helping out with Mitchell's nascent foundation, Project Straight Path, a nonprofit with a stated goal of restoring "the moral fiber of the youth's lives, homes, relationships, neighborhoods, family, and community." Mitchell's second day out, Drake was driving him to a basketball game in San Francisco. Drake stopped for gas and got ready to pump, but Mitchell stopped him. "He said, 'Let me pump it,'" Drake recalls. "I said, 'No, dude, don't trip.' He's like, 'Man, let me pump it. I have not pumped gas in, like, five years.' He's been so humbled that he's not forgotten the smallest of tasks. It's the humblest thing I've ever seen toward a gas pump."

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