Return of the Legend

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

Big-eyed with a self-effacing smile, Mitchell comes across as exceedingly polite, all mumbled "sirs" and "ma'ams." He is terse in conversation, uneasy at a podium or a microphone stand, but between the lines of a basketball court -- arguing a foul, say, or lecturing a younger player -- he is actually expressive, even expansive, as if basketball were his natural language. Physically, he's imposing, with arms too thick for his relatively small frame. At the Unity Among Brothers basketball tournament last month, his first taste of organized basketball since his return, Mitchell announced himself in the early minutes of his team's opening game, catching a teammate's lob and whipping it through the hoop. One player, watching on the sideline, turned to a spectator.

"Can this muscle be any bigger?" he said, pointing along his back.

The man's reply: "He's had plenty of time to work it."

Mitchell, here with Houston Nathaniel Jr., 
has a passion to "work with kids, to save 
lives," says a friend.
Paolo Vescia
Mitchell, here with Houston Nathaniel Jr., has a passion to "work with kids, to save lives," says a friend.

According to the gospel of Hook Mitchell, the children -- the "youngstas" -- shall rise at dawn Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, and they shall arrive at this Berkeley gym on time, and they shall do their defensive slides properly, palms out, asses to the ground, and, lo, they shall not complain. "Is it gonna hurt? Yes," Mitchell rasps out, more articulate than usual, as several kids zigzag down the court. "Is it gonna be uncomfortable? Yes. Is it gonna be tiring? Yes. But is it gonna help you stay in the game more? Yes."

It's almost 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and a dreary, dirty light filters through the windows of the gym. This is what's known as the "6 in the Morning Club," part of Mitchell's Project Straight Path. Today a handful of middle- and high-school-age kids, many the sons of Mitchell's old friends, have shown up for an hour of fairly intense basketball drills, from shooting to dribbling to defense, the first 30 minutes without even touching a ball. One of the bigger boys, a student at McClymonds, has a court-ordered location monitor wrapped around his ankle.

When the tired group assembles at midcourt after the workout, Mitchell tells everyone, "I don't know too many people who're getting up at 6 in the morning and working out." Later, seated in his car, he pulls out a folder full of faded and dog-eared pages: a drill learned at a UNLV basketball camp, an exercise gleaned from a stint with a United States Basketball League team -- artifacts of a career on the make. "That ain't nothing, man," Mitchell says, referring to this morning's workout and thumbing through the folder. "I've got so many drills. I've got perimeter drills, big-man drills, stretch routines. I'm a student of the game."

Drake, of Project Straight Path, says basketball is a "vehicle" for Mitchell, which neatly flips around one of the sport's central clichés: For Mitchell, basketball isn't a way out; it's a way back in. "Basketball is really all Hook knows," says Skolnik, the documentary director. "It's his own life story. I would hope, personally, that he wouldn't necessarily rely on basketball to be his future, and that he begins to see that his story is more powerful than what he can do on the basketball court."

What Mitchell wants for his own career isn't exactly clear. At one point, he says he is considering a hiatus from basketball to "just let the legacy speak for itself," but a few days later he is playing in a tournament anyway. (He turned down the invitation to the AND 1 game, which would've landed him in the Oakland Arena and, most likely, on national television.) "As far as a comeback goes," Drake says, "it's not a priority, but it's not out. His thing is Project Straight Path. If [new Warriors coach] Mike Montgomery walked up to him tonight and said, 'I've got an open tryout for you tomorrow,' he would say, 'OK.' Would he camp outside Mike Montgomery's house and wait for him and say, 'Sir, here's a videotape, maybe you could watch?' No, it's not that serious.

"I think he's deserving of [a shot]. I don't care who he played for, to get him to play one game in the Oakland [Arena], allow the entire stadium to be able to clap for this guy when he steps on the court, I don't care if he plays 30 seconds in the last game of the season -- thatwould be a dream sequence."

There is a similar arc to all playground legends' stories -- prodigious talent, street temptation, sin, and, in a few cases, redemption. It's Mitchell's story, in essence. Shirley Jones, whom Mitchell calls his surrogate grandmother, puts it in simple terms: "He tried so hard, but you know the devil got in him and swayed him in a different direction. But he still got the talent. Still got that talent." Milan Drake goes further. He says Mitchell's past is "testimony," and that his life is more than a collection of could've-beens. "I get tired of hearing the cautionary story told, as if that were the end," Drake says. "'He could've been something. Well, now, back to you, Bob.' That's not it. It's not even fair. It's as if you were going around telling the story of Jesus Christ: 'Yeah, he died on the cross, and that's all I have to say.' Well, he did some stuff after that -- the whole resurrection, beating-death thing. ... I'm not comparing him to Christ, but ... if some guy was beaten half to death, got up on the cross, died, and came back to life, you'd have to tell that."

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