Return of the Legend

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

Mitchell's story is already well-tread ground. Abandoned as a baby, both parents with criminal backgrounds, he was raised by his maternal grandmother in West Oakland's Campbell Village housing project, in a neighborhood known as the "Lower Bottoms," which can be found, Mitchell says flatly, at "the end of the world." There were drugs, and there were sports, and the two intertwined at an early age: At 10, Hook -- the nickname given by an aunt because of the shape of his head -- was smoking weed, and he soon graduated to cocaine. By the 10th grade, he was dunking -- his vertical leap was later said to hit 50 inches -- and during his senior year at McClymonds, the only season he played basketball there, he was getting a gram of coke for every dunk. "Everybody in the stands knew," says Mitchell's friend Alonzo Carter. "That's a dunk -- 'Oh, he gonna be loaded after the game.' But nobody said anything."

Mitchell dropped out of McClymonds after the basketball season, but soon enough he was playing at Contra Costa College anyway, on an altered transcript, and a few years later at Cal State Hayward. Wherever he went, whomever he played, Mitchell was the show. He exploded for eight dunks and 31 points against Mendocino College; another 31 against Alameda; and, most poignantly, 40 against Merritt, just days after a good friend and mentor, Larry Parker, a reputed drug dealer who nevertheless pushed Mitchell to stay clean and work on his game, was shot more than 20 times in an East Oakland parking lot.

Mitchell's second season with Contra Costa -- he played the 1986-87 season, dropped out for a year, and returned in 1988-89 -- was perhaps the most memorable. The Comets, dubbed by one writer "The Air Patrol," finished with a single loss that year, with Mitchell scoring 20 points a game off the bench. "The team was a reflection of Hook, and Hook was a reflection of the team," says Shareef Nasir, a former NBA agent and current San Francisco police officer who ran point that year and still giggles at the memory. "We didn't care about nothing -- about our reputation, about how we were viewed, about bad press," he says. "There were hotels that didn't want us around. There were teams -- this is no lie -- that would call and say, 'We're coming down. Where is Contra Costa staying? At the Marriott? Cancel our reservations.' I don't blame 'em. I would've done the same thing. You don't want a team around anyone as ignorant as we were. ... That team was retarded. We didn't have no sense."

Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell, one of the best 
players to never make it to the NBA.
Paolo Vescia
Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell, one of the best players to never make it to the NBA.
Mitchell at Contra Costa College, the area's 
best pickup game.
Paolo Vescia
Mitchell at Contra Costa College, the area's best pickup game.

There was the time Contra Costa was closing out a tight game -- something like a six-point lead with 30 seconds left -- and the team was told to spread the floor, chew the clock, and not take any stupid shots. "I'm walking onto the court," Nasir says, "and Hook runs up to me. 'Man, throw me an oop.' I say, 'What?' 'Throw your boy an oop, man.' I say, 'Man, I ain't throwing you no damn oop.' He looked at me. Now I love that cat, with everything, but he says, 'You ain't got no love for your boy,' and walks away.

"So we're stalling, stalling, we might've scored. They come down, shoot several times -- 10, 9, 8 ... -- Big Mo gets the rebound, Scotty throws it the length of the court -- and guess who's bucket-hanging? Demetrius 'Hook' Mitchell. Man, and people are getting ready to walk onto the court. Hook gets the ball, and everybody's on their way to the court. He's coming from the left side. This fool gets up to the lane, takes off above the dotted [line], does a 360, cocks the ball, and -- wahboom! I thought the rim blew out. My uncle had already gotten out of his chair and was walking to the door. He turns around and watches Hook. He says, 'Goddamn, you see that shit?' I look at my uncle. 'I told you, I told you.'"

When Mitchell transferred to Cal State Hayward a few years later, he brought a crowd with him. It was around this time that Mitchell began to deteriorate, Carter says. "Hook became a sideshow," he says. "The whole West Oakland was at the game -- a full house to see Hook play. That lasted one season, and after that he didn't play any organized basketball. Everything was a sideshow -- dunk contests, this tournament, this three-on-three."

Even high, Mitchell could still play. Once, a friend, Truck Evans, was coaching a midnight-basketball-league team that was down to only four players. He pulled Mitchell off the street, drove him to Bushrod Recreation Center, and stuck him in a jersey. Says Evans: "Got the man while he was high, and he was playing against cats in college. The other team was like, 'Man, you went and got a straight knock' -- that's what we call a dope fiend. They talked bad about him, basically saying he was washed up. They called him an old man, has-been. All that mess, right? I put him on the court, straight off the street. He went for about 50 points. He put a show on, whupped their ass. He murdered 'em single-handedly. He was probably high as hell during that game."

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