Return of the Legend

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

"Tore up, man," Mitchell says. "Tore up."

By the mid-1990s, Mitchell couldn't avoid trouble. In 1994, he was charged with the murder of a 65-year-old man who was robbed and beaten with a baseball bat. The case was dismissed after the two witnesses who had fingered Mitchell proved unreliable. Later, he served time for gun possession and selling cocaine to an undercover officer. Then, on the morning of Dec. 27, 1999, Mitchell walked into a Blockbuster in Oakland, approached the clerk, called her "ma'am," and produced a handgun (he now disputes this) before ordering the employees to the floor and pulling $4,500 from the safe. He was eventually caught in the area. In the fall, he pleaded no contest to the robbery charge, his two-year sentence enhanced three years by a weapons clause. Asked why he called the clerk "ma'am," Mitchell says, "That's how my grandmother raised me."

No miracles tonight. Mitchell is playing in a league game at Berkeley's Grove Park Recreation Center, a small, bright gym with inspirational quotes lining the walls. This is his last bit of basketball on a very busy Wednesday; he drilled with a group of kids at 6 a.m., lifted weights twice, then slogged through an afternoon basketball workout and four or five pickup games at Contra Costa College. His play was off there -- his elbow flared on his jump shots, and he fumbled away his dribble once or twice -- and afterward he complained about a bum shoulder and a sore hip. But here is Mitchell, nonetheless, an hour or so later, walking onto another basketball court, tucking in a shiny, silvery jersey that says "GRACE" across the chest.

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.

You can see his story in how he plays now. His game is quiet, controlled, even humble, with only occasional explosions. He plays as if he were saving himself for another game. He has a couple of moments tonight: There's a steal or two; a half-blind, three-quarter-court pass; a tip-dunk after the ref's whistle, which sends a buzz through the crowd; but little else. Until this: With two minutes left, and his team up by just a few points, Mitchell gets the ball on a breakaway, the closest defender at least two steps behind him. He gathers himself under the basket. The crowd freezes. It's Hook, after all. The Legend. Jesus up in the house. But the defender closes, and at the last moment, just as Mitchell's about to take off, the guy clips him from behind, tackles him at the legs, essentially, and Mitchell is knocked to the ground. The whistle shrieks. The crowd groans.

"You ain't supposed to do that!" a young man calls out from the stands. "You ain't supposed to do that!"

Mitchell rises, livid.

"He was wide open! Let him dunk!"

Mitchell stalks to the sideline, everyone watching him. He yanks off the shiny, silvery jersey and whips it into his bag. He pulls on a T-shirt, then a jacket, then a hat, and then changes his shoes.

"Y'all supposed to let him dunk that."

A handshake or two, and he's down the sideline, past the Malcolm X quote, and out the door. Someone else has to shoot his free throws.

Minutes later, I find him just outside the gym, slumped in the front seat of his dented Mazda and rubbing his knee. His voice is soft and low. "That ain't no basketball, man," he says. "He ain't have no play on the ball or nothing. Oh, man, I've been going through this all my life. Aw, yeah, this ain't nothing, man." You can hear the buzzer go off inside. "I was always getting undercut, but back then I would make sure they didn't want to do it again. I'd be violent," he says. "Maybe I'd do something to 'em, or give 'em that look. Now, I'm kind of humble.

"It's what makes it hurt more -- that you can't do certain things. I'm still adjusting to being a totally different person. It's like they're hitting you, and you can't fight back. ... I don't have the passion for sports no more. They don't respect the game. People don't respect the game. I mean, if a person beats you, you're supposed to let him go, man. ... I'm still trying to adjust to society. I ain't really adjusted to society right now."

The gospel will be sponsored by Reebok. "We believed in the project from the beginning," says Que Gaskins, vice president of global marketing for Rbk, Reebok's urban line, and the man largely responsible for signing NBA star and occasional rogue Allen Iverson to a $50 million endorsement contract. "We liked his story in the sense that it was very real. It was authentic. It's a story we felt kids who are aspiring to play basketball should hear, that it's not all peaches and cream." The deal, still being finalized, would make Mitchell a "consultant," though Gaskins hesitates to use that word. "Initially, all that we're doing centers around us getting behind him and the film and his foundation, helping him tell his story and get it out there," he says. In return, Mitchell will wear Reebok apparel at screenings, speaking engagements, and the like. At this month's San Francisco Black Film Festival, he fielded questions in a green Reebok shirt and a Reebok hat pulled so low on his head that the bill's shadow touched the tip of his nose, masklike.

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