Return of the Legend

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

Mitchell describes the deal in his online diary as "something that may make or break my future status economically." He told students at McClymonds that it's "a testimony of how God is working inside of my life -- I haven't been out two months yet, and I already have a consulting contract right in front of me." According to Michael Skolnik, the filmmakers approached Reebok about a possible relationship, in part because of the company's allegiance to Iverson, outlaw rep and all, and came away convinced that "they got it, believed the story, understood it."

What Reebok also saw in Mitchell's story was the street, supposed bastion of that ever-slippery thing called "authenticity." "We really want Hook to help us be more authentic and more credible in outdoor basketball," Gaskins says. "It's something he grew up in, something he thrived in, it's his NBA, so to speak." Indeed, Mitchell returns at an odd time for basketball, especially for the kind of basketball he grew up with in the playgrounds. "Streetballers" now film shoe commercials, and "streetball," as it's flogged by the AND 1 Mix Tape Tour, is something played in an arena, a rococo game of feints and jukes but little else, bearing only a passing resemblance to competitive basketball. The street, once, perhaps wishfully, hailed as the home of basketball's pure spirit, is now just another thing to put on a T-shirt.

Mitchell is not a particularly graceful leaper; he is a powerful leaper. When he dunks, he tends to crouch and explode off two feet, hitting the rim in an instant. If it's in a game he'll dunk before you've realized he's even jumped, and all you're left with is the bright crack of the rim and the gasps of anyone who didn't blink. His second day out, Mitchell climbed over a teammate's neck to tip-dunk a rebound, and when he returned to the ground he let out a roar. "Everybody in the gym was like, 'He's back,'" Milan Drake says. "That's the most emotion I've ever seen him show on a basketball court." (One day, Mitchell says, he's going to write a book called The Art of Jumping, and perhaps even make a video, centering on a workout routine he developed in prison. "Who's best to teach you how to jump?" he asks, and then he answers his own question. "Somebody who can jump over a car.")

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.

On a recent Monday, the big gym at Contra Costa College is filled with the cheery light of a softening afternoon. A handful of players are warming up around the room; three guys are running a dribbling drill down the sideline. There's a photographer here, too; he'd like to get Mitchell dunking for the camera, but Hook seems a bit uncomfortable. His knee is sore, for one thing, and for another it wasn't until yesterday, in a Sunday-night pickup game, that he really started jumping. After a while, though, Mitchell assents, nodding that he's loose enough, and the photographer hustles a couple of flashes out under the rim.

"Are you ready now?" Mitchell asks, hovering out by the three-point line. He charges the rim and sends a simple dunk through the hoop, but the photographer snaps too late and misses the slam. Mitchell tries again, this time catching the ball off a bounce and dunking with two hands. Again, the photographer misses. Mitchell dunks hardthis time, and the hoop shivers on its support poles. Again, a miss. He bounces the ball toward the hoop, catches it, twirls in the air, dunks with one hand, and someone off to the side yells, "Oh!" Again, a photographic miss. By now the guys around the gym have cradled their basketballs and stopped to stare.

"He should be in the league. It's all in here," one guy at midcourt says, tapping his chest. "It's the heart right now -- you can't stop that."

"That's the only reason I ever liked the nigga, really," another says. "The heart. ... The nigga damn near looking younger."

On and on it goes, Mitchell outrunning the shutter or outjumping the flash, then retrieving the ball and heading back to the perimeter with an eye-roll and an exasperated smile. The players gradually return to their baskets. Finally, around the 20th take, the photographer nails a keeper. "That's a wrap," someone yells. "That's a wrap."

Mitchell isn't finished, though. He grabs the ball and skips back out to the three-point line. "Try this one right here," he says. He dunks, grabs the ball, and skips back out again. "One more," he says, and all around the gym is the sound of bouncing basketballs -- a wonderful sound, actually: a heartbeat in stereo.

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