Return of the Legend

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

In the gospel of Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell, there are, foremost, the miracles.

"We were playing Alameda," Shareef Nasir recalls. "It was packed out there, standing room only. Hook comes into the game, and he's looking at me: 'Hit ya boy on the wing, hit ya boy on the wing.' 'I got ya.' So we're playing, and I remember a long jump shot at the other end, and the ball bounces up, and Big Mo, our starting center, clears out the whole lane and jumps up and gets the ball. The first thing he's looking for is me. He gets me the ball, between the free-throw line of their basket and the top of the key, and I push it to the center. I got Brent on my left, Hook on the right, three-on-two coming down, and everybody's standing up. You could hear the crowd" -- he produces the staticky sound of a crowd roar -- "hhhhaaaaaaaaaa!"

"I'm pushing the ball," he goes on, "and I look to my left, and the first guy steps over to Brent, and the second guy comes up to meet me to try and stop the rock. I never look at Hook, but I know he's there. I look at Brent, act like I'm passing the ball to my left, then I dish to my right to Hook. Hook grabs the ball -- and this ain't no bullshit, I'm telling you, this is the real-deal Holyfield -- I pass to this fool Hook. This fool grabs the ball, OK? He ain't even made it to the lane yet. He's got at least two dribbles before he gets to the rack. The second guy tries to turn around as I pass the ball to Hook, to time his jump to block Hook's dunk. Hook grabs the pill. He takes the pill, and he goes, whooooooo" -- a jet passing overheard -- "outside the key. I want to emphasize that. This. Man. Was. Outside. The. Key.

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.
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.
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.

"You remember that dunk Dr. J had, on Bill Walton? Doc is at the rim, and he puts the ball behind his head and tomahawks? Remember that part? Check this out: Hook jumps up. This cat jumps with Hook, his hand at about Hook's elbow. Hook takes the ball, cocks it back behind his head -- and this dude ain't nowhere near the ball. Just as Hook gets ready to dunk the rock, you hear a knock. The dude fouls him, just enough so the ball slips a little out of Hook's hand. I hear the slap, then boom!" A thunderclap. "The ball hits the back iron and bounces way up, near the air conditioning, the rafters, the ball goes way up there. I remember hearing that slap and saying, 'That's a foul, that's a foul. Where the foul at, ref?' The ref, he was so amazed, he was looking at the damn ball go up in the air." He pauses. "This fool took off and shot up over the man. His elbow was at the top of the rim.

"And the crowd -- you couldn't hear nothing. Cats were high-fiving: 'I told you so, I told you so.'" Nasir chuckles. "You woulda thought they saw Jesus up in the house."

Everyone who knows him has a story. Hook, barely 5-foot-10, could dunk over anything, they say. A 10-speed bike, a motorcycle, a group of kids, a man at a desk, a kissing couple, a picnic table, a parked Cadillac. He could jump so high and dunk so hard, they say that he once tore down a 12-foot rim in Vegas; that he busted a hoop in San Francisco; that he shattered a backboard in Palo Alto. You know how he lost his front teeth? Knocked 'em out against the rim. There's a man who swears he once saw Hook take off from the free-throw line, twirl 360 degrees, and miss the dunk by thismuch. "Saw this with my own eyes," he says. These are the testimonies of their faith. Some are true, others surely exaggerated. It's no wonder they called him "Legend" in prison.

Today, the Legend is a mumbly 35-year-old with the face of a 50-year-old and knees that need ice twice a day. Today, in fact, the Legend is in an airless classroom on the top floor of an Oakland high school, looking a lot more like a Cautionary Tale.

"Have any of you ever heard of Mr. Mitchell?" a teacher named Barbara asks her social studies class at McClymonds High School, to near universal assent. "Yeah? What's he called?"

"Hook!" one students offers. "The Legend!" another says. Mitchell smiles.

It's a warm day at the tail end of May, and Mitchell, considered one of the greatest basketball players to never make it to the NBA, is standing at the front of the room, hands behind his back, a headband haloed around his head. He was paroled almost two months ago, having served 51 months in state custody for robbing an Oakland Blockbuster, though he'll readily admit that that term was nothing next to the 25 years he spent frittering away his talents to drugs. These days, his self-imposed penance has him tirelessly retracing some of his old steps -- the schools, the gyms, the neighborhoods -- and atoning at every footprint. Yesterday it had him on a scuffed basketball court at 6 a.m., demonstrating a crossover dribble to a group of sleepy 13-year-olds; a week ago it had him in a darkened auditorium at the College of San Mateo, rocking anxiously on a pair of gleaming Nikes as he introduced a documentary about his life, Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell; today it has him back at the high school he only occasionally attended two decades ago, a toothless kid spending six periods in the gym, now an adult offering his big could've-been as an object lesson.

"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?"

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."

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."

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."

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."

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."

"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.

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.

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.")

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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