"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.
"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."