If you grew up playing basketball in the Bay Area in the late 1980s, you knew about Hook Mitchell. You might not have known his first name -- it's Demetrius -- or perhaps even his last. But you knew Hook.
A 5-foot-11 guard -- though some say he was 5-9, the better to inflate his legend -- he starred for McClymonds High during the glory years of the Oakland Athletic League. As good as he was in high school, though, Hook was better known for his feats on the playgrounds. Jumping over cars. Jumping over bikes on top of cars (or so it was said). Doing 360s from the middle of the lane. (See video at story's end for some of his greatest hits.)
The first time Hook dunked over another person, that person was a young Jason Kidd, seated in a chair. All the Oakland talent -- Kidd, Gary Payton, AntonioDavis, Jeff Foster and later Drew Gooden -- looked up to Hook. As Payton says in the documentary Hooked, "He was better than me, he was better than Jason ... he was better than everybody."
As a suburban teenager growing up across the bay in Mill Valley at the time, I considered Hook to be the Loch Ness of hoops, a wondrous creature often spoken of but seldom glimpsed. One time I heard he was competing at a dunk contest in San Francisco, so I got a ride out with some friends. Only Hook didn't show. Another time there was word he was playing in a pick-up game at a city gym. Again, no luck.
I lost track of Hook over the years but his story turned out to be a sad one: He got involved in drugs and never went to college, though he continued playing in the parks. In 1999, he was arrested for robbing a video store in Oakland and spent nearly five years in prison. When he got out, at 35, he was still good enough to receive a training camp invite from the Golden State Warriors. He didn't make the team.
He was still an icon though, at least in the Bay Area. So it came as a pleasant surprise when, this past winter, he showed up to join a rec league team I play on in Berkeley. We were down a couple guys and Duff Reiter, our coach, called me one Wednesday afternoon. I wasn't feeling well, and was unsure if I'd make the game. "We picked up a new guy," Reiter said. "You ever heard of Hook Mitchell?"
Needless to say, I suddenly felt a lot better.
That night, we gathered at James Kenney Rec Center in West Berkeley prior to our 8 p.m. game. Not long after, Hook ambled in. At 39, he's still remarkably fit. He has a boxer's build, with a thick neck and a wide torso covered with slabs of muscle. He wore his hair in corn rows that grayed at the edges, and has one of those dramatic, instantly placeable faces, blockish, with protruding ears and deep lines. He rarely smiled, but when he did you could see his front teeth were missing.
When he entered the gym, heads immediately turned. "Hook's here, Hook's here," people whispered, and it reminded me of how the kids on The Wire always murmur when Omar comes around.
Hook was humble and laconic. "Pleased to meet you," he said upon introductions. We started our layup lines and I think all of us were curious how much he had left in the tank. After all, he was 39 and even the greatest leapers -- especially ones as short as Hook -- usually start to lose their jumping ability in their early to mid-30s. I couldn't tell whether he was trying or not, but he went up leisurely for one dunk and missed it. Maybe he was done.
It wasn't until late in the first half that it happened. There was a steal and then a fast break. Hook got back on defense, running just behind an opposing player as he went up for a layup. Hook planted off two feet and, in a violent motion, shot upwards. I've never seen someone jump so quickly or powerfully. He pinned the ball high on the backboard, somewhere up in the square. His elbow was probably near the level of the rim. The gym went nuts. No one cared that the ref called a foul.
Later, in the second half, Hook tried to follow dunk over two 6-5 guys. He was unsuccessful, but only because he ran into human impediment, not for lack of elevation. Later, Reiter told me that he'd coached a team with Hook the previous Friday night and that Hook had done the same thing, only he'd made the dunk.
It was an energizing night, watching a legend in action -- hell, playing alongside one. It was also, to a certain degree, inspiring. If after spending two decades bouncing around on concrete and asphalt, Hook could still get up like that, maybe there was a hardwood fountain of youth for the rest of us. Then again, considering what else Hook had been doing for those 20 years, maybe I didn't want to know what that fountain contained.
We won the game handily and walked out of the gym. Hook went one way and some of us went another. It was amazing to think: here we were, a bunch of weekend warriors, teammates with Hook Mitchell. Then again, more tellingly, here was Hook Mitchell, teammates with us.