Someday I think I'm going to be right up there with Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and the Doctor," Mike Mitchell was saying the other day. "I feel like I'm destined to be one of the greats of the NBA. Only right now nobody knows who I am."
Mike Mitchell? Hey, how come nobody knows that name? Say it again: Mike Mitchell: After all, he's one of the best young forwards in the NBA, averaging 20.2 points a game. You've got to stress the alliterative qualities of the name, attempt to achieve a certain tonal resonance, make it sing: Mike Mitchell. Nobody knows who he is? Well, that's not entirely correct. Coaches love him and the players have learned to fear and respect him.
When Mike Mitchell was chosen by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1978 draft, his name was such a well-kept secret that even Mitchell was surprised to hear it so soon. Mitchell had left Auburn as that school's alltime leading scorer and rebounder, winning the Southeastern Conference scoring title his senior year. But Auburn is noted for having pretty good football teams, not for basketball—at least, not since 1960 when it last won an SEC title.
The fact that Mitchell's name is now being mentioned in the same breath with those of such prominent small forwards as Julius Erving, Jamaal Wilkes, Marques Johnson and John Drew is a measure of just how hard he has worked and how far he has come in only two pro seasons. "He has unlimited potential," says Billy Cunningham, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. "He can play inside and outside with equal effectiveness. If you try to lay off of him to keep him from going low, he'll pull up and nail the jumper on you." Says Quinn Buckner of the Milwaukee Bucks of the 6'7½" Mitchell, "You have to keep somebody in front of him and behind him all the time because he's so quick and so strong. If he gets the ball down low, forget it; you can't stop his shot."
January 21, 1980
This, of course, is what we now know to be true, but a year and a half ago there was Mitchell just hoping in his heart of hearts that he would get taken before the third round of the draft. Instead, he became the 15th college player selected. After negotiating with Bill Fitch, then the Cavaliers' coach and general manager, Mitchell signed a five-year contract that called for only about $50,000 his rookie season. This year he will earn nearly $70,000—still some $60,000 below the NBA average—but to get that increase he had to agree to give up his no-cut provision, a fairly startling concession for a first-round pick. "Fitch kept telling me all the things I hadn't accomplished in college," recalls Mitchell, "and reminding me that I had only been invited to play in one All-Star game. During my senior year we hardly ever won. If we had won a national championship at Auburn, I think it would have gone a lot better for me."
With that as prologue, it seems only natural that Mitchell would have been nervous when he reported to Cleveland's rookie camp. He was. "When he got here," says Jimmy Rodgers, the Cavs' director of player personnel, "we quickly discovered that he couldn't run up and down the floor more than twice without looking totally out of breath and sick to his stomach. Here was our No. 1 draft choice throwing up every time we turned around. Naturally, we were concerned." Well, naturally.
The team's physician was called; Mitchell was examined for everything from low blood sugar to high dudgeon and was pronounced fit. "They finally decided it was nerves," he says. The next day he was given a relaxant before practice and almost immediately his play improved dramatically. The medication stopped the next day, but Mitchell's improvement didn't. "I can't say enough about him," says Atlanta Coach Hubie Brown. "As they say in our business, he's looking very sweet now."
And not just on the court. Off it, Mitchell has long been a sweet dresser, too. While he was living temporarily with his aunt in Cleveland, she taught him how to make his own clothes. Later, when he moved back to Atlanta, his hometown, he took a home economics class at Price High School; he was the only male in the class when he joined. In time, Mitchell began making not only his own clothes but outfits for his classmates, as well. When he attended the school's junior-senior prom, both he and his date were wearing stitches of Mitch's.
Mitchell went on to take a major in education (he minored in physical education) at Auburn, where he also dazzled his teammates with his creations. Says Eddie Johnson, then a star at Auburn and now an All-Star for the Atlanta Hawks, "You can't tell whether he made it or he bought it." Mitchell, however, has retired his thimble since he joined the NBA. "I found out if you've got the cash," Mitchell says, "you can get anything."
Well, almost anything. As they say in Hubie's business, even money can't buy the kind of work that Mitchell has given the Cavaliers this year. In Cleveland's four games last week, Mitchell scored 34 points against Houston at home, 32 in Atlanta, 23 Friday in San Antonio and 22 more Saturday at Houston.
The biggest beneficiary has been Stan Albeck, who replaced Fitch last summer as the Cavaliers' coach. "I was absolutely amazed when I got here," Albeck says. "When you see the kid on a day-to-day basis, you begin to understand how valuable he is. If you told the other 21 teams in the league they could have any player they wanted from us, the first guy they would take is Mitchell."
Although he played nothing but zones in college, Mitchell's defense is steadily improving. And though he is second only to Dave Robisch among the Cavaliers in rebounds, with an average of 6.6 a game, he does not yet pound the offensive boards well enough or often enough to put him in the kind of company he hopes to keep. "I keep reminding him that he's going up against the best forwards in the game every night," says Albeck, "and every time one of them beats him, it's as if that guy were stealing the food right out of his family's mouth. I tell him he can play with Dr. J and Jamaal Wilkes, but that as long as they're making that much more money than he is, they're just picking his pocket. He really responds to that."
Right now, nobody knows who Mike Mitchell is. Right now. But when the time comes, Mitchell will become a star. "I'm more than ready." he says. "I'm willing." And able.