Having a ball with the Blazers

And for UAB star guard Steve Mitchell, it had better be the right one
January 13, 1986

Before the tabloids make a big deal over it, we should establish that Steve Mitchell isn't the only person ever to have slept with a basketball. The mythical Tyrone Shoelaces put that basketball underneath his pillow in Cheech and Chong's hit song Basketball Jones Featuring Tyrone Shoelaces (1973). Mitchell, the All-America point guard for the University of Alabama in Birmingham, owns up to spending countless nights with a ball since first cuddling up with a bright orange rubber Sears model as a 10-year-old. "I slept with it all the time," he says. "My mom thought there was something wrong with me."

In fact, there's very little wrong with Mitchell, who takes the "point" part of his position literally, scoring in double figures in all but one game this season. Mitchell normally squires a Spalding Top-Flite 100 up and down hardwood floors. "If I just rub my hand over it, I can palm it," he says. "I can even palm it off the dribble."

Mitchell has averaged 13.8 points, 6.2 assists and only 2.8 turnovers this season in Blazer home games in which Spaldings are used. But when UAB played at East Tennessee State on Dec. 4, he had a date with a Wilson Jet B1200, and the two didn't hit it off. "It's lighter than a Spalding," says Mitchell, who shot the Wilson through the hoop only three times in 13 tries. And two days later, after he shot a MacGregor X10L—"It's smooth all around, with hardly any seams"—only 5 for 14 against Lehigh in the Amana-Hawkeye Classic, he decided he had had enough.

He summoned UAB's student manager, David NeSmith, and asked him to procure a MacGregor from the Iowa team manager. NeSmith, who says he is a distant relative of a gentleman named James Naismith, had no idea of Mitchell's intentions, much less whether his pious ancestor would have approved. NeSmith complied, and on the night of Dec. 6, at a Howard Johnson Lodge in Iowa City, Mitchell took that MacGregor to bed.

That Mitchell went out the next evening and scored 33 points, winning the tournament MVP award as the Blazers beat Arkansas State 78-59 in the title game, was, of course, also the result of the many daytime hours he has spent with basketballs of every type. NBA scouting director Marty Blake ranks Mitchell with any of the Pearls in the college game—or Smiths or Prices or Riverses, for that matter. The 6'1" senior may have the most sensitive hands in the land, too. "The brand of the ball wasn't necessarily the problem," says Mitchell of his December shooting woes. "I was tired of the way I was going. And 5 for 14 wasn't gonna get it done."

Though he dishes out 6.2 assists a game, Mitchell prides himself on his ability to shoot. Says teammate and fellow Memphis native Jerome Mincy, "A couple of years ago Steve said, 'Some of these guys, they aren't as good as me. So why do they get all the publicity?' He worked and worked on his shot." After his sophomore year, Mitchell badgered NeSmith's predecessor for the key to UAB's Bell Gym until the manager simply handed it over for good. "He said, 'If I need it, I'll go see you," says Mitchell.

"Steve has a lot of freedom in our system," says UAB coach Gene Bartow, "but when you get someone that special, you have to give it to him." In fact, the Blazers have a play called Special, which calls for a sort of three-pick obstacle course above the foul line that Mitchell has license to scoot through and around. Eventually, his defender and some pick will collide, like articles in Bartow's wardrobe, and a basket will result, either from a Mitchell J ("Off a pick," Mincy says, "Steve'll shoot 75 to 80 percent") or feed. His offensive production of 16.1 points per game, Mitchell freely admits, would be more modest were it not for the man who indemnifies him against having to face many boxes-and-one. That's running mate James Ponder, who sprang for 21 in the Blazers' 66-51 Sun Belt season-opening victory over Old Dominion Saturday night.

The 13-2 Blazers are a stylish fun bunch who horse around in Reeboks and could eat training meals off the tops of each other's haircuts. With one pull on a Vegas slot-machine lever a couple of weeks ago, freshman Dylan (pronounced Dialin, as in...for Dollars) Howard won $1,400. Another frosh, Reginald Turner, calls himself Sir Slam, even though he hasn't dunked once all season. Senior Archie Johnson serves as a sort of interpreter for classmate Anthony (Big Jack) Gordon, who never says anything to the press other than, "Steve Mitchell over there."

And there Mitchell is, talking the way he plays, in jab steps that somehow always lead to conclusions. Like the rock group The Time's Morris Day in the movie Purple Rain, he has a valet named Jerome; Mincy is his roommate, cocaptain and rebounding caddie, with 8.9 a game. "Jerome's been playing like a fury," Mitchell says. "Get it to him, it's a bucket or two free throws."

As the son of a history teacher and a social worker, Mitchell enjoyed a middle-class upbringing. Still, he was forced into Memphis's hardscrabble pickup games at an early age. His father had put up a basket for Steve's older brother Daryl, but took it down when Steve was in elementary school because it was tearing away the gutter on the roof. Needless to say, Steve frowns on a Birmingham city ordinance that bans basketball playing in the streets. "They should arrest the people who aren't playing," says Mitchell, a criminal justice major.

Mitchell is content to confine his own vice to the privacy of the gym and the bedroom. As a starter on the United States team at the World University Games in Kobe, Japan over the summer, he met up with another ball, the Mikasa. "Ooooh, it was heavy," he says. "A rock. Didn't like that."

And he has even had a fling with the official ball of the NBA, a cousin of his Spalding steady. "In the summers, [ex-UAB star and former pro] Oliver [Robinson] would come by with one and we'd say, 'Let's play with the real deal.'

"It's got these big, wide seams," Mitchell says with affection. "I can see how Erving and Jordan and those guys can really take off with it. I like the grooves on it. It feels good."

They should make quite a couple.

PHOTOPHIL HUBERAlthough not a man who gets a lot of ink, Mitchell is considered a top pro prospect.

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