Twelve hours after scoring 24 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, the oldest rookie in the NBA sits swallowed up by the massive sofa in his Bloomington, Minn., apartment. His gaze is fixed far beyond the television set that flickers silently in front of him as he tries to focus on how far he has come. "Magic Johnson shook my hand before the game last night," says 26-year-old Sam Mitchell of the Minnesota Timberwolves. "He told me, 'Congratulations, Sam. You're having a great season.' When we played Golden State, Chris Mullin said, 'Good to have you in the league, Sam.' Sam. These guys are All-Stars—how do they know me?"
It should hardly be confounding that Mitchell is earning the respect of the league's premier players. After all, as of March 1, Mitchell, a 6'7" forward, was averaging 14.4 points and 6.1 rebounds while regularly shouldering the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves' toughest defensive assignment—be it Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan, Rocket center Akeem Olajuwon, Sun point guard Kevin Johnson or Jazz power forward Karl Malone. Says Minnesota coach Bill Musselman, "Sam is one of the best defenders in the league."
But Mitchell, five seasons removed from college, has yet to get his due from his fellow rookies, 21-year-olds fresh off campus with fat, guaranteed contracts. "Some of these guys have no idea," says Mitchell. "They don't know what it's like to play in front of two people in the United States Basketball League. I hear rookies say, 'I'd never play in the CBA [Continental Basketball Association].' Good—don't if you don't have to. But then you can't know what it's like to work in a place where everybody's goal is to get out. You can't know what it's like to sit in a motel room in the middle of nowhere, crying. So don't judge me till you've walked in my shoes."
On his way to the NBA, Mitchell was a soldier and a teacher, and he did some touring in basketball backwaters: Oshkosh, Wis.; Tampa; Rapid City, S.Dak.; Montpellier, France. Off and on, he chased the game that his brother never caught. The trek began in the spring of 1985, when Mitchell completed his senior season at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and culminated on July 26, 1989, when he signed an NBA contract.
The signing was both the fastest and slowest in league history. Billy McKinney, the Timberwolves' director of player personnel, pulled Mitchell from the team's pregame layup line at last summer's Midwest Revue rookie showcase in San Antonio. Producing a contract at courtside, McKinney asked Mitchell if he would like to sign. A free agent at the time, Mitchell spread the contract across McKinney's back and affixed his signature about five minutes before tip-off. "It isn't about money," says Mitchell, whose three-year contract nonetheless calls for him to earn more than $220,000 a year, with a two-year guarantee. "It's about showing people that I should have been here four years ago."
Four and a half years ago, the possibility of having a pro basketball career hadn't occurred to Mitchell. He assumed he would earn a more mundane living, much as his parents, Samuel and Betty, did each day in the textile mills of Columbus, Ga., where he grew up. He had been a good enough high school player to earn a scholarship to Mercer. During his junior year, when he scored 21.5 points and pulled down 7.1 rebounds a game, Mitchell became perhaps the only scholarship athlete in the nation to join the Army ROTC. As a senior he averaged 25 points and 8.2 rebounds and finished ninth in Division I in scoring. In May 1985, a semester shy of his bachelor's degree in special education, he was off to boot camp at Fort Bragg, N.C. "I figured today's Army is a good eight-to-five job," says Mitchell. "You can serve 20 years, get out at 41 and still do something else."
One evening about a month later, Mitchell was summoned by his company commander and told that the Rockets had selected him in the third round of the NBA draft. Mitchell returned to his bunk, cleaned his gun and drifted into dreamless sleep. But when Uncle Sam told GI Sam that he had an out—as an ROTC soldier whose college education hadn't been financed by the government, he was free to leave the Army if he wanted to pursue a pro basketball career—even Houston coach Bill Fitch's rigorous training camp looked like the life of Riley.
A man who has greeted the previous 42 days by running five miles in combat boots at sunrise has little trouble running the floor in sneakers. Mitchell dusted his colleagues in rookie camp and stood out in veterans' camp on a team chockablock with experienced small forwards. On the dread final-cut day, Mitchell made it through morning practice, afternoon practice and the shower, and he was nearly through the door before Fitch found him.
He sat in Fitch's office. Steve Harris, a 6'5" swingman out of Tulsa and the Rockets' first-round choice, was also there. Fitch told Harris to examine Mitchell's face. "Remember it," he said. "Anytime you don't feel like playing, remember that he belonged here too."
You belong. You're cut. You can keep the shorts. "I didn't understand," says Mitchell.
The Rockets shipped him to the Wisconsin Flyers, a Houston affiliate in the CBA, basketball's top bush league. Mitchell led the Flyers in scoring for the first 15 games, but he might as well have been selling pharmaceuticals. Oshkosh. Rockford, Ill. Topeka, Kans. Basketball had become labor. "I was the lowest-paid guy on the team," he says, remembering how unhappy he was then. "I didn't like the way we traveled, and I missed my girlfriend."
On New Year's night in 1986, Mitchell quit the team and flew back to Macon, where he reenrolled at Mercer. He plunked down his last $400 as a security deposit on an apartment he had rented and took inventory of his possessions: one blanket, one pillow. A Mercer professor helped him get a job as a teacher at a school for retarded children, and Mitchell, who's still two courses short of his degree, embarked on a new career.
If it seemed a bit premature to retire from basketball at 22, those who have traveled the same road consider it prudent. "Too many guys hold on to the dream too long," says Minnesota point guard Sidney Lowe, who played three seasons in the CBA. "It's easy to lose touch with reality and never prepare for the future."
There was a pickup game in the Mercer gym every night, but Mitchell couldn't bear to join in. Instead, he would settle in front of the TV for five or six hours. "He enjoyed teaching," says his wife, Anita, whom Mitchell married three months after returning to Macon, "but you could tell there was something missing."
Anita knew what it was. She had started dating Sam after he selected her as a partner in a Mercer training course in CPR—"I wasn't going to do it on no guy," he says—and she had scored more than 1,000 points in her own basketball career at Mercer. She now shooed her husband back into the gym, where he hoisted bricks and took counsel from Mercer coach Bill Bibb. "Sam knew he could play," says Bibb. "A lot of guys can. I told him he had to decide if he could wait for a break that might be five years down the line."
The U.S. Basketball League, basketball's rough equivalent of Double A baseball, played a summer schedule, and as a teacher, Mitchell had the summer free. He beat out 35 others—"I knew 'em all from the CBA," he says—for a spot with the Tampa Bay Flash, and the team went on to win the league title. That fall, he returned to the Houston veterans' camp, and the Western Conference-champion Rockets sent him packing back to Oshkosh for another season in the CBA. Three games into the 1986-87 season, he tore ligaments in his ankle and was dealt to the Tampa Bay Thrillers, where Musselman was the coach.
The Thrillers moved to Rapid City after the regular season—such is life in the CBA—and the players dispersed before the sound of the final horn had faded on their championship season. Forward Don Collins went to France to play in Limoges, and he told Mitchell about an opening in Montpellier, with its minuscule taxes and its view of the Mediterranean. Mitchell told his mother he wanted to play in Europe. "You may as well kill me," she said.
Mitchell's older half brother was Fessor Leonard, one of Betty's two children from a previous marriage. "We were brothers, period," says Mitchell. "I never heard the words step or half until high school."
Like Mitchell, Leonard starred at a small southern school (Furman), was drafted and cut by an NBA team (the Bullets) and chased the game in Europe. On Christmas Eve in 1977, on a street in Lugano, Switzerland, Leonard was arrested and charged with assaulting an elderly woman. Leonard said that the woman appeared to be in trouble and that he was trying to offer her assistance, but she was apparently frightened by the 7'1" black man who approached her. Although charges were eventually dropped, Leonard was pilloried in the Swiss papers. He collected the critical stories and, on a February night in 1978, set fire to them and killed himself with an overdose of tranquilizers.
A decade after his brother's death, Mitchell made the painful decision that his playing in France would help the family more than hurt it, even though his mother had been so grief-stricken by Leonard's suicide that she had become gravely ill. "She really thought that once I got on the plane she would never see me again," says Mitchell.
He called his mother every couple of days from France, and guarded the opposing team's best offensive player every night. In his second season, 1988-89, Mitchell scored 28.5 points a game and Montpellier qualified for the European Cup. He was offered a contract for two more seasons, at six figures apiece. When his agent called last summer and suggested Mitchell try the Timber-wolves' rookie camp, he wavered. "I didn't think I had the desire," says Mitchell. "I didn't need another practice jersey and a slap on the back."
But once in Minneapolis, Mitchell and NBA veterans Tony Campbell and Tyrone Corbin quickly emerged as the best players in the Timberwolves' woeful camp. Mitchell began the season as a starter. Against the Jazz on Dec. 17, Musselman thrice called isolation plays for Mitchell, clearing one side of the Metrodome court for him, and three times Mitchell blew past Malone for easy baskets. When Mitchell went to the bench for a breather, the Mailman barked madly at Musselman to run the plays again.
Six days later, Milwaukee's Jack Sikma, who had knocked out Mitchell's two front teeth in an exhibition game against the Rockets in 1985, broke Mitchell's nose in a loose-ball scramble. Four days after that, Olajuwon kept twisting the protective face mask Mitchell was wearing to shield his newly broken nose, trying futilely to gain an edge against his former campmate, who was now guarding him. Minnesota won 108-91.
False teeth, a broken nose—Mitchell savors these souvenirs of the heady company he keeps. Nine minutes into his first NBA game, in Seattle on Nov. 3, Mitchell scrambled for a rebound and sprained his ankle. He immediately thought it was broken. "I worked four years to get here, and I thought it was all crashing in nine minutes," says Mitchell. "But you know, for those nine minutes, the team was winning and I was playing well. I tell you what—if it had only lasted nine minutes, it would've been worth it."