(The following article, featuring former Mercer basketball great Sam Mitchell, was published Tuesday, March 20, 2007, in USA Today.)
By Roscoe Nance, USA TODAY
Sam Mitchell is a late bloomer as an NBA coach, much as it took time for him to become an NBA player.
Sports Illustrated magazine, in a poll of 428 players, rated Mitchell the worst coach last season after the Toronto Raptors got off to a 1-15 start. Then the Raptors began this season 2-8.
Now Atlantic Division leaders, the Raptors (36-31) are on track to make their first playoff appearance in five seasons. Mitchell is cast in a different light.
"You never look at yourself as the best and you never look at yourself as being the worst. That's the way I've always looked at my life," says Mitchell, 43. "I'm somewhere in the middle striving to be the best."
Mitchell, in the final year of his contract, has the Raptors playing team basketball. They are 10th in the NBA in assists (22.0), which leads to good shots. They are ninth in three-point field goal percentage (36.2 percent), three-point attempts a game (18.0) and three-pointers made a game (6.5) entering Monday.
"We may not be the most talented group of individuals, but teams win. ... What we lack in individual talent we compensate for in team play," Mitchell says.
"Put them out there one-on-one, they're going to struggle. But when you put them out there in a team concept and give them some rules and principles to play by, they can get it done. That's been the strength of our team."
When the Raptors were struggling midway through last season, newly hired general manager Bryan Colangelo took a wait-and-see approach in his evaluation of Mitchell.
"The one thing that stood out more than anything else was he had the team ready to play every night," Colangelo says. "They wanted to go out and play hard. For a large part of that period, (star forward) Chris Bosh was out, yet the effort displayed was impressive. ... Sam has a unique way of dealing with these guys. Call it tough love, and it's equally distributed. That gains respect among players."
Bosh, an All-Star, says Mitchell has learned to pick his spots when challenging players.
"He's demanding of everyone, but he wants everyone to do well, and he does a good job of looking out for players," Bosh says. "Sometimes he got on players and they couldn't handle it. (Now) he can pick and choose his spots when to encourage people and when to challenge them."
Raptors scrap like he did
Flip Saunders, who made Mitchell captain of the Timberwolves when he was coaching at Minnesota, says the Raptors are a mirror image of the way Mitchell played.
"The one thing they do is they play hard and they play aggressive," Saunders says. "That's how he played."
Mitchell averaged 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds during a 13-year career with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers. He faced several setbacks in his journey to become an NBA player. The 6-7 power forward was the Houston Rockets' third-round pick in 1985 out of Mercer University, got cut twice and played in the CBA, U.S. Basketball League and France before signing with the expansion Timberwolves.
Mitchell survived on determination, smarts and being a team player. He was unwavering in his efforts to instill those qualities in the Raptors when he was named coach, often putting him at odds with the players.
In Mitchell's first season with the Raptors, he and point guard Rafer Alston, now with the Rockets, had a confrontation at halftime in Cleveland. Alston remained in the locker room during the second half, and security and team officials escorted him to the team bus after the game.
"He had a barrage of criticism early," Hall of Fame coach and Miami Heat radio analyst Jack Ramsay says of Mitchell. "Now he has settled the team down, and he's doing an outstanding job."
A coach in the making
Mitchell got the Raptors job after two seasons as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. But in essence, he began coaching long before Ernie Grunfeld, then Milwaukee's general manager, hired him to be on George Karl's staff in 2002.
Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Garnett has said Mitchell took him under his wing and taught him how to be a professional when Garnett entered the league out of high school.
Did Garnett envision Mitchell becoming a coach?
"Absolutely," he says. "He just loves to teach the game of basketball. When you do something well, you have a passion for it. Sam definitely has a passion for teaching."
Saunders, now coach of the Detroit Pistons, says he relied heavily on Mitchell's leadership and frequently suggested his player should go into coaching when he retired.
"As a captain and in the locker room, he wasn't afraid to make players accountable," Saunders says. "He always felt it was the responsibility of the player to create a successful situation and not create bailouts — blame it on coaches, blame it on the schedule or whatever.
"His basketball intelligence, his ability to communicate and his competitiveness" make him a good coach.
But the direct, no-nonsense approach that served Mitchell the player so well was a problem at times for Mitchell the coach.
One of those who has helped him adjust is Wayne Embry, a Hall of Fame executive hired as a Raptors adviser in June 2004. He has been a mentor to Mitchell and says he got on him harshly when he thought Mitchell was getting off track in his dealings as a coach.
"I was a harsh critic of his," Embry says. "I gave him tough love. At one time I was concerned. He's a very proud person. Worked hard to get where he is as a player and even now as a good coach. He has responded well."
Mitchell says he learned from the Alston incident, and his players have seen the growth.
"In X's and O's, he's got a better understanding of what plays to call and what offense caters to the type players we have here," Bosh says.
Mitchell says he is a better coach because he is no longer trying to prove anything to his critics.
"I would say I've changed more as a person ... how I deal with people," he says. "I'm more easygoing. I look for the good in people. I learned to let things go and not dwell on it. Me changing as a person probably made me a better coach."
'A relationship with God'
Mitchell, a native of Columbus, Ga., says the genesis of change is that he's a born-again Christian. He says that during a Sunday service at Gibraltar Christian Church in Fayetteville, Ga., Pastor David Rocker spoke directly to him. The sermon was about not allowing fear to keep you from having a relationship with God.
"I knew then in my heart that I was jealous and envious of people who had a relationship with God, and I didn't," Mitchell says.
Mitchell, who was baptized in high school and reluctantly went to church with his wife and four daughters, joined Gibraltar Christian late last season after attending for about a year.
"He's not going to church out of religious reasons," says Rocker, a former NFL defensive lineman and founder of Gibraltar. "He wanted a relationship (with God). He hasn't just been talking about it. He has been applying it.
"He comes back with a humble spirit. He does whatever he's asked. He's a man of his word. If he says he's going to do something, he does it. If he says he going to be somewhere, he's there."
Mitchell attends services Sundays and Wednesdays during the offseason and is a pastor's aide.
He says a conversation with Rocker was the turning point for him.
He asked Rocker, "What is it that you're looking for?" in his relationship with God, the same question he had asked many of his Christian friends. They gave him long, drawn-out answers. Not Rocker.
"He said, 'Brother, I was looking for some peace,' " Mitchell says, adding he previously was always angry and questioned why people attended church. "That did it for me. I was just looking for some peace. Peace with myself.
"I had spent my life trying to prove to people I could play in high school; prove to people I could play in college; prove to people I could play in the CBA; prove to people I could play in the NBA; prove to people I could coach. I spent all this time knocking myself out for this.
"I'm going to do the best job I can do ... be the best coach I can be."
Which this season has made the Raptors the best they can be.