Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Competitive Games for Ireland: 8
Debut: Home vs Switzerland August 2001
Final Game: Away vs Bosnia and Herzegovnia January 2003
Career average: 10.6 ppg
Career high: 25 (away vs Germany, 2001)
Mike Mitchell’s arrival into the Irish team in 2001 was a monumental moment in the history of the National Team. Mike was the first player recruited into the team that wasn’t either a direct Irish American or someone who had lived and played in Ireland. It signaled a shift in recruitment, and it also led to arguably Ireland’s best ever team. On the floor Mike was a do it all forward who although he was in the closing stages of his career, he had lots to give and was an instant fan favourite because of his athleticism and energy.
In 2001, Mike Mitchell became only the second player to play for Ireland that gained eligibility through marriage, after Kelvin Troy had done so eleven years earlier. Mike’s (now ex-wife) met him in Australia despite being from the States herself. She had Irish heritage as her grandparents were born in Ireland and had left Waterford for Massachusetts initially. Twenty years after his debut for Ireland, Mike’s son DJ is now eligible for Ireland and likely to feature of the National Team.
Unlike lots of the Irish Americans who gained their passports to play in Europe immediately, Mike spent the majority of his career in Australia and had no comprehension of what his access to an Irish passport meant. At the tail end of his career he moved to the Bundesliga in Germany and quickly realise that his ex-wife’s heritage had a big impact on his career “When I got there, they told me how valuable it was but I still didn’t comprehend. When I walked on the court we had five Americans pretty much, with three of us having passports.” During his third season in Europe, his coach Joe Whelton came to him asking would he like to go play for the Irish National team as their naturalized American player. Whelton, unlike so many other club coaches was supportive of the move and his background as the former British basketball coach for the 1988 Olympic Qualifiers, certainly would have helped in understanding this opportunity.
Mitchell was born in LA in 1967 and became a strong 6’8 forward by the time he was representing Mater Dei High School in LA. Mater Dei is a well known sports school in LA and shares NFL quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley amongst its alumni, as well as current NBA player Stanley Johnson. When Mike Mitchell arrived in 1983, Coach Gary McKnight was entering only his second season at the helm. By 2014, McKnight had reached 1,000 wins with only 85 losses and by 2020 his teams had an average season record of 31 wins and just three losses which is the best average win total and lowest average loss total in high school basketball history. Mitchell’s senior season at Mater Dei was the first undefeated season for McKnight and was also be the first time a high school team for California was ranked number 1 in the nation.
Mike’s college career began under Boyd Grant at Fresno State where he immediately excelled as a freshman. In just his second game as a freshman Mitchell scored 24 points against Eastern Michigan and won the Most Valuable Player of the Sun Met Tournament in Fresno. That early performance raised expectations and put a lot of pressure on him. Despite the increased attention he averaged 10.1 points a game as a freshman and was second on the team in minutes played. His performances led to Freshman of the Year honours in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (now the Big West) and excitement was building about what his career could deliver for Fresno.
After his Freshman year though things started to get rougher for Mitchell. The coach that recruited him, Boyd Grant, resigned after the 1986 season and the assistant coach Ron Adams got promoted to the hot seat. Adams himself has had a lengthy distinguished career across both the NCAA and NBA. It has been in Adams role as an assistant to Steve Kerr for the Golden State Warriors that he has truly distinguished himself. Kerr often deferred praise for the team’s defensive concepts to Adams and together they won three NBA Championships between 2015 and 2018 and had the best ever NBA regular season record in 2017. The team did have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and later Kevin Durant but Adams imprint on the style of play the Warriors employed was undoubted. Back in the late eighties though there was friction developing between Adams and his young star Mitchell. Fresno was known as a college basketball town and players playing in that environment were under constant scrutiny. Mitchell had hinted at greatness in his freshman year and although he did make a jump in both his sophomore year (11.9 ppg and 4.7 rpg) and his junior year (14.3ppg and 6.1ppg) he wasn’t happy in his situation. A call was made to his former coach Grant who was now coaching in the WAC for Colorado State University. Mitchell told his former coach that he wanted to transfer, and when he was advised by Boyd that wasn’t the best plan, he said he couldn’t return to Fresno and would stop playing if that was his only option. Grant reached out to his former school and a release was granted for Mitchell who had to sit out one year before playing his senior year.
Colorado State University
The break in action seemed to do wonders for Mitchell as he gained perspective away from the game and was able to escape the scrutiny he had been under in Fresno. He also got to develop his outside shot and thrived in his role helping the team practice as the opponents leading scorer. His new school Colorado State had one of their best seasons as he sat out (due to NCAA transfer rules) and reached the NCAA tournament. As he became eligible for the 1989-90 season, team expectations were lower due to the loss of some key players from their tournament squad. Mike was ready though and hit the ground running on what became a remarkable senior season. Throughout his senior season Mitchell averaged 19.4 points a game and 6.7 rebounds. It was one particular stretch that included a mid season tournament that changed his perspective on just how good he was. North Carolina were in Denver for the tournament and with them they brought future NBA players Rick Fox, George Lynch and Hubert Davis and were coached by the legendary Dean Smith. The Tar Heels were ranked 24th in the Nation at the time and later went on to the Sweet 16 in March Madness. In the game Mitchell rose to the challenge, and then some, as he scored 34 points over the future NBAers and led Colorado State to an improbable 78-67 win. The tournament was capped off with a final win 77-51 over an up and coming UMass team coached by the one and only John Calipari. After that performance there was suddenly NBA interest in Mitchell and the potential for him to be drafted now existed.
As he closed out his senior year, Colorado State exceeded pre season expectations and secured a share of the WAC Championship and an NCAA tournament bid. Mitchell also was awarded the WAC Player of the Year an honour that Tim Hardaway had won the previous year!
In the tournament they were drawn against Alabama who featured a 6’10 shooting big man by the name of Robert Horry. Big shot Bob as he would later be called in the NBA went on to play 16 seasons and win seven NBA championships alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan to name a few. In 1990 he was sophomore for Alabama but he was already making a name for himself that would see him drafted 11th overall just two years later. In the tournament battle between the two Horry hit six threes on his way to a game high 27 points in an Alabama win. Mitchell in his lone tournament performance accounted himself well as he 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists, again showing he belonged on the top stage.
Despite the good showing in the tournament, the WAC award and the performance against North Carolina, Mitchell went undrafted in the 1990 NBA Draft. The 1990 draft was the first draft to move from three rounds to just two rounds and despite some interest from a number of teams Mitchell went undrafted. Instead he became the 4th pick in the CBA Draft which was the next best option in the States at the time. His NBA dream wasn’t yet over though as he was invited to the Boston Celtics veterans camp and to the Denver Nuggets camp. Brushing shoulders with the likes of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in Boston and Orlando Woolridge in Denver showed how close he was to the top stars but it wasn’t to be for Mike. His combination of ability to score and lock down defense at 6’8 is exactly the type of player that the NBA covets in 2020, unfortunately for Mitchell it wasn’t what was sought after at the time. With the NBA disappointment behind him, Mike headed to Australia to begin his career.
Arriving in Australia he played for the Gold Coast Rollers in the NBL and in his rookie season was named first team all NBL at the center position. As he was settling into his pro career averaging 28.5 points a game in his second season for the Rollers, it almost all came undone. After a controversial loss, Mitchell took his frustrations out on the dressing room door. The wire-reinforced glass severed his arm so badly that he was found passed out on the ground in a pool of blood by one of his teammates. Doctors initially wondered whether he could ever play again but he did manage to return the next season. He did return though and played seven more seasons in Australia becoming a household name before heading to Europe to finish his career in Germany.
Playing for Ireland
Mike took the opportunity and arrived in 2001 for the European Championships qualifying campaign. His first impressions were initially of uncertainty as he experienced Ireland for the first time but a common bond with the other players quickly made him feel at home. Basketball was a universal language and the guys were able to enjoy themselves but also compete which Mitchell loved “Everybody was superstars in their own time and they can all play and are all competitive so I knew I could fit right in here”. He immediately settled in and brought his all-round game to the Irish team in the qualifying round as he was fifth in scoring (7.7ppg), third in rebounding (5rpg) and second in assists (2.7apg). Even more impressive was his rise in performance when Ireland reached the semi-final round as he pushed his scoring up to 13.4ppg second only to Glenn Sekunda. His top performance for Ireland came in the away loss to Germany that would also be Marty Conlon’s debut for Ireland. The two combined for 50 points, 25 apiece in a narrow loss to the Germans, just months before the Germans won a bronze medal at the FIBA World Championships. Sadly, Mitchell’s career in the Irish jersey was cut short by injuries. After tearing his hamstring he missed the second half of the semi-final round and clubs wouldn’t allow him to come back to Ireland as he manged a variety of injuries at the tail end of his career as he reached his mid-thirties.
Post Playing Career
After retiring Mitchell returned to the States and coached at college and high school level before becoming an assistant coach in the WNBA. While in the Women’s league his eyes were opened to the level of play of the world’s top females “It was fun, it was different especially with how strong and talented these girls were and I never would have figured it. We had Sylvia Fowles, she had got hurt and missed about 7 or 8 games. They were like Mike you’ve got it, when she comes back we need you to work her out we want to see if she’s ready and I’m like ok whatever. I’m sitting there and she’s posting me up and hitting me elbows and I’m like good lord take it easy!.....I had worked with her so I knew she could drop step and dunk. We’re doing this Olympic drill and you have to make a many shots as possible in 3 minutes. They said ok every time you dunk we’ll give you four points. On the other side of the screen I think it was Lebron, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo who were in Chicago working out. All of a sudden it’s bam, bam, bam she’s dunking it every time and all of a sudden these guys come around the corner saying who the hell is over here dunking we thought this was the girl’s basketball team, everyone was going oh my god! That was my introduction to the WNBA”. After his stint in the WNBA he moved on to become a High School girl’s basketball coach where he is trying to impact young athletes in the same way that Gary McKnight influenced him in the early 1980s at Mater Dei.
Looking back on his career, Mitchell became a fan favourite every where he played in part because of his hard work and athleticism. His dunks for Ireland in the National Basketball Arena helped raise the standard of play and made Ireland reach for levels that they never had before. His time for Ireland was one of pride for Mitchell, “When you look back on it, the things you accomplished there you can say you are happy about it. I’m proud that we were at least competing at a level that Ireland had never been to, so I was appreciate of them asking me to do it. Being just 1.5 games out of making it (to the European Finals round), that was the craziest part. We were knocking on the door those two years and people were saying who the hell is this team? Ireland, they’ve never done this before, who are these guys?.” His career though also raises some what ifs. Ireland really got Mike towards the end of his career and had he arrived in earlier he could have been ‘the man’, that Ireland always looked for. The one thing that is clear though was that although he wasn’t the initial vision of what help from America would look like, without Mitchell arriving into the Irish team, the successes of 2001-2005 (although he wasn’t directly involved in all of them) and Ireland moving from minnows to competing with top European teams would not have happened.