TORONTO — Sam Mitchell was happy. After 15 years playing professional basketball and 11 years coaching in the NBA — including five as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors — he was out of the game, with no regrets.
Well, not completely out of it. One of the most recognizable personalities in Canadian basketball was making a name for himself as a media presence — “dancing for the man” in his words — and loving that he didn’t feel the ache to get back in the game that had defined his entire adult life.
"When I was in the media I was totally committed to doing the media," says Mitchell. "One thing I learned when I was out of coaching was, I think the biggest fear for all the guys who have been in basketball is when you are not in basketball what are you going to do, because that’s all you’ve done in life? And the thing I’ve learned about myself is, I can do other things and that gave me a different kind of confidence. So I didn’t have that panic: ‘I got to do this, I got to coach.’"
And yet, here he is on a Canadian tour serving as the interim head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and shepherd for one of Canadian basketball’s most treasured assets in Andrew Wiggins, and loving that too.
The T-Wolves played in Winnipeg on Saturday, the Raptors on Monday night and will travel to Ottawa to play the Raptors again as part of an effort by the NBA to leverage Wiggins’ popularity and build the league’s brand outside of Toronto.
Mitchell still moves the needle. He might have got the biggest round of applause outside of Wiggins prior to Toronto’s 112-105 win against Minnesota, which was highlighted by a Raptors’ pre-season record 40-point outing by Kyle Lowry, who did his damage on just 18 shots (6-of-9 from three) in 28 minutes through the game’s first three quarters.
Wiggins scored all 21 of his points in 19 minutes in the first half before sitting down for the night.
Mitchell didn’t sit much. He is back stalking the sidelines in familiar fashion for anyone who watched him coach the Raptors. He remains the franchise leader in wins for a head coach, with 156, a mark that Dwane Casey, trailing by two, should pass sometime in early November.
The interim tag comes under difficult circumstances. Few people have been more influential in Mitchell’s career than Flip Saunders, who Mitchell played under for seven seasons with the Timberwolves beginning in 1995.
It was Saunders, Minnesota’s head coach, president of basketball operations and part owner who reached out to Mitchell and offered him an assistant coaching job on the rebuilding T-Wolves a year ago.
"When Flip called me and offered me a job, I didn’t even have an agent," said Mitchell, who was an assistant coach in New Jersey for a couple of seasons after he left Toronto. " I was doing my media stuff and wanted to be dancing for the man on a whole other level.
"[But] when Flip called me, he made some compelling arguments. He thought I did a good job in the media — I thought I did an excellent job — but he said to me ‘you’re always going to be a basketball coach.’"
And now he’s a head coach. Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the summer and, after initially planning to coach throughout his treatment, took a leave of absence five weeks ago due to complications from his chemotherapy. Suddenly, Mitchell was thrust into the head job again, seven years after he was fired by then-Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo with Toronto sitting at 8-9.
Mitchell is in a perfect spot, circumstances aside. The T-Wolves are one of the most exciting collections of young talent in the NBA, having added No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns to a young core led by Wiggins. In the short-term expectations are low, but it offers Mitchell a golden opportunity to make an impact on a group of players that could be lasting and which could re-establish himself as head coach in the league for years to come.
The 2006-07 NBA coach of the year used his season as an assistant with the T-Wolves to build a solid bond with Wiggins, and now has Towns in his charge. He’s got a group of veterans led by Mitchell’s former teammate Kevin Garnett to help deliver his message.
"He’s cool. He was an assistant coach last year and everyone knows with an assistant coach, that’s who you go to tell a message to the head coach," said Wiggins. "I talked to Sam a lot last year and now having him as a head coach I feel really comfortable with him, even off the court. He’s cool, he’s funny, he’s loud. If he’s in the building you know he’s there."
And being back in the mix has energized Mitchell.
"There were things about [being in the league that] I missed," he said. "Being around the guys. When you’re doing the media you’re around [the game], but you’re not around the players. Being around these young guys, you feed off their energy, watching them grow, just watching them get on the bus in the morning and the things that they wear, the hairstyles.
"I can’t really recall one single game I played in, but I can tell you a lot of things that happened on the plane, on the bus and in the locker room that I thought were hilarious."
Working with a young team might be tedious at times, but Mitchell is more ready for that then he might have been in his first go-round as a head coach.
"You just learn. You try to get better. You try to have more patience. You understand Rome wasn’t built in a day and you’re not going to win a championship in a day," he said. "It’s a process and you understand the process a little bit better. You just deal with things a little different because you understand how difficult this league is.
"Everybody wants to win right now, but it doesn’t work like that. You have to put in your time and you have to grow mentally as well as physically and you’re going to have some bumps along the way, so you just hope — because you’ve been down that path before — you know the light at the end of the tunnel and you just try to keep them focused on that and understanding that it’s a process. There are no quick fixes. There is nothing you can tell them that will take them from A to Z. They have to go to B, C, D and so on. That’s just the process."
Now Mitchell is part of that process again, happy for the opportunity to walk an NBA sideline, his days “dancing for the man” done for now.