Born: January 1, 1956
Died: June 9, 2011
Position: Small Forward
Cleveland Cavaliers (1978-’81)
San Antonio Spurs (1981-’90)
“Someday I think I’m going to be right up there with Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and the Doctor,” Mike Mitchell was saying the other day. “I feel like I’m destined to be one of the greats of the NBA. Only right now nobody knows who I am.”
– via Mike Makes His Pitch
When the great scorers of the 1980s are mentioned, quick to roll off the tongue are Larry Bird or Alex English. Perhaps Mark Aguirre or Adrian Dantley spring to mind, too. Big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone also sneak their way after a moment’s thought.
But quietly sitting among the list of the 1980’s greatest scorers is Mike Mitchell. The small forward finished with the 10th most points scored for that decade behind only the aforementioned players, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Theus and his Spurs teammate George Gervin. Condensing matters to just his heyday of 1980 through 1986 and you’ll see he was the 7th leading scorer in the NBA behind only 6 Hall of Famers.
His scoring during this point was effortless and methodical. He averaged 22.3 ppg during this stretch while shooting 49.6% from the field and 77.7% from the line. His bread and butter was a ridiculously effective mid-range jumper that he could release with impunity over other small forwards given his 6’7″ frame which was brazenly powerful and fast. And in the age old fashion, he was also quick enough to take a larger defender off the dribble. But that magnificent jump shot was where it was at.
Born in Atlanta, Mitchell would attend Auburn University next door in Alabama for his college ball. By his senior season he was averaging 25 points and 9 rebounds a game and would leave as Auburn’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. Today, he still retains the rebounding crown and is currently 2nd in scoring.
Taken 15th overall by the Cavaliers in the 1978 draft, Mitchell showed sterling promise in his limited rookie minutes: 11 PPG in only 20 minutes a night while shooting 51% FG. The promise turned to excellence the next season (1979-80) as coach Stan Albeck took over the Cavaliers and Mitchell seized the starting small forward gig and unleash perhaps his finest regular season with 22 PPG (52% FG; 79% FT) and 7 RPG along with a block and a steal per game.
Mitchell’s efficiency slackened somewhat the next season, but he was nonetheless rewarded with his only all-star appearance during that 1980-81 campaign and delivered a jaw-dropping evisceration of the Washington Bullets early in the year:
An hour before their game with the Washington Bullets, the Cavaliers worked on a new play freeing Mitchell for his jump shot and it paid dividends.
Less than three hours later, with the game on the line, the Cavs called on the play five times in succession, and Mitchell scored each time to lead them to a 90-88 National Basketball Association victory over the Bullets.
Mitchell scored Cleveland’s final 14 points, including the game-winning basket with 26 seconds remaining, and finished with a game-high 30.
Surprisingly, this would be Mitchell’s last full season in Cleveland. In one of the many questionable and downright awful trades approved by terrible owner Ted Stepien, Cleveland’s only all-star player at the age of 26 was sent off to San Antonio shortly after the start of the 1981-82 season in exchange for Reggie Johnson and Ron Brewer. The Cavaliers would struggle for years to come while Mitchell injected the Spurs with new vigor.
Reunited with his old Cavaliers coach Stan Albeck in San Antonio, Mitchell continued to do his thing: score efficiently from the mid-range. But now there was the added threat of George Gervin (32 PPG that season) as both men made life easier for each other. Then, of course, there was also the stellar play of point guard Johnny Moore. The Spurs finished with 48 wins and took a 4-1 series win over Seattle in the Western Semis.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs squared off with the Los Angeles Lakers. Although the Spurs were clearly overmatched and unceremoniously swept, Mitchell delivered one exciting performance after another with a series average of 25.8 points. The very next season, the two teams would meet again in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs during the offseason had added future Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore and proved a tougher challenge for the Lakers.
Mitchell again posted a stellar scoring average of 25.7 PPG. Bill Russell, calling Game 6 of the series for CBS, commented that Mitchell “thinks he’s Jerry Buss because he owns the Lakers this series.” Mitchell’s jumper may have proved unstoppable, but the Lakers (barely) had the Spurs outgunned and won that Game 6 101-100 to close the series out.
With injuries afflicting and age creeping up on Gilmore, Gervin and Moore, the Spurs slowly faded as the decade progressed. Mitchell continued to chug along in his usual manner: hitting for just above 20 PPG on just under 50% shooting from the field. In 1985 he led the Spurs in scoring, which was the first time George Gervin hadn’t done so since 1974.
Mitchell’s own NBA demise came soon after, sadly, due to substance abuse which came on the heels of a knee injury and (no doubt related to the injury) showing up out of shape to training camp prior to the 1986-87 season. Mitchell’s NBA career ended after the 1987-88 season, but he managed to clean himself up and played on in Italy until 1999 giving him over two decades of professional basketball experience.
It’s been a little over a year since Mitchell passed away from lung cancer at the age of 55. Obviously, that’s gone too soon for anyone, but especially for someone of Mitchell’s character. His experience with drug abuse allowed him to serve as a councilor and mentor for troubled youth in San Antonio after he returned to the city from his decade of European basketball. Remembered for his deep baritone laugh and ever-present smile, Mitchell was a fine soul who also happened to possess a fine jump shot.
Regular Season: 759 Games
Playoffs: 35 Games