Where Are They Now - Mike Mitchell
That casual fan would be wrong.
The man who held those records – until a local kid named LeBron James turned in arguably the best single season in the history of the Cavaliers – was Mike Mitchell.
“I was watching a Cavaliers game on the TV here and they asked a trivia question about the team’s season scoring record that LeBron was about to pass,” Mitchell laughed. “And the answer was me. But as they say, ‘records are made to be broken.’”
The lithe small forward from Auburn wore the Wine and Gold for just under four years after being selected by Bill Fitch with the 15th overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. He had been drafted by New Jersey of the ABA after his freshman year, but decided to stay with the perennial SEC powerhouse.
In college, Mitchell became the first Tiger to top the 2,000-point plateau as just one of his many prep milestones. Legendary former LSU coach Dale Brown once said, “I don’t know how to stop him. We considered setting up a howitzer out there to stop his shots.”
Mitchell joined the Cavaliers on the downward crest of the Miracle of Richfield era. Players like Bingo Smith, Austin Carr and Campy Russell were still there, but the team’s miraculous days were drawing to a close.
Still, that year Russell was selected to the All-Star squad, averaging nearly 22 points per game. And Mitchell was named All-Rookie second team. The Atlanta native finished the 1978-79 season averaging 10.7 ppg, but he punctuated his freshman campaign with games of 26, 28 and 32 points.
The next year, Campy Russell went down with a knee injury halfway through the season and Mitchell was given his chance. The soft-spoken sophomore responded by leading Cleveland in scoring at just over 22 points per clip. He never looked back.
Mitchell was a quiet killer – he rained points on the opponent silently, effortlessly.
Fitch, who drafted and coached Mitchell for a year in Cleveland, once quipped: “Mike could score 39 points and just say, ‘Shucks.’ Another guy would score 39 and say, ‘Where’s my agent?’”
Mitchell cites Russell as the one man who influenced his career more than any other player.
Ted Stepien took over as the principal owner the following season. And even the casual Cavalier fan knows that not many stories have a happy ending when they begin with that sentence.
The Stepien-era started out well for Mitchell. That season, Mitchell assumed his mentor’s mantle and was selected to play in the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland.
Mitchell wowed the sellout crowd at Richfield Coliseum, scoring 14 points in 15 minutes on 6-of-12 shooting. Tiny Archibald was the game’s MVP, but 20,239 fans know who stole the show.
“Being in an All-Star Game in your hometown, getting introduced to a standing ovation, it was touching,” said Mitchell. “I always felt like I would be (in Cleveland) for years to come.”
In 1981, Mitchell upped his average to 24.5 ppg and netted 2012 points for the season. The man who eventually went on to break these marks was still three years away from being born.
But his personal success wasn’t matched by his teammates as the Cavaliers’ record slipped to 28-54. By this time, Mitchell was already on this third coach – Bill Mussleman, who replaced Stan Albeck. Don Delaney's hiring made it four in three years as Cleveland fired Musselman 71 games into the season.
The Cavaliers’ disarray continued into the 1981-82 season. Delaney was replaced by assistant Bob Kloppenburg, who was replaced by Chuck Daly after three games. Bill Musselman wound up coaching the team by the end of the year, but Mitchell wasn’t around to see it. Two days before Christmas -- 27 games into that tumultuous year -- the Cavaliers traded Mitchell and Roger Phegley to San Antonio for Ron Brewer, Reggie Johnson and cash. Cleveland finished the year 15-67.
In his first full year in San Antonio, Mike Mitchell averaged 21 ppg and reached the playoffs in his reunion tour with Stan Albeck. He was also joining one of the game’s all-time great scorers – the Iceman, George Gervin – and was soon joined by one of the league’s great big men – Artis Gilmore.
In fact, the Spurs reached the playoffs in four of Mitchell’s first five seasons in Texas – and six times overall – losing in the Western Conference Finals twice to the Lakers.
Mitchell averaged just over 20 points per game in seven-plus seasons with the Spurs, including a gaudy 18.5 ppg mark in the playoffs. He twice led the Spurs in scoring and even led the club in rebounding in his first season.
The 1987-88 season was Mitchell’s last full season in San Antonio. He left for one year to play in Italy before returning briefly to the Spurs in 1990. By then, a rookie named David Robinson was the new face of the club and eventually, San Antonio would go on to build a dynasty in the following decade.
Mitchell returned to Europe and played in Italy until 1999.
Mike Mitchell battled personal demons during his career with the Spurs. He now works as a youth counselor in his adopted hometown of San Antonio, trying to keep young kids from getting mixed up with some of the downfalls that nearly ruined his prolific NBA career.
“I work with at-risk kids,” said Mitchell. “My wife and I have our own company. We run after-school programs and on Saturdays at the juvenile detention center. We deal with kids 13- through 16-years old.”
Often overlooked in Cavaliers history is the small forward position that was manned by Campy Russell and Mike Mitchell – probably the franchise’s two most underrated players – from 1975-1982.
In that time span, Campy averaged just over 18 points per contest and Mitchell added 19 points per in his four years in Richfield. They were very different players – aside from their uncanny use of the glass – but they were both stalwarts at the position.
Mitchell laughs about his first experiences when he joined the Cavaliers. He was a guy who saved his best performances for game time, a fact not lost on his first coach. “Bill Fitch once told me that if he had only seen me practice and not in a game, that I would have never made the team.”
When Mitchell did get on the floor, he performed with flair and precision. He was one of the most proficient scoring forwards in the history of the Wine and Gold and might just be the greatest Cavalier you haven’t heard of.