WATERVILLE, Maine — The impact of basketball on Johnny Mitchell’s life is ensconced in the nickname he’s carried since helping Waterville High School win the New England championship 70 years ago: “Swisher.”
To many basketball fans of the day he was Bob Cousy before there was Bob Cousy, the former Boston Celtics point guard whom Mitchell later befriended.
On a versatile team filled with capable ball handlers at Waterville High School, “Swisher” was the point guard, with skills that led to a successful career at the University of Rhode Island where he played against the likes of future NBA stars Cousy at Holy Cross, Paul Arizin at Villanova and Dick McGuire at St. John’s.
“My second college game was against Dick McGuire and St. John’s at Madison Square Garden,” said Mitchell. “You’d look up, and that place was so big, it made the Boston Garden look small.”
Mitchell returned to Maine shortly after graduation to launch a coaching career that spanned more than five decades — the last 44 years as an assistant at Colby College — until his retirement in 2011.
At 87, he’s already been inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, and on Thursday, the older brother of former U.S. senator and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell will become one of the inaugural inductees into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame.
The ceremony will be held at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, where he’ll be one of the more connected people in the building given his relationships with several other honorees.
They include the 1944 Waterville boys basketball team and its coach, the late Wally Donovan, former Colby College standouts Matt Hancock and Brad Moore, and former Colby men’s basketball head coach Dick Whitmore, who shared his sideline bench with Mitchell for some four decades.
“I think we jelled together pretty well,” said Mitchell of his relationship with Whitmore. “Not that we agreed on everything. As I told someone about 10 years ago, I don’t agree with my wife on everything, so why should I agree on everything with Whit? But we got along pretty good, and I’m happy about that.”
Mitchell discovered his passion for basketball as a youngster at the Waterville Boys and Girls Club, where he and several of his future high school teammates honed their collective skills to become the state’s best team under Donovan during the mid-1940s.
That 1944 squad, which also included Mitchell’s older brother Paul as well as Ted Shiro, Len Saulter and John and Norman Jabar, went 27-0 en route to the state and New England championships, and Johnny Mitchell returned for his senior season a year later and led the Purple Panthers to a second straight state crown.
“The thing about that team was that everybody played three sports, everybody was a good athlete, and everyone could handle the basketball,” said Mitchell. “Coach Donovan was such a nice man and great coach, and he’d never run up the score. I remember the year we won the New Englands I probably played only half of most of the games.”
Mitchell went on to become a two-time All-Yankee Conference selection at Rhode Island as well as an All-New England and All-Boston Garden selection his senior year. He also served in the Navy before beginning his teaching and coaching career at John Bapst High School of Bangor in 1954
He admitted his coaching tenure got off to a less than auspicious start.
“Like everyone else you have your ups and downs,” said Mitchell, who with his wife Prin — a former cheerleader at rival Winslow High School — will celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary in January.
“My first couple of years at John Bapst were very difficult. I didn’t know what I was stepping into for a couple of years,” he said.
Mitchell went on to a stint at Salpointe High School in Tucson, Arizona, for two years before returning to Maine to coach at Waterville High School from 1959 to 1964.
And he gradually figured out some of the secrets to successful coaching, particularly at Colby. He was head coach of the Mules’ subvarsity team for nearly three decades while also serving as a comforting complement to the intense Whitmore and interacting with such players as the All-American Moore and Hancock, the 1990 NCAA Division III player of the year.
“Matt Hancock would have been an outstanding player at Division I, that’s what I thought of him,” said Mitchell. “He was a hard worker, he practiced diligently. In the morning, he would be down in the gym shooting foul shots, and he already was a 93 percent foul shooter.
“And Brad Moore, who hardly said anything on the court, also was a marvelous player. Whit used to see him play down at Hall-Dale [High School], and after I watched him play, you could see immediately that he was a good, tough inside player.
“They both were wonderful to work with, and wherever I’ve been and whatever I’ve done, that’s something I’ve always enjoyed, working with the young people,” he said.
The full list of 2014 Maine Basketball Hall of Fame honorees is as follows:
Players: Lisa Blais Manning, Rachel Bouchard, Brett Brown, Skip Chappelle, Danny Coombs, Don Crosby, Matt Donahue, Matt Hancock, Joe Harrington, Jon MacDonald, John Mitchell, Brad Moore, Joanne Palombo-McCallie, Steve Pound, Doug Roberts, Jack Scott.
Coaches: Bob Brown, Paul Vachon, George Wentworth, Dick Whitmore.
Contributor: Bob Butler.
Official: Jim DiFrederico.
Team: 1944 Waterville High School boys squad.
Legends of the game: Anita Belanger, Wally Donovan, William Hanscom, Durward Heal, Bill Mansfield, Stella McLean, Clara Swan, Tony Tammaro, Charlie Wotton.