Almost any meeting with Johnny Mitchell started with a grab of your arm, an engaging smile and a story.
They were perhaps the most obvious signs of an outward personality that for “Swisher” led to a memorable life in athletics, first as a star basketball player at Waterville High School and the University of Rhode Island, and later as the longtime assistant to legendary Colby College men’s basketball coach Dick Whitmore.
Johnny Mitchell, an older brother of former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, died in his hometown Wednesday morning at age 91, and those closest to him reflected later in the day on a life well-lived.
“He was best known as a great athlete, and he was one of the best basketball players ever to come out of the state of Maine,” George Mitchell said. “But more importantly, he was a truly great human being. He and his dear wife of over 60 years, Prinella, were inseparable, and together they were an ideal couple.”
For the generations that saw Johnny Mitchell play basketball, he was Bob Cousy before there was Bob Cousy, the legendary Boston Celtics point guard of the 1950s and 1960s whom he later befriended.
Mitchell’s dynamic ballhandling and accurate shooting touch helped Waterville capture the 1944 New England championship, a memory Sen. Mitchell recalls every time he steps into the Waterville Boys & Girls Club.
“The gym there is named after me, but right there on the wall as you go in is a huge picture of Johnny on his birthday in 1944 being lifted on the shoulders of his teammates at Waterville High School after they won the New England championship,” George Mitchell said. “It was only proper because he was by far the best athlete.”
Johnny Mitchell played against Cousy — then at Holy Cross — as well as other future NBA stars such as Paul Arizin of Villanova and Dick McGuire of St. John’s during his college days, when Mitchell was a two-time All-Yankee Conference choice and an All-New England and All-Boston Garden honoree as a senior.
Mitchell served in the Navy before beginning his teaching and coaching career at John Bapst High School of Bangor in 1954. After two years in Arizona he eventually resettled in Maine, originally coaching at Waterville High School from 1959 to 1964 before spending 44 years as an assistant coach at Colby — including 40 years teaming with Whitmore to guide the Mules to a 637-341 record.
“When (then Colby athletic director) John Winkin hired me in 1970, the one thing he didn’t tell me until after I signed was that my assistant coach was already chosen and it was going to be John Mitchell,” said Whitmore, just 27 when he was named to the Colby post.
“The biggest thing for me was that on the bench John was a confidant of unbelievable gifts, and we established a relationship that first year that grew and grew. My dependency on him was something I had tremendous confidence in, and we became very, very good friends, and enjoyed wonderful times together all over the world,” Whitmore added.
The chemistry between the intense Whitmore and gregarious Mitchell transcended the sidelines.
“He was the greatest friend I ever had,” Whitmore said. “He was a mentor to me. He was someone I could always count on to give me an answer that was the right answer and not just what I wanted to hear.
“He was as great with young people as any person I’ve ever known, and one of the beauties of the Colby basketball heritage was what he was able to add to it, an unbelievable personality and his caring and love.”
Generations of players appreciated how Mitchell and Whitmore worked together.
“Whit was a pretty fiery guy as a coach and when you came in as a freshman you weren’t sure what to think of him,” said Chris Vickers, who played at Colby from 1983 to 1987 and now is president and CEO of Starc Systems in Brunswick.
“He was jumping all around and Swish was the perfect complement to Whit’s high-energy, win-at-all costs sort of persona. Swish just brought a levity to the situation that made us all feel like that as serious as it all seemed it wasn’t quite as serious in reality,” Vickers added.
Mitchell has been enshrined into both the New England and Maine basketball halls of fame, and in April 2017 he was honored with the creation of the John “Swisher” Mitchell Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Colby fund, the first endowed assistant coaching position at the college.
“I know that was one of the greatest days of his life,” Whitmore said. “The players were his joy and so many of them were there that day. Each one had their own special connection with him.”
And that was true even through Swisher’s final days, whether the connection was a basketball player, a friend or family.
“Somebody said to me once while I was in politics that it was impossible to know the Swisher and not like him, and I think that really captured him,” said Sen. Mitchell, who returned to Maine last Friday to see his brother. “People really liked him because he was so genuine, so down to earth and generally so positive. He made everyone feel good.”
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