Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Carlene Mitchell stays true to humble roots in her first professional go-round

In her first professional journey, Carlene Mitchell has not let the brighter lights and bigger stage get to her head, remaining focused on player-first mentality. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

She is in her first year in the pro game, but is far from a rookie.

Carlene Mitchell, an assistant coach with the Chicago Sky, has experienced the game as a junior College and Division I player, a Division I assistant; and later head coach, all before joining the Sky. She has a youthfulness and enthusiasm her players can admire, yet she is a veteran with several distinguished mentors.

About an hour before the Sky faced the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden last Friday, Mitchell spoke of one of her primary teachers in the game, C. Vivian Stringer, the Hall of Fame mentor whom she assisted for a decade through some of the best moments in Rutgers women’s basketball history.

“Coach Stringer emphasized life lessons,” Mitchell recounted. “She drove home the fact you should treat players as human beings. It is the person, not just the player. Do not forget the human side of it all. First and foremost, they are people.”

Mitchell’s tenure at Rutgers was a time when the Scarlet Knights were in the Big East. She continued to discuss the state of the conference today when the subject of in-state rival Seton Hall came up.   

“Tony Bozzella has done an outstanding job with that program,” Mitchell praised. “In fact, he has rebuilt several programs, and each time his priority has been the people side of it. He’s an excellent coach and outstanding with player relationships.”

Having spent ten years with Stringer, defense was also emphasized, leaving an impression on her coaching career.

“Yes, no doubt,” Mitchell said with a light-hearted laugh. “Vivian sold us on defense. But my college coach, Brian Agler; at Kansas State and now with the Los Angeles Sparks, was the very first to really emphasize how important defense is.”

Mitchell’s experiences have run the gamut as both a player and coach. She played for a junior college national champion at Trinity Valley Community College before moving on to Kansas State. Her experience as a college assistant, in addition to Rutgers, included stops at Oklahoma State, Western illinois and UMKC. Her most recent stop saw her move into the head coach’s  chair at UC-Santa Barbara. Her four years there were highlighted by the first, producing a Big West Conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. That made Mitchell a finalist for the Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year award. With The Sky being her first stop in professional basketball, the question on the differences between college and the professional ranks was broached.

“In college, you are doing a lot of recruiting, and there is involvement in day-to-day things such as academic schedules and supervision,” she said. “Here, the focus is simply on the game. You have the opportunity to focus and address the most minute detail from an X-and-O standpoint.”

As much as the technical aspect of the game is stressed on this level, Mitchell cannot get away from the personal. About Cappie Pondexter, whom she coached at Rutgers, Mitchell said, “Cappie has become a wonderful woman, not just a player. She might be upset I told you this, but today she bought groceries and distributed them to the homeless in Central Park. That is who she is.”

The Sky, with a first-year head coach in Amber Stocks, Mitchell, and another first year assistant in Carla Morrow, is far from a team learning on the fly. On Friday, Chicago defeated the Liberty for a third straight win. Mitchell, attending to postgame duties in the Sky locker room, made sure to congratulate each Chicago player with a word of advice or encouragement as they exited.

For Carlene Mitchell, the professional game is a different challenge. The personal touch, though, still remains in place.

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