St. Louis, Mo. -- Almost everyone had gone home. A lone pair of squeaking sneakers separated Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena from silence.
While all his classmates, teammates, and friends departed campus to be with their families for the holidays, redshirt senior guard Kwamain Mitchell stayed behind to get ahead on his rehabilitation.
Just days before the 2012-13 season was set to begin, Mitchell heard a pop in his foot during practice. The news was grim: a fractured left foot meant the 5-foot-10 guard was on the mend for months.
So, in the midst of his winter break, there was Mitchell. Flanked by trainer Jonathan Burch and strength & conditioning coach Erick Schork, the veteran ran through a myriad of drills.
“I felt like me staying back here kind of showed the guys that I’m dedicated,” he said. “I’m trying to get back and help the team out. We have to get ready for conference play. The guys were at home enjoying their families, but I was here trying to get ready.”
For the second time in his SLU career, Mitchell was apart from his family on Christmas Day. A quick Skype session with his mother Ava between workouts provided context for how far he has come. After all, Mitchell’s love for the game began as a tot back in Milwaukee, Wis.
“I can remember getting a Fisher-Price court,” he said. “The first shot I took, I was with my mom in her lap, and I just threw the ball up and it went in. My mom from there told me that I was going to have a career in basketball.”
Former head coach Rick Majerus agreed with Ava. The late Majerus, known as one of the game’s greatest minds, was giddy when Mitchell, a pure point guard and winner of two state championships, committed to SLU over Minnesota and Illinois State.
Majerus, who passed away on Dec. 1, had a front-and-center seat for Mitchell’s first three years of eligibility. Although Majerus is no longer there to patrol the sidelines, Mitchell says the culture is clearly infused with his teachings.
“You can tell the impact that Coach made on the team and the players as a whole,” Mitchell said. “Every game is for Coach. . . . he always told us to compete our butts off.”
Without Mitchell, they’ve done just that – compiling an 8-3 record heading into Friday’s game against SIU-Edwardsville.
Junior guard and Mitchell’s roommate, Mike McCall, Jr., has stepped up admirably in Mitchell’s absence, averaging 11.4 points per game. He has seen and experienced Mitchell’s impact on the team first-hand.
“He’s like another coach on the floor,” McCall said. “If you make a mistake or do something good, he’s going to be the first one off the bench to tell you. . . . we are going to be a way better team [with him] than we are now. Just adding another player that can create for himself and others.”
Despite not having played a minute this season, Mitchell (along with backcourt mate McCall, Jr.) was named to the Cousy Award Watch List, an honor eventually bestowed upon the nation’s best point guard.
Much of that recognition, he believes, was based upon stellar performance in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. However, what many might not know is that playing in those two games last March was entirely in doubt. A week before SLU faced Memphis in Columbus, Oh., Mitchell badly sprained his ankle. He didn’t practice leading up to the game in an effort to allow the injury to heal as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, he poured in 22 points in 37 minutes of play as SLU notched a come-from-behind victory over the Tigers. Another valiant effort against the No. 1-seeded Michigan State Spartans ended the Billikens’ season.
Fast-forward nine months. With his team already eleven games deep into its schedule, Mitchell is ready to begin his next trek back from being wounded.
A career in Midtown, filled with stories of both adversity and delight, resumes Friday night. Mitchell will run out onto the court wearing the No. 3 uniform for the first time this season -- an homage to childhood idol Allen Iverson, which he says is based on similarities in on-court ability and off-court upbringing.
“Once I get back to 100 percent and things start clicking, we’ll be a tough team to beat,” Mitchell said.
With a loaded Atlantic 10 schedule ahead, SLU’s chances at making another March run rest to a large degree on the shoulders – and feet – of its heart and soul, Kwamain Mitchell.