Fitch told him to persevere, regardless of what others say.
Mitchell did just that, as a player and a coach. On Tuesday, he
was honored as NBA coach of the year after leading the Toronto Raptors to a franchise-record-tying 47 victories and their first
Atlantic Division title.
"It floors you," Mitchell said. "You're thankful. Words just
can't express it."
Mitchell won the Red Auerbach Trophy in a decisive vote over
Utah's Jerry Sloan. He picked up 49 first-place votes for a total
of 394 points in balloting by 128 basketball writers and
broadcasters. Sloan had 301 points followed by Dallas' Avery
Johnson with 268.
"We're very proud of what has transpired this season," Raptors
general manager Bryan Colangelo said. "Sam winning this award is a
major indication of just how far we've come."
Mitchell's colleagues were equally impressed.
"He did a tremendous job," Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
"Well deserved, very well deserved."
The sixth coach in Raptors' history, Mitchell guided Toronto to
an NBA-best 20-game improvement (27-55) over the 2005-06 season.
Toronto beat New Jersey 89-83 on Tuesday night to tie their first-round series at 1-1.
"We recognized him for it this morning," forward Chris Bosh
said. "But the thing I love about him is he said it was a team
Mitchell was the last cut on the Rockets in 1985. Fitch, a
two-time NBA coach of the year, insisted he not give up.
"I had tears in my eyes when he called me into the room,"
Mitchell recalled. "He asked did I think I belonged in the NBA and
I said, 'Obviously not, because you cut me.' He said, 'Who am I to
tell you what you can and can't do? There's a lot of reasons that
you're not going to be on this team, but it's not because you're
not good enough.'
"He was like, 'If you want something, you've just got to keep
your head down, stay focused and go get it. Don't let me or anyone
else tell you what you can and can't do.' After you get over the
hurt of not achieving what you want to achieve, I sat back and
appreciated those words because maybe without those words I
wouldn't be here now."
Mitchell played three years in the CBA and two seasons in France
before returning to the NBA and joining the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989.
He ended up playing 13 years and was regarded around the league
as a student of the game. Following two seasons as an assistant,
Mitchell was hired as the Raptors' coach in June 2004.
"I thought Sam has done an unbelievable job when you look at
where that team came from," said Pistons coach Flip Saunders, who
coached Mitchell in Minnesota. "He was basically a coach for me
when he played, and I asked him to stay on with us, but he thought
it was best to go out because he was so close to our players --
[Kevin] Garnett and those guys. He got a great opportunity in
Toronto and he's made the most of it."
Guard Anthony Parker praised Mitchell for building unity on a
team that added nine new faces before the season.
"His focus was trying to get us all in and get the chemistry
going early," Parker said. "Throughout the course of the season
we seemed to come together pretty nicely. Sam obviously was a huge
part of that."
Bosh pointed to a change in Mitchell's approach.
"The year before last he tended to get a little emotional and
let his emotions get the best of him," Bosh said. "Now he's a
little bit more composed, he takes his time and he handles a lot of
The Raptors went 33-49 in Mitchell's first season but slumped
last year, starting 1-15 before finishing 27-55.
"Publicly, when I was out and about, I kept my head up. You're
never going to show people that you're struggling with things on
the inside," Mitchell said. "But when you're sitting in your
office by yourself and you've lost three or four in a row and
people come by and say kind words, you remember those times."
Mitchell held onto his job even after the Raptors stumbled out
of the gate again this season, losing eight of their first 10
"We went through some difficult times early on and we talked
about the direction of the team," Colangelo said. "Any time you
get off to a 2-8 start you're on edge and the red flags go up, but
there was never a point where I felt like [firing Mitchell] was
even remotely close."
Last April, an informal poll of NBA players by Sports
Illustrated deemed Mitchell the NBA's worst coach. Mitchell said
the hardest part was how that affected his children, particularly
his young daughter.
"They don't want to hear their father talked about like that,"
he said. "I just explained to her it's just part of what I do,
that criticism comes with my job."
Mitchell, whose contract expires after the season, felt
embarrassed to be singled out for the coaching honor.
"I feel like the whole organization should be behind me, the
players, the front office people, the equipment managers," he
said. "There's so much work that goes into us being successful."
Mitchell has been talked about as a candidate for jobs in
Charlotte and Indiana, but Colangelo said he'll try to keep him in
"We're going to do everything we can," Colangelo said. "It's
our intention to bring him back. I am saying Sam is right for this
organization and we're going to try and make it happen."