Mitchell edges Sloan for coaching honor

Updated: May 22, 2007, 11:14 AM ET
Associated Press

TORONTO -- Sam Mitchell remembers the advice he got from Bill Fitch when he was cut by the Houston Rockets in 1985.

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.

NBA Coach of Year voting
Leandro Barbosa
Voting for the 2006-07 NBA coach of the year as selected by a nationwide panel of 128 sportswriters and broadcasters. Voting is on a 5-3-1 basis:
Sam Mitchell, Raptors 49 43 20 394
Jerry Sloan, Jazz 39 28 22 301
Avery Johnson, Mavs 28 31 35 268
Jeff Van Gundy, Rockets 10 19 27 134
Mike D'Antoni, Suns 2 3 3 22
Don Nelson, Warriors -- 2 7 13
Scott Skiles, Bulls -- 1 9 12
Pat Riley, Heat -- 1 -- 3
Gregg Popovich, Spurs -- -- 2 2
George Karl, Nuggets -- -- 1 1
Flip Saunders, Pistons -- -- 1 1
Isiah Thomas, Knicks -- -- 1 1

"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 effort."

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."

Winners over the years
Sam Mitchell follows Dallas' Avery Johnson as the NBA's top coach. Here's a look back at some of the NBA Coach of the Year winners:
Coach Team Year
Sam Mitchell Raptors '06-07
Avery Johnson Mavericks '05-06
Mike D'Antoni Suns '04-05
Hubie Brown Grizzlies '03-04
Gregg Popovich Spurs '02-03
Rick Carlisle Pistons '01-02
Larry Brown 76ers '00-01
Doc Rivers Magic '99-00
Mike Dunleavy Blazers '98-99
Larry Bird Pacers '97-98
Pat Riley Heat '96-97
-- Source:

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 situations better."

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 games.

"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 Toronto.

"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."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press