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Twelve hours after scoring 24 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, the oldest rookie in the NBA sits swallowed up by the massive sofa in his Bloomington, Minn., apartment. His gaze is fixed far beyond the television set that flickers silently in front of him as he tries to focus on how far he has come. "Magic Johnson shook my hand before the game last night," says 26-year-old Sam Mitchell of the Minnesota Timberwolves. "He told me, 'Congratulations, Sam. You're having a great season.' When we played Golden State, Chris Mullin said, 'Good to have you in the league, Sam.' Sam. These guys are All-Stars—how do they know me?"
It should hardly be confounding that Mitchell is earning the respect of the league's premier players. After all, as of March 1, Mitchell, a 6'7" forward, was averaging 14.4 points and 6.1 rebounds while regularly shouldering the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves' toughest defensive assignment—be it Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan, Rocket center Akeem Olajuwon, Sun point guard Kevin Johnson or Jazz power forward Karl Malone. Says Minnesota coach Bill Musselman, "Sam is one of the best defenders in the league."
But Mitchell, five seasons removed from college, has yet to get his due from his fellow rookies, 21-year-olds fresh off campus with fat, guaranteed contracts. "Some of these guys have no idea," says Mitchell. "They don't know what it's like to play in front of two people in the United States Basketball League. I hear rookies say, 'I'd never play in the CBA [Continental Basketball Association].' Good—don't if you don't have to. But then you can't know what it's like to work in a place where everybody's goal is to get out. You can't know what it's like to sit in a motel room in the middle of nowhere, crying. So don't judge me till you've walked in my shoes."
On his way to the NBA, Mitchell was a soldier and a teacher, and he did some touring in basketball backwaters: Oshkosh, Wis.; Tampa; Rapid City, S.Dak.; Montpellier, France. Off and on, he chased the game that his brother never caught. The trek began in the spring of 1985, when Mitchell completed his senior season at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and culminated on July 26, 1989, when he signed an NBA contract.
The signing was both the fastest and slowest in league history. Billy McKinney, the Timberwolves' director of player personnel, pulled Mitchell from the team's pregame layup line at last summer's Midwest Revue rookie showcase in San Antonio. Producing a contract at courtside, McKinney asked Mitchell if he would like to sign. A free agent at the time, Mitchell spread the contract across McKinney's back and affixed his signature about five minutes before tip-off. "It isn't about money," says Mitchell, whose three-year contract nonetheless calls for him to earn more than $220,000 a year, with a two-year guarantee. "It's about showing people that I should have been here four years ago."
Four and a half years ago, the possibility of having a pro basketball career hadn't occurred to Mitchell. He assumed he would earn a more mundane living, much as his parents, Samuel and Betty, did each day in the textile mills of Columbus, Ga., where he grew up. He had been a good enough high school player to earn a scholarship to Mercer. During his junior year, when he scored 21.5 points and pulled down 7.1 rebounds a game, Mitchell became perhaps the only scholarship athlete in the nation to join the Army ROTC. As a senior he averaged 25 points and 8.2 rebounds and finished ninth in Division I in scoring. In May 1985, a semester shy of his bachelor's degree in special education, he was off to boot camp at Fort Bragg, N.C. "I figured today's Army is a good eight-to-five job," says Mitchell. "You can serve 20 years, get out at 41 and still do something else."
One evening about a month later, Mitchell was summoned by his company commander and told that the Rockets had selected him in the third round of the NBA draft. Mitchell returned to his bunk, cleaned his gun and drifted into dreamless sleep. But when Uncle Sam told GI Sam that he had an out—as an ROTC soldier whose college education hadn't been financed by the government, he was free to leave the Army if he wanted to pursue a pro basketball career—even Houston coach Bill Fitch's rigorous training camp looked like the life of Riley.
A man who has greeted the previous 42 days by running five miles in combat boots at sunrise has little trouble running the floor in sneakers. Mitchell dusted his colleagues in rookie camp and stood out in veterans' camp on a team chockablock with experienced small forwards. On the dread final-cut day, Mitchell made it through morning practice, afternoon practice and the shower, and he was nearly through the door before Fitch found him.
He sat in Fitch's office. Steve Harris, a 6'5" swingman out of Tulsa and the Rockets' first-round choice, was also there. Fitch told Harris to examine Mitchell's face. "Remember it," he said. "Anytime you don't feel like playing, remember that he belonged here too."
You belong. You're cut. You can keep the shorts. "I didn't understand," says Mitchell.