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Valued 49ers Leader Is Learning How to Handle Failure as Well as Success

Times Staff Writer

The job of leading a big-time college basketball team is not for one who takes responsibility lightly. Moments of failure, such as the one Cal State Long Beach point guard Tyrone Mitchell experienced in a game last Saturday night, can shatter a young man’s confidence.

Mitchell, who has been the 49ers’ leader since joining them in December, threw a bad pass that cost a victory in that game against Cal State Fullerton.

Long Beach led, 62-59, with four seconds to play. Mitchell tried to inbound the ball but found no teammate open. Remembering a playground trick, he aimed at the back of Fullerton’s Cedric Ceballos, hoping to have the ball bounce safely back to him. But his toss missed Ceballos and went straight to Fullerton’s Mark Hill, who shocked 2,230 fans packed into the 49er gym by making a 3-point shot to tie the score.

The moment was a stunner. When Mitchell returned to the bench, his head was down and he was inconsolable. Long Beach then lost in overtime, 68-66.

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“We were all devastated,” 49er Coach Joe Harrington said Monday. "(Mitchell) takes his basketball very seriously. (Losing) bothers him. I like that in an athlete. That will make him a better player.”

Transfer From Arizona

It was surprising that it had been Mitchell who made the costly mistake.

Since he enrolled in January, 1988, as an Arizona State transfer, Mitchell has exhibited the determination and intelligence that, when combined with ability, enraptures coaches.

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“From the day he stepped on the court (at practice) he was a leader,” said associate head coach Seth Greenberg, who calls Mitchell the hardest-working player he has been around. “He plays at a level of intensity others seek.”

The 49ers were 2-5 this season when Mitchell, a junior, became eligible to play under National Collegiate Athletic Assn. transfer rules. Averaging 34 minutes, 11 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals a game, he led them to a 10-8 record and a share of fourth place in the Big West Conference.

Mitchell patterns his aggressive play after his brother Bill, who was an all-conference linebacker at CSULB in 1979-80.

“He’s my biggest hero,” said Mitchell, who carries a picture of Bill posed in the uniform of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. “I play on the court a lot like he did on the football field.”

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Mitchell likes to muscle his way to the basket and post-up smaller guards. When the shot clock runs down, he often goes one-on-one into the free-throw lane, drawing fouls.

“He has that . . . confidence great athletes have,” Harrington said.

Mitchell, who drives to campus each day from his parents’ home in the Inglewood area, has also made an impression in the classroom.

Universities like to refer to a participant in varsity sports as a student-athlete, a term that sometimes evokes snickering because athletes often take courses designed to keep them eligible rather than help them graduate with a meaningful degree. But not in the case of Mitchell, who winces at jock stereotypes.

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“When I go into a classroom,” he said, “I don’t introduce myself as an athlete. It tends to mess up first impressions.”

Wants to Study Law

A criminal justice major who wants to be a lawyer, Mitchell has a 3.3 overall grade point average.

“He has excellent communication skills, both in speaking and writing, and has a mature attitude,” said Suzanne Wurzer, assistant athletic director for academic services. She said Mitchell’s courses should sufficiently prepare him for law school.

Mitchell, 22, did not always work hard at school or basketball.

“I started to apply myself at Arizona State,” he said. “I had been doing just enough to get by, to get Bs and Cs. I never did the extra things it took to get a higher grade. From there, I developed a work ethic in all things, and that transferred over to basketball, giving it that little extra to win a game.”

A graduate of Cleveland High School in Reseda, where he was varsity captain as a sophomore, Mitchell does not feel that grade point average or SAT scores will determine how a person will do in college.

Under the NCAA’s Proposition 48, incoming freshmen must have a minimum SAT combined score of 700 out of a possible 1,600 as well as a grade point average of 2.0 to be eligible to play sports.

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“I had a 740 and my grade point average in high school was 2.75,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell pointed out that often it is too late when young athletes realize that there is an academic side of college. “On the playgrounds, that’s all you think school is, playing basketball,” he said.

Mitchell was at Arizona State 2 1/2 years--he started three games as a freshman and was redshirted his second year. At the start of the following season, he decided to leave because he said he was told by Coach Steve Patterson that he would be confined to being a part-time defensive specialist.

“There had been high hopes for him here,” said Rich Wanninger, a media relations assistant at ASU. “But we had a lot of players who were fairly equal in talent. It was tough to spread the playing time around.”

Mitchell became disillusioned with the sport and contemplated quitting it for good.

“As you move from level to level in basketball, what was fun becomes a business,” Mitchell said. “There’s so much pressure to achieve. Sometimes the fun gets lost in it . . . that’s what happened at Arizona State. I was so stressed out. I couldn’t sleep in my room the last three or four days I was there.”

He decided to come to Long Beach, but only as a student. “I just wanted to get my degree,” he said.

But Bob Braswell, his high school coach, persuaded Mitchell to try out, and he has since won a scholarship.

“I’m smiling again,” Mitchell said. “My parents said that to see me now and to have seen me at Arizona State is like seeing two different people. I finally grew up as a person.”

And he keeps growing as a player, now that he has regained his confidence.

“I think teams respect me . . . that’s what I’ve been looking for,” he said. “I know that defensively I can control the tempo of a game. I need to work on my jump shot and free throws to make me a complete player.”

Mitchell is shooting only 43% from the field and 54% from the foul line.

But his main job is to run the offense, which he has consistently done well. When he hasn’t, as in a recent defeat at Nevada Las Vegas, Mitchell has taken the blame.

“I take a lot of responsibility on myself,” he said.

He has listened intently when told by 49er assistant coach Butch Carter how Magic Johnson of the Lakers relishes, even in pickup games, taking the last shot.

“Now I don’t mind taking that role,” Mitchell said. “I know I want the ball in my hands.”

It took him a long time last weekend to get over what happened against Cal State Fullerton. Greenberg talked to him for a long time. And so did his father, William Mitchell.

“It was just a situation where I made a decision and it didn’t work out,” Mitchell said Tuesday night.

He had done his best to put it out of his mind and was concentrating on today’s Big West Tournament game against UC Santa Barbara.

“It’s unfortunate,” Greenberg said of Mitchell’s bad pass. “He’s played his heart out. That might happen once in a million times. If he’s the leader I think he is, he’ll bounce back.”


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