Mitchell’s Defense in Demand

Matt Beeuwsaert is sweeping backboards in Australia. Tom Lewis is looking into Europe. Mike Fielder switched to football long ago. And Chris Jackson is probably tired of hearing his name on television while some guard from LSU keeps whipping no-look passes on the fast break.

The results are nearly in on The Greatest Prep Basketball Team in Orange County History and there is an upset in our midst. Today, the first Mater Dei dynasty stands to send its first graduate into the NBA--and he didn’t play one minute for Notre Dame or USC and he didn’t set one scoring record.

No one ever called Mike Mitchell prolific when he played at Mater Dei.

But today, someone will call him a Denver Nugget or a Portland Trailblazer or perhaps a Chicago Bull.


Of the 54 collegians on the board for the 1990 NBA draft, Mitchell, a fifth-year senior from Colorado State, is projected to land in the middle of the pack, probably in the vicinity of the 30th pick. A little higher and he’s the first Colorado State first-rounder. A little lower and he’s still the inaugural NBA draftee of the Mater Dei monster that terrorized Southern Section opponents during the 1982-83 and 1983-84 seasons.

Gary McKnight, the Mater Dei coach, would like to say he knew it all along. But he can’t.

“Beeuwsaert, obviously, was our best player,” McKnight says. Obviously. Beeuwsaert was the big shooting guard who played the fundamentals as if John Wooden were a blood relative and perfected a bank shot that landed him a full scholarship with Notre Dame.

Then there was Lewis, the county’s all-time leading scorer, whose string of 50-point efforts took him all the way to USC’s starting lineup as a freshman. And then there was Fielder, the muscular power forward, and Jackson, the steady point guard. Together, they were four good reasons why Mater Dei won its first Southern Section championship in 1983 and went 28-2 in 1984.

Behind the headlines and the screens and the picks, however, was Mitchell. He was the Monarchs’ designated grunt, the guy assigned to taking a charge here, an elbow there and the opponent’s top scorer out of the offense.

Some games, Mitchell wouldn’t score a point. They were among his best. One of them helped earn Mitchell a scholarship to Fresno State, his first of two stops under Coach Boyd Grant.

“We were playing in the Anaheim Convention Center,” McKnight recalls, “and Boyd comes all the way down to scout him. Afterward, all I’m thinking about is, ‘Oh great, Boyd’s in the stands and he doesn’t even score.’ ”

But in a way, he had. Points don’t impress Grant; if there’s a way to win a basketball game, 1-0, Grant’s working on it. Grant has a Marine’s approach to basketball--he’s looking for a few good men who can run and cut off the baseline--and he had just watched Mitchell hound his man for four relentless quarters.


Grant thought Mitchell was the best player on the court.

So once Mitchell completed his eligibility in 1985--he was a year younger than Beeuwsaert, Fielder and Jackson--he followed Grant up the coast. That was one trademark of Mater Dei’s 1983-84 starting lineup: All five received Division I basketball scholarships.

One other similarity: All five transferred from the schools that originally signed them.

Beeuwsaert went from Notre Dame to Cal before hitching up with a pro league in Australia. Lewis went from USC to Pepperdine and now is weighing several offers from European teams. Fielder went from Marist College to the Saddleback College football program and Jackson played basketball at UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.


Disillusionment was something each of them shared in college. Mitchell finally left Fresno State after his junior season--two seasons after Grant’s departure--because he and new Coach Ron Adams demanded too much of each other.

Mitchell wanted Adams to be Boyd Grant.

Adams wanted Mitchell to be Magic Johnson, or at least the Big West equivalent, a do-everything big guard who could score enough points and win enough games to keep the heat of the Red Wave booster club away from Adams’ neck. When Mitchell made the conference all-freshman team, expectations were raised.

When Fresno finished 9-20 and 9-19 the next two seasons, Mitchell’s relationship with Adams was finished as well. Again, Grant provided deliverance. Having just taken over the program at Colorado State, Grant offered Mitchell one final season together.


Mitchell accepted, redshirted in 1989 and returned the favor in 1990. He averaged 19.6 points a game, shot 56% from the field, led the Rams to a 21-9 record and was named Western Athletic Conference player of the year.

The NBA noticed.

“If I’d have stayed at Fresno State, I’d have never been this close to the pros,” Mitchell says, “because we weren’t in a winning situation there. . . . At Fresno, pro ball was the furthest thing from my mind. There, I was just trying to get through the seasons.”

With Mitchell, defense is still the ticket. At the postseason all-star camps in Orlando, Fla., and Chicago, scouts watched Mitchell match up against the likes of UCLA’s Trevor Wilson, Cal State Fullerton’s Cedric Ceballos, Mississippi’s Gerald Glass and Florida State’s Irving Thomas. Mitchell’s stock rose each time he shut one of them down.


But NBA draftees also need to shoot the ball and Mitchell, once a 40% marksman at Mater Dei, proved he could handle that too. In his final game in Orlando, Mitchell scored 32 points against Thomas and Glass.

“Orlando helped me considerably,” Mitchell says. “I guess I didn’t waste my time.”

In the past month, Mitchell has met with scouts from Denver, Portland, Chicago, Phoenix and Golden State. The interest hasn’t ceased to amaze him. “The scouts say they see me as a (small) forward, maybe a No. 2 guard if I keep working on my outside shooting,” Mitchell says. “But just to think that I might be one of the 54 players picked this year. . . . “

Who says it’s not what you know but who you know? Mitchell knew Grant, but he also knew defense never goes out of style. Unlike some of his Mater Dei teammates, Mitchell had all the angles covered.