Tony Mitchell had escaped the prying eyes of NBA scouts that often peer down at him from the green seats at the Super Pit and was walking across the North Texas campus earlier this year when a group of students and the contraption they had built caught his attention.
Sitting there on the sidewalk was a teeter-totter a fraternity had set up to raise money for breast cancer awareness.
Mitchell was on his way to class with friend and teammate Roger Franklin, who knew what was coming next.
“Tony was the first one on,” Franklin said. “We were late to class, but he said he was going to ride it. He jumped on for 10, 20 seconds, got off and donated 20 cents. That is the type of guy he is. He is playful. He’s something else — something special.”
Few would argue that point.
The 6-8 power forward with the inside-outside game has talent that makes him a likely NBA lottery pick and unquestionably the most high-profile player to ever pull on a UNT basketball jersey.
Those closest to Mitchell say the attention he has garnered hasn’t changed him. Mitchell still chats up students, poses for pictures with strangers and knows more than a few people he runs into at UNT by their first name.
They say the ride he took on that teeter-totter is just one sign that Mitchell is the same humble, goofy, caring person he always has been — and takes pride in being — as he prepares for what likely will be a whirlwind final few weeks at UNT.
That journey will begin tonight when the Mean Green opens its season at Creighton.
“I told the team today that Tony is one of the most humble superstars I have ever been around,” first-year UNT head coach Tony Benford said. “He just wants to be a regular guy and is the best teammate you could have. He would give the shirt off his back to a teammate.”
Or the last dollar out of his pocket.
Chris Jones, UNT’s point guard, was out with Mitchell late one night recently when they didn’t make it back to the cafeteria before it closed.
Jones didn’t have a dime on him, but Mitchell had $7.
“He offered to give it to me, but I said no,” Jones said. “We went to McDonald’s and split it. I had two burgers, he had two burgers and we split fries and a drink. That showed me a lot.”
Mitchell’s attitude has helped foster the kind of chemistry UNT will need to handle the expectations that come with having a potential NBA lottery pick leading a team that is remarkably stacked with talent for a mid-major program.
Benford maintains that Jones could start for several teams in the Big East, forward Jordan Williams was ranked among the top 150 players in the country in the class of 2011, and Franklin transferred to UNT from Oklahoma State.
Mitchell is clearly the best of the bunch. He just doesn’t act like it.
“What I like about Tony is that he never lets the hype get to his head,” senior forward Jacob
Holmen said. “He doesn’t even really want it. It just comes with the territory because he’s so good.”
Mitchell is so good that having a gaggle of NBA scouts at practice — something that is almost unheard of at a Sun Belt Conference school — has become part of the daily routine at the Super Pit.
They often shuffle across the court in jogging suits and make their way to media row to jot down a few more notes and thoughts on how Mitchell has developed into an NBA talent, not to mention a national story.
Sports Illustrated came by for a multiple-day photo shoot recently and featured him in a list of five game-changing players heading into the season.
“I’m enjoying this time,” Mitchell said. “I can’t put too much pressure on myself. I’ve got to have fun with it.”
Mitchell clearly is having fun, which is understandable considering all he went through just to have the opportunity to play in college.
The story of how Mitchell ended up at UNT is a tale that has been told and retold during the last year.
Former UNT head coach Johnny Jones — who has since taken over at LSU — recruited Mitchell when he was at Dallas Pinkston. Johnny Jones hit the jackpot when the NCAA did not accept some of the credits Mitchell earned while he was at a Florida prep school, leaving him ineligible to play or accept a scholarship.
Mitchell had signed with Missouri but ended up at UNT, where he enrolled as a student, paid his own expenses and spent a semester earning the credit hours he needed to become eligible to play.
If Mitchell initially had qualified academically, he never would have ended up at UNT.
Basketball was taken away from Mitchell for a few months — at least the competitive variety he was used to playing — delaying his development. Mitchell couldn’t practice during his first semester at UNT, let alone play in games.
Mitchell became eligible in December and has been making up for lost time ever since. He averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds a game while leading UNT to the Sun Belt tournament final, before the Mean Green let a second-half lead slip away in a loss to Western Kentucky.
Since then, Mitchell has been on a mission.
“It’s very important to me to leave a legacy, make the NCAA tournament and make a big push once we get there,” Mitchell said. “We want to put the program in a national spotlight that it has never seen before. We have all the ingredients. We just have to put it together and make a delicious meal.”
Unless something unforeseen occurs, Mitchell could be down to his last shot to do that.
Mitchell had to carefully consider his options a year ago before deciding to not follow in the footsteps of players like Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony, who spent just a year in college.
After pondering the positives and negatives of leaving UNT, Mitchell decided he needed another year to mature, both as a player and as a person.
Mitchell may consider himself to be a regular college student, one who loves the time he is spending in Denton, but he also is realistic about his future now that he has taken advantage of the extra time school has given him to grow up.
“That is what it’s coming down to,” Mitchell said. “It should be my last year, depending on how I do and our team’s success. I’ll wait until the end of the year and see what I’m going to do.”
Mitchell is going to put everything he has into making sure that if this is his last year, he makes the most of it on and off the court.
He should be more prepared to do that after walking onto the floor with the Mean Green with just one practice under his belt a year ago.
“One of the biggest advantages Tony will have this year is that, unlike last year when he developed so quickly in such a short amount of time, coach Benford has had time to work with him,” said Johnny Jones, who played a key role in Mitchell’s early development at UNT. “They have been working together since April.”
Benford has emphasized more than just Mitchell’s development as a player. One of the ways Benford convinced Mitchell to stay at UNT after Jones left for LSU was selling him on a complete development plan for him as a person and a player.
“Coach Benford makes me work hard every day,” Mitchell said. “I have had to fight through injuries and be accountable for myself and my team. I have developed tremendously over the last few months.”
Benford was just one of the coaches Mitchell worked with over the summer. He also attended the Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James skills academies, honors reserved for the top college players in the country.
When Mitchell looked back this week, he could see a lot that has changed during his time at the school. His basketball skills have improved. He says he is more responsible and better prepared for life after college.
What hasn’t changed is Mitchell is still enjoying college life at UNT.
Chris Jones said Mitchell will stop and take pictures or talk with students who ask for a minute of his time.
“Tony loves to ask them questions about themselves so they feel like they are the superstar,” Franklin said. “That is how humble he is. He wants them to feel important.”
The stories of Mitchell’s generosity don’t surprise anyone at UNT.
“Tony loves North Texas. He’s said it time and again,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “He loves the school and the opportunity it has provided him. That comes off as being totally genuine. That attracts students and everyone else on campus.”
Mitchell may be headed to the NBA in a few months, a dream he has worked his whole life to attain, but being able to play in college was a goal that didn’t come easy, either.
He’s going to enjoy what time he has left at UNT and squeeze every last experience out of it, whether it’s working toward his ultimate college goal of playing in the NCAA tournament or taking a ride on a teeter-totter.
Ask Mitchell’s coaches, teammates or random UNT students, and they will say that makes him something different. Something special.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
NORTH TEXAS MEN’S BASKETBALL PRIMER
The following is a look at the North Texas men’s basketball team heading into today’s opener at Creighton:
The gang’s all back
UNT returns all five of its starters and its top seven scorers from last season’s team that advanced to the Sun Belt Conference tournament final, where it lost to Western Kentucky.
UNT essentially has seven starters back. Point guard Chris Jones started all 19 games he played last season before both he and Jordan Williams, who started 13, became academically ineligible.
“We are very, very excited,” Williams said. “Everyone is here and is going to play at the same time this year.”
All seven of UNT’s top returners averaged at least 7.0 points a game.
Benford to make debut
With all the excitement surrounding the return of forward Tony Mitchell, the Preseason Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, and the rest of UNT’s key players, the debut of Tony Benford as the Mean Green’s head coach has been somewhat overlooked.
Benford came to UNT from Marquette and has quickly put his stamp on the team he inherited, emphasizing playing better defense and getting the ball in the paint.
UNT has quickly developed chemistry under Benford and his assistants.
“We are getting used to the new staff, and we are all unselfish as players,” junior guard Alzee Williams said. “That’s been good for us.”
UNT without Patton
Grambling transfer Justin Patton will miss up to the first four weeks of UNT’s season with a knee injury.
Patton sat out last season after transferring and played well in preseason workouts. Benford said that the Patton, who was Grambling’s leading scorer and rebounder with averages of 13.2 points and 7.1 rebounds a game in the 2010-11 season, might have started against Creighton.
UNT could also be without senior forward Jacob Holmen today after he sprained an ankle in preseason workouts.
— Brett Vito