by Frank McLean
One nice thing about the Raptors taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves in a couple of preseason games this past week was a chance to catch up with former Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell.
Between 2004 and 2008 Mitchell accumulated a won-loss record of 156-189 and for the moment anyway, the 156 victories is the most of any Raptors head coach. He’s also the only Raptors coach to win NBA coach of the year honours.
Current head coach Dwane Casey is only 3 wins behind in second place at 153 and should pass Mitchell sometime in the first 10 to 15 days of the upcoming season.
After Mitchell was let go by the Raptors he became one of us in the media. This was a bit of a surprise because if you got to know Sam like we did in the media, he was a bit of a character with us. We were never sure if he liked us or just put up with us because it was part of job description as an NBA coach who has to interact with the Fifth Estate on a daily basis. He always was willing to take a playful jab at you if he thought your question was not up to par.
Mitchell was quite good in his work on TV with TSN and NBA TV. He was natural in front of the camera doing his game commentary. He was enjoying the television work. It’s a lot easier than pacing the sidelines nightly in the NBA and when the game was over you didn’t take the game home with you.
Mitchell admits when you ask him that he knows he has a better understanding of what we do on a day to day basis. But the coaching bug came a calling. His old coach with Timberwolves Flip Saunders convinced Mitchell that he belonged in coaching and not on TV.
So Mitchell joined his old coach in Minneapolis last season as a Timberwolves assistant. Unfortunately Saunders had to take a leave of absence near the end of the regular season to undergo treatment for cancer, but fortunately for the Timberwolves, an experienced NBA head coach was on the staff to step in and keep things going while Saunders recovers.
It’s not the way Mitchell wanted to comeback as an NBA head coach, but he is embracing the second chance to be the head man again. You can see the gleam in his eye as he is back doing what he loves to do and that’s coaching and teaching.
“There were things about it I missed being around the guys,” Mitchell said when he was in Toronto last week. “When you are doing media, you’re around, but you are not around the players. It’s just different being around these young guys.”
When you listen to Mitchell talk about being back with the players you see that it keeps him feeling young.
“The energy that you feed off watching them, it’s fun to watch them grow. Just to be around them and watch them (the players) get on the bus in the morning when we’re on a road trip and the things they have. The hairstyles, you miss that kind of stuff.”
Young this team is. Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zack LaVine and Andrew Wiggins make this the NBA’s youngest team and they are going to have nights where they are going to get beat and beat bad. But Mitchell is up to the task to get these guys to be the top flight pro players they are projected to be. He’s back doing what he is meant to do.
The Timberwolves are lucky he’s there to keep their program going until Flip Saunders is back running the organization.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.