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Winning By Losing

1.17_LS0103_Sports
01/17/14
In the Magazine
San Diego State guard Aqeel Quinn (10) beats the Saint Katherine defense down the court for a basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Friday dec. 27, 2013, in San Diego. Lenny Ignelzi/AP

His team had just lost by 83 points to San Diego State University, ranked No. 20 in the nation at the time. Scott Mitchell, the basketball coach at St. Katherine College, which is little more than a rumor of an educational institution, strode down the sideline to shake hands with the Aztecs coach, Steve Fisher.

"So," asked Mitchell, clasping Fisher's hand, "when do you want to play next year?"

As usual, college basketball's first two months have been a silly season, with cupcakes getting smashed several times a week. By my unofficial count, 52 games between Division I schools and non-Division I schools have been decided by 50 points or more. You might have heard about Champions Baptist College, which fell behind 44-0 (an NCAA record for points allowed before scoring) en route to a 116-12 loss to Southern University. The Tigers belong to the Association of Christian College Athletics (ACCA) and have an enrollment of 205 students versus Southern's enrollment of about 6,600.

You may not have heard about the University of Utah's 128-44 defeat of Evergreen State, an NAIA school. The Geoducks shot 1 for 27 from behind the three-point line in their 84-point defeat.

And then there's St. Katherine. In just two weeks, starting on December 7, the Firebirds lost by scores that resemble seasonal high temperatures in their sublime Encinitas, Calif., home: 52 (89-37 at Utah Valley), 71 (107-36 at Weber State), 73 (124-51 at Utah) and 83, the aforementioned 118-35 thrashing at San Diego State.

Ask Mitchell whether St. Katherine is in the NCAA or the NAIA, the two primary governing bodies for college sports, and he replies, "We're part of the CIA: No one knows for sure if we even exist."

They do. Sort of. With an enrollment of 98 students, St. Katherine, which has been in existence for four years (this is its first season of intercollegiate basketball), holds classes at an office park in this coastal haven about 25 minutes north of San Diego. The Firebirds practice at a local boys and girls club, starting at 10 p.m., after the children have gone to bed. The few home games they have are played at Ramona High School, 36 miles inland. And their tallest player, six-foot-eight Dale Austin, is 34 years old and was discovered by Mitchell and his son, Travis, last summer at a 24-Hour-Fitness.

And the six-foot-six Mitchell, who says he once inveigled some supermodels (you've heard of Iman? Christie Brinkley?) to watch him and a few buddies play hoops on the streets of New York City - heaven, indeed, is a playground - is the ideal man to lead them. Yes, there is a commentary to be written about why the NCAA permits Division I teams to schedule mercenary mismatches -"Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!" - that border on the profane. However, that is space and time that, trust me, would be more enjoyably spent listening to the ballad of Scott Mitchell.

Mitchell, 57, is not unlike the unnamed hero in that Journey tune: "Born and raised in south Detroit / He took the midnight train going anywhere..." From a football scholarship at the University of Michigan ("Bo Schembechler visited my home to recruit me!") in 1973 that ended during his freshman season after he broke his leg, to a basketball scholarship at South Dakota ("One year in South Dakota was all I could take") to a job as an apprentice lineman cleaning the power lines that extend across San Francisco Bay ("The most dangerous job you can imagine"). If even only half of his stories are true, he has still led a remarkably entertaining life.

While living in San Francisco, Mitchell says a buddy suggested they enter a local three-on-three tournament, the prize being a game against three Golden State Warrior rookies. "So, yeah, we won the tournament and then we beat the Warriors," says Mitchell, who only moonlights as St. Katherine's coach - he is an advertising account manager at AT&T. "The Warriors invited me to their rookie camp, but I wasn't about to leave my job unless there was guaranteed money."

An agent intervened, and suddenly Mitchell was on a plane to Europe for what would be an 11-year, three-continent odyssey of professional basketball. "Italy, Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, Argentina, Chile, the Philippines and Australia," he says.

Did he ever play with anyone famous?

"Bob McAdoo [1975 NBA Most Valuable Player] was a teammate of mine in Italy."

Which leads us back to the supermodels. In the summer of 1986, Mitchell found himself in Manhattan, at a party hosted by hair-product mogul Paul Mitchell (no relation), whose guests included eye-candy icons Iman, Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs and actress Jennifer O'Neill (Summer of '42).

"I was with two friends of mine, Ray Schnitzer, who had been the captain at Georgia Tech, and John Barranco, who had tried out for the Pittsburgh Steelers," says Mitchell, "and as you know, models and athletes have a way of gravitating toward one another."

The group decided to head downtown to nightspot, and so Mitchell squeezed his 78-inch frame into the back of a taxi next to some of the world's most well-known and striking faces. The cabbie took one, two glances in his rear-view mirror, and reacted as if a phantom had entered his cab.

"You!" he cried. "You're Scott Mitchell!"

"You know me?"

The cabbie, who was from Argentina, said, "You are a basketball legend in my country. I named my son after you."

Mitchell says the taxi driver refused their fare, opting for photos instead, and the following day, according to Mitchell, they all went to play pick-up hoops in what was then the gritty Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan (the models watched).

Last summer, Mitchell says he had just called on a client in the Hillcrest section of San Diego when he spotted San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. He approached Fisher, told him about his school with no campus and his team that had never played a game, and asked if he would put St. Katherine on the schedule. Fisher politely took his card.

One month later, an official from San Diego State phoned Mitchell. "You still want to play that game?"

"Sure," said Mitchell. "How much do I have to pay you?"

Of course, it was SDSU that paid St. Katherine, reportedly about $50,000. Still, the 24 hours that tipped off with the tip-off against the Aztecs on December 27 are unlike anything that has transpired anywhere else in college basketball this season.

First, the Firebirds, who only five days earlier had drained 23 three-pointers in a loss at Division II Hawaii-Pacific University in Honolulu, got their clocks cleaned, smashed and ground into a fine powder. Then Mitchell, who is married and lives about 45 miles east of San Diego, drove home and laundered all of his players' road uniforms.

The December 28 game for St. Katherine against the University of Utah - back-to-back road games on consecutive days are extremely rare in college hoops - was scheduled for 1 p.m. in Salt Lake City. Mitchell awoke at 3:30 a.m., drove to Encinitas to pick up some of his players and then headed to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight. A stopover in Las Vegas led to a delay. The Firebirds arrived in Salt Lake City, 90 minutes before tip-off and in zero-degree temps, to find that the car rental agency had no vehicles for them.

"We begged another agency, Hertz, to give us three cars," says Mitchell. "We didn't even need them cleaned or gassed up. We got to the arena half an hour before tip-off."

This is not how University of Kentucky coach John Calipari rolls.

Out of their league? Certainly. Since that defeat, however, the Firebirds have descended to their proper altitude and guess what? They've won three in a row. And their coach thinks they're about to go on a run, that they might not lose again this season.

"A year ago in January I had no players, no uniforms, no schedule and I didn't even know who our mascot was," says Mitchell, who received no stipend his first nine months on the job. "Now I have 16 players who are having the time of their lives.

"And we really would love to play San Diego State again next year."

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