Elite High School basketball in small town Pennsylvania is different… There’s no competition for the attention of Hoopheads… There are no pro teams in Coatesville, Chester, Norristown, Allentown, Lebanon, Scranton and Reading. There are no high major college basketball teams. As a result, all of the considerable basketball energy in these hoop hotbeds is channeled toward scholastic teams. When HS programs are contenders for state championships and/or feature high major college prospects things become especially intense.
Special teams and players are revered… Truly great small town PA high school players are exalted to legendary status before they go the prom. This, I know because I have seen it first hand. As a 12 year old in 1977, I encountered the legend of Bob Stevenson. Larger than life in the small town of Elk Lake, Stevenson was my introduction to small town PA basketball superstardom.
Darby Township High School had beaten Stevenson and Elk Lake in 1975 on the way to a State Championship title. In 1977, an undefeated Darby Township entered yet another do or die playoff matchup matchup with Elk Lake and their feature attraction. This Single ‘A’ playoff game drew a record crowd of 5,100 fans to the Scranton CYC. In an incredibly physical contest, Elk Lake benefited immensely from many trips from the foul line. Darby Township’s imposing frontline (Alton McCoullough 6’9″, Billy Johnson 6’7″ and Mike Gale 6’6″) was effectively neutralized by the referees as Stevenson converted an incredible 26 of his 30 attempts at the charity stripe in an Elk Lake win.
Two year later, as Darby Township made yet another of it’s many runs deep into PIAA playoffs, one would constantly hear the name Sam Bowie from Lebanon Cedar. In the mid 80’s it was Billy Owens and Jeff Lebo from Carlisle. By the early 90’s, Reading’s Donyell Marshall was the man. Lower Merion’s Kobe Bryant and Coatesville’s Rip Hamilton also ascended to legendary status before crossing the stage to receive their diplomas. More recently, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson cemented his iconic status in Chester well before his graduation.
A couple years ago, I actually attended the parade held for the great Lonnie Walker after he closed out his prolific scholastic career at Reading HS with a state title.
Here we go again…
The last 10 months have witnessed the rapid rise of another small town basketball legend in the commonwealth. Last season, Stevie Mitchell was a very good basketball player for Wilson West Lawn in Berks County. He was ballin’ out… But very few outside of Berks County knew who he was.
He played with a solid AAU club… Team Final-Red has a solid track record of developing area kids, but Mitchell longed to compete on a national stage. He wanted those bright lights that only the shoe companies can provide. Enter Philly Pride, which plays on the Under Armour Association Circuit. These guys get kids the exposure they need… Philly Pride annually produces anywhere from 7-9 Division 1 basketball players.
Some prospects come with little to no fanfare and literally blow up in a matter of weeks while barnstorming with Philly Pride. See for example, current Atlanta Hawk Charlie Brown. After the completion of his senior season at George Washington HS in Philadelphia’s Public League, Brown had exactly ZERO (0) Division 1 scholarship offers. Indeed, he had verbally committed to D2 West Chester which plays in the PSAC. After playing with Philly Pride for a few weeks, Brown had over 15 Scholarship offers from mid to high major programs across the nation. He ended up committing to Phil Martelli and St. Joseph’s. There are many other examples.
John Harrar toiled away in Delaware County. He was known primarily as a high major football prospect. While he was a very good basketball player at Strath Haven, the scholarships offers were few and far between. Big John suited up for Philly Pride, played at a few stops, tossed a few jokers around like rag dolls and next thing you know UConn is hitting him up. Then they offered… Subsequently, the other big boys decided to jump in… Pat Chambers and Penn State fell in love with Big John and on a visit John determined that the feeling was mutual… Done deal… Big John went from a virtual unknown to a Big 10 basketball player courtesy of Philly Pride.
In February 2019, Stevie Mitchell was a small town guard putting up big numbers with a flashy game. He was very productive in Berks County. As is the case with all the small town superstars, upon first glance the question looms: Can he do it against top competition?
Although they never expressed any reservations, its safe to assume that Kamal Yard and Amauro Austin, Philly Pride Co-Directors wondered exactly what they had on their hands. How would Mitchell’s small-town suburban-bred game translate on the super-athletic, fast-paced Under Armour Association Circuit? How would Stevie do against some of the very best players in the nation?
Austin notes that any concerns he may have had were quickly allayed when he observed Mitchell’s work ethic. “He absolutely wanted to attend every voluntary workout and open gym we had. Stevie and his parents drove over an hour each way whenever there was a chance to get in the gym and work.”
Mitchell’s character also impressed Austin. “Stevie doesn’t want anything extra. So many kids want sneakers or gear… He just wanted an opportunity to compete.” In an era when so many young people feel entitled to special treatment and extra benefits Mitchell was a breath of fresh air for Philly Pride.
Then they started playing games…
Like thoroughbreds jumping out the gate at Churchill Downs, Mitchell was off and running! Game after game, he would score from all 3 levels and put the clamps on highly ranked opposing guards. He would regularly drop 25-30 points per game and be the very best on-ball defender on the court. The consummate teammate, Mitchell consistently collected 4-5 steals while constantly communicating with teammates on the defensive end. The HIGH MAJOR potential became impossible to ignore.
Offensively, his game is fully loaded… Mitchell can pull-up from mid-range… He can catch and make 3’s from deep. A crafty and shifty ball handler, he create space with crossovers, in and out dribbles and step back moves. While he is capable of getting by his defender at will, Mitchell is a very calm and patient player.
After just a few weeks with Philly Pride, La Salle Head Coach, Ashley Howard had seen enough. On May 1, 2019 he offered Mitchell a basketball scholarship. About six weeks later Temple Head Coach Aaron McKie and VCU would join in the race for his services. By the end of the summer, Mitchell’s offers were well into the double figures.
As the Under Armour Association season came to a close, Mitchell was named the UAA 16U MVP after leading Philly Pride to the top spot in UAA and the number one ranking in the country. The small town kid was officially declared the best 16U player on a major shoe company summer circuit.
Oh… by the way, he also led Philly Pride to the 16U National Championship.
As the foliage started to turn yellow and red, what had been a buzz began to transform into a roar. More and more coaches took note of his refined and polished game, his tenacious approach and his burning desire to emerge victorious. The big boys joined in the chase. St. Joseph’s, Marquette, Ohio State, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Miami and Stanford among others expressed their desire to have Mitchell join their programs.
People started to look closely under the hood… They were pleased to see a very high Grade Point Average and outstanding test scores. What? Wait a minute… He’s an Ivy League caliber student? Are you serious? Yessssssir… Next thing you know Penn and Harvard are making their way to Wilson West Lawn open gyms and practices.
Perhaps more than any other kid in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, Mitchell has a extremely wide range of options. He can opt for high major basketball in the ACC, SEC, Big East or Big 10. Or, he could decide to pursue the academic challenge of playing at Harvard or Penn.
With all of this going on, Black Cager Sports decided to check up on Mitchell and catch his game with heated rival Reading High School. Arriving early at 4:30 pm for a 7:00 pm varsity tilt, the sense of anticipation was palpable. The stands were 80% filled for the JV game. The fans were absolutely eager to get this thing underway.
This is the suburbs… There was no metal detector… The staff at Wilson West Lawn was warm and welcoming. They noticed my cameras and bag. When I noted that I was from Black Cager Sports and ESPN Radio they made sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed to get my work done. Impressive… First Class…
Mitchell sat in the stands right behind the JV bench with a few of his varsity teammates. Whenever there was timeout, he would jump up and stand on the edge of the JV huddle absorbing the coaches instruction.
The consummate teammate…
At halftime, the gym now filled to capacity, coaches from St. Joseph’s, Marquette, Notre Dame, Harvard and Villanova were following Mitchell’s every move. He gets up, stands under the basket, and rebounds for the JV players as they shoot in preparation for the second half. The HS All-American, the MVP of the Under Armour Association, the kid with 20+ high major offers was chasing down errant shots and passing to 14 and 15 year old JV teammates. Mitchell was offering words of encouragement to guys that will not see a minute of time in the varsity game.
The consummate teammate…
I’m seated with about 12 of my newfound 6th and 7th grade friends along the baseline. These guys are chattering non-stop about ‘Stevie Mitchell.’ I feign ignorance and ask “Is Stevie really that good?” These kids, all 12 of them were insulted… How dare I ask such a question… I must be from another planet…
I pushed further… “I bet he can’t even dunk”
Within 30 seconds 4 different kids were waving their smartphones in my face with videos of Stevie dunking repeating on the screens.
“Look… look… look…”
So the game finally gets underway. The very nice Wilson West Lawn gymnasium with stadium style seating is filled to capacity… Standing room only for the Stevie Mitchell show.
The Wilson West Lawn Athletic Director sees me surrounded by my energetic and boisterous new found friends. He offers me a padded chair, I declined. I drove over an hour for the full experience and these kids were definitely helping me achieve that goal. I had to watch with my guys.
Wilson West Lawn jumps out early 15-3 lead after the first quarter. Stevie is taking his time… Letting the game come to him. His team is well coached. They run their sets and demonstrate a lot of patience. Whenever there is a breakdown in the Reading zone they pounce and get a clean, relatively easy look at the basket.
But, this is rivalry game and, of course, it tightened up. At the 4:13 mark of the 2nd quarter the score is 19-11. Reading is scratching, clawing, fighting every step of the way. It’s an effective strategy. With 2:41 left in the 2nd quarter the gap has closed to 4 points, 21-17.
The Reading game plan is clear. They were determined to prevent Mitchell from going off. He was face guarded end to end. Whenever he beat his initial defender, there was ‘no layup’ rule in place and it was strictly enforced. Reading defenders put Mitchell on his ass each and every time he attacked the basket.
Good ol’ fashioned HARD basketball fouls.
Halfway through, the score was 28-24 Wilson. After the 3rd, Wilson was up 5, 36-31.
Wilson won going away… 54-38
Philly Pride’s Kamal Yard noted that “Mitchell has an incredible ability to put a bad play or a bad game behind him a focus on what’s in front of him. Even though he rarely has a bad moment on the court, when he does he shakes it off better than any player I’ve seen.”
Mitchell would only convert 3 field goals. But he would finish with 21 points because he cashed in on 15 out of 19 free throw attempts.
After the game, Mitchell was surrounded by at least 50 kids seeking autographs.
If you still harbor any questions about his legendary status, drive out to Wilson West Lawn and catch a game, they will be erased by the final buzzer. In the Fall of 2021, Mitchell will join a college basketball program. Whoever is fortunate enough to secure his services will welcome an intelligent, selfless, immensely talented, highly competitive champion.
A legend will be on the yard…