“He was better than me, he was better than Jason [Kidd], he was better than everybody.”
“There is no comparison to Gary [Payton], myself or Brian Shaw.”
“He is superior to all of us, me, Gary [Payton], and Jason [Kidd].”
“He would 360 dunk over a car.”
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, no basketball conversation could take place on the streets of Oakland, California without the mention of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell. At a time when names like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd where at the center of any jovial barbershop debate, all disputing would end at the mention of the high flying Mitchell. Unfortunately, like many gifted youths before him, Mitchell found the gravity of the streets to weighty to overcome. Whether it is football, baseball, or basketball we all have heard this story time and time again; urban athlete trades in million dollar talent for the unmerciful grip of the streets.
The story is always the same – at the height of the athlete’s promise and opportunity he makes a series of decisions that leads him to either the obituaries or the penitentiary. In many respects, Mitchell’s story is no different; he flirted with death, became addicted to drugs, and served time in jail. What is different for Mitchell is that he has been given the chance to not only vindicate himself by being a productive citizen in society, but to shine bright in his community as a teacher, friend and mentor to the youth of Oakland and beyond.
“He is 5’9” and can dunk over a car, that’s inhuman,” says filmmaker Michael Skolnik, whose film, HOOKED, The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell, has brought Mitchell’s story a much wider audience. “He’s someone from the Hip Hop generation that we can call our own,” continues Skolnik. Skolnik and his co-director, William O’Neill, were originally researching a film on basketball and prison when they stumbled upon a story in the Oakland Tribune about Mitchell’s incarceration.
“The article read, ‘Ex basketball legend incarcerated for robbing a Blockbuster,” recalls Skolnik. After exchanging several letters with Mitchell, Skolnik visited Mitchell in prison. “I was skeptical at first because his hair was busted, he was missing a couple of teeth, and he was the only guy in visitation whose shirt wasn’t ironed. Yet here he was telling me that Jason Kidd and Gary Payton were people his skill was comparable to.” Mitchell played basketball against Payton in high school and he and Kidd’s relationship goes back to Kidd’s freshmen year in high school. In fact, the first person Mitchell ever jumped over in a dunking contest was Kidd.
Skolnik’s skepticism was shared equally, if not more so, by Mitchell. “I was pretty hesitant about the whole situation because I really didn’t know what it was all about,” said Mitchell. “I didn’t know how serious he was. In prison you can get a lot of phone calls and sometimes people play pranks.”
It was no prank, but it wasn’t until Skolnik and O’Neill showed up at the prison with cameras that Mitchell truly thought it was legitimate. That day Mitchell and Skolnik spoke for six hours and from that discussion, O’Neill and Skolnik knew that the true story lied with Mitchell. “When we came across the story of Hook and all these all-star professionals were saying that he was better than them, I just had to do the story,” remarks Skolnik. So they axed the prison basketball idea and focused solely on Mitchell.
Still sucking a baby bottle at age six, but a drug user at age 10, Mitchell’s youth mirrored the despair and tumultuousness of the west Oakland community he was raised in, known to many as Low Bottom. “Hook didn’t have a safety net or a web of guidance when he was younger, and there are millions of kids growing up like Hook,” says Skolnik.
The documentary tells Mitchell’s story of famed basketball star turned drug user and criminal. The film features commentary from NBA stars, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Antonio Davis, and Brian Shaw, all extolling Mitchell’s unparallel talents and also sharing their observations of his downward spiral.
The film has played at nearly 50 film festivals and has been shown to junior high and high school kids across the country. During the 2004 NBA All-Star Weekend, the film was shown to 10,000 children at Magic Johnson’s theaters. The NBA did a red carpet screening at the NBA Finals where the Detroit Pistons bussed in public school children to see the film. An edited version of the film has aired on MTV2, and feature length versions are now available for purchase at various retailers.
When Mitchell was released from prison in April of 2004, he immediately felt the impact of the film when he signed a consultant contract with Reebok. He has founded a non-profit organization, Project Straight Path, meant to help raise “the consciousness of youths, desire of youth’s interest in education and raise cultural consciousness.”
“It’s basically rooted in the two things I know real well; sports and my life experience with my community,” says Mitchell about his program. “We try to build life skills through recreation.” Between the consultant work for Reebok and the non-profit organization, Mitchell is constantly scheduled to speak in front of large groups of children and parents about his experience as a top athlete, a prisoner, and now a mentor. “When I speak to the youth I just give it to them straight forward. I tell them to not out grow themselves.”
Mitchell, who has not been paid for appearing in the documentary, is humbled and excited at all the new opportunities he has. Super sports agent, Aaron Goodwin, a long time friend of Mitchell and the individual responsible for securing Mitchell the Reebok deal, feels that while the documentary has done much to change Mitchell’s life, compensation of some kind is due.
“I was asked to appear in the film near its completion, but I looked at it as Demetrius being exploited, and I wasn’t going to be a part of it,” explains Goodwin. “Even though some good has come from it, at the end of the day if the documentary has brought any financial gain, Demetrius should have been put in a position to have some of that financial gain and he hasn’t been.”
Goodwin, who also represents LeBron James and Damon Stoudemire, is currently acting in an advisory capacity for Mitchell until he is able to find someone more suited to he’s needs. “His target market is going to be books and film and he needs someone who really knows and understands that arena,” Goodwin says. Mitchell agrees with Goodwin, in fact he feels a feature length film could fill in gaps that the documentary left: “Every time I watch it I love it, but there is so much stuff missing.”
After some discussion, it is jokingly decided that actor Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher will play him in the feature. “Actually he is pretty cut up like me,” Mitchell says with a laugh, referring to his superb physical conditioning. It is a project that he would love to see helmed by Spike Lee.
Since Mitchell’s release from prison in April, he says his contact with his high school friends has been limited. “Jason sent me some work out equipment for my kids in Project Straight Path,” says Mitchell. “The old days have passed, those brothers are in high demand. Back in the day they use to call me all the time but now they are just too busy. I spoke with Gary but I couldn’t hang out really.” It isn’t that Mitchell wouldn’t have liked to spend time with his childhood friend, but it’s just another example of his austere commitment to his spirituality. “He invited me to come kick it with him, but there are just a lot of things I don’t do anymore. I didn’t want to put a damper on Gary’s good time.” Despite not partying with Payton, Mitchell ensures that the two of them would get together for his non-profit program.
For Mitchell, everything revolves around his program and the help he can provide his community. “He is completely unselfish,” says Goodwin. “Throughout this whole situation he hasn’t focused on his personal gain. He is completed dedicated to the youth of Oakland, so that a situation like his doesn’t happen again.”
Mitchell’s likeness has been used for motion capturing in video games, and he might appear in an ESPN video, but Goodwin feels these things are paltry compared to the effect Mitchell can have in his community. “People focusing on the fact that the kid is a good athlete and that he can jump are focusing on the small picture,” says Goodwin. “I think the message for African-Americans should be an example of what not to do, and here is how someone who has done it the wrong way has changed his life. He’s a great kid and has come full circle in life and that should be encouraged and celebrated.”
When asked about the legacy of his playing days, Mitchell evades the question and puts the focus on his new passion. “Michael Jordan made a change on the basketball court; I’m trying to make a change in my community by leaving a legacy of hope, awareness, and resolution.”