Monday, December 10, 2012

Princeton's Kelsey Mitchell has athletic gene pool - and plenty of talent and Memphis ties


It begins with the gene pool of athleticism, of course. And, right after that, the only two crucibles that can create a basketball talent like Princeton High's Kelsey Mitchell, rated the best junior-year girls basketball player in the country.

"Father's a basketball coach, or older brother plays the game," says Tom Jenkins, director of the Ohio Girls Basketball Report. "It always seems to come down to one of those two things."
Kelsey Mitchell has both – and then some.

Her mother, Cheryl (Palmer), once held the women's single-season rebounding record at Eastern Kentucky University (she was a transfer from Mississippi Valley State, or she'd have broken the EKU career record altogether), and has coached her twin girls, Kelsey and Chelsea, in AAU summer ball.

Kelsey's father, Mark – "Coach Mitch," as he's known - was a standout football/basketball player at Princeton and a football center/guard at Eastern where he played in two national Division 1-AA semifinals, is now the boys varsity basketball coach at Taft, which won the state D-III state title last year.
And Kelsey and Chelsea have not one, but two, basketball-playing older brothers - twins, four years older, Cameron and Kevin, the starting guards at Indiana University Southeast, ranked No. 11 in the NAIA Coaches' Poll.

So, what do you have when you put all that together?

"Kelsey Mitchell is from another planet – she's just here to visit us for awhile," says Jenkins.

A different planet as a basketball player, but deeply rooted here as a person.

Kelsey's great-grandmother, Ida Lee Watkins, died at 97 in Holly Springs, Miss., just before Thanksgiving, and all the Cincinnati Mitchells were there for the visitation and funeral. Meaning they had to leave Memphis at 2 a.m. Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to get the boys back to IU Southeast by 8:30 am for a road trip to Chicago, the girls back to Princeton by 10:40 a.m. for practice and Coach Mitch back to Taft by 2 p.m., all of which he somehow managed to do.

That's just how the Mitchells roll.

Great-grandma Ida Lee would have approved.

Ida Lee was the granddaughter of slaves who worked at Lipson Plantation in Michigan City, Miss. She was born in that city in 1915, only 52 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

She took voting seriously, and her family will never forget how unhappy Ida Lee was four weeks ago when, in this critical presidential election year, her ride to the polls was running late.

Nobody around today knows what kind of athlete Ida Lee might have been had she been given that chance, but as the saying in the family goes - and Cheryl repeats it now - "She's a piece of leather, well put-together."

Clearly, Ida Lee's genes have found a home.

She was the 11th of 12 children who herself raised seven children, largely as a single mom, and taught them to hold their heads high, no matter the adversity, recalls granddaughter Laquita Elliot, of Ashland, Miss., whose mother is Betty, Ida Lee's second oldest daughter. Cheryl's mom is Odessa, Ida Lee's oldest daughter.

"Cheryl was the best girl basketball player in Memphis, and now she has best (prep) girl basketball player in the country," marvels Laquita. "Grandma knew (the lineage). She had so many great-grandchildren that it was hard to keep the names straight. She called Kelsey 'Little Twin," and Chelsea 'Big Twin.' Same way with the brothers, Kevin, and Cam. 'Little Twin,' and 'Big Twin.' Oh yes, Ida Lee knew that they are all basketball players, just like their mom."

In Memphis over Thanksgiving, the Mitchells renewed the family ties that carried the memories of “second Sunday," dating back to Ida Lee's early days in Mississippi when the minister came to Ida's town once a month (he had a rotation of four churches to serve), and Ida Lee turned this monthly staple into a monthly family reunion complete with huge Sunday dinner that continues to this day.

Everybody who ever ate Ida Lee's phenomenal cooking always remembers the same thing: Oh, that chocolate cake, with the homemade icing.

So, how important was Ida Lee in this family?

"I met Cheryl's grandmother before I met her dad," recalls Coach Mitch.

Which is all you need to know.

Which brings us back to Kelsey.

How long has it been that Cincinnati has had the "best young future anything" in any sport? It has it now in Kelsey, who with her sister, Chelsea, hopes to lead the Princeton Vikings to another girls state basketball championship.

The Enquirer sports staff scoured its collective memory to determine how long it's been since Cincinnati has had the best young future anything. The consensus is that it was a quarter of a century ago, 1987 - the same year that Princeton last won a girls state basketball title. Back then, Ken Griffey Jr. was the best high school baseball player in the country, and was drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners.

Cam Mitchell, a 6-foot-4 guard, remembers the first time he realized that, on the court, his sister, Kelsey, really was somebody different.

"She drove into the lane, got into my body and shot it over me with her left hand and made it," Cam recalls. "I thought, 'She can't do that to me!' I got mad. She tried to do it again, but I told her, 'That ain't happening.' But the fact she could do it surprised me."

He admires that Kelsey genuinely wants the ball when the game is on the line.

"People like that are rare," he says. "I've got a little bit of that. She's got all of it. She is absolutely fearless. Talent and no fear makes for a heck of a player."

It is Monday night, just before Thanksgiving.

We are talking after IU Southeast's game at Miami University Middletown.

Everybody is here - Mom and Dad, twin daughters and twin sons, and Coach Mitch's parents, Marva and Jerry - and everybody is happy.

Just like in the growing-up days.

Hoop Family Mitchell.

Basketball as daily bread.

On Tuesday – two days before Thanksgiving, on the day after the IU Southeast at Miami U Middletown game – Hoop Family Mitchell will drive seven hours to Memphis to attend Ida Lee Watkins' visitation.

But now, there is a basketball game to watch.

Kelsey is in the stands; her eyes never leave the floor. She is absorbing all that her brothers do. She remembers watching their every move ever since she was four years old, sticking her nose into their dribbles and trying to steal the ball.

"People might think I'm just watching Kevin, because he's more my size, but I'm watching Cam, too," she says. "I like the way he drives. He takes his heart with him. When he's on the court, nothing else matters to him. "

Kelsey calls Cam "the sweet brother. Kevin's the mean brother. Even when we were playing football, he'd tackle me as hard as he could. Nobody's ever hit me as hard as Kevin. He'd put a little more shoulder into it. ... But I always got up -- he wasn't going to get the best of me."

"I'd like to have her jump shot," says 5-foot-9 Kevin of Kelsey, who is only two inches shorter. "She has a really pretty jump shot. Nice release, nice arc. I wish I had that shot."

Kevin believes Kelsey's greatest asset is she can see something once and do it.

But Kelsey is envious of Kevin, too.

"Kevin's hands are a little quicker than mine," she says. "And when he goes up for a layup and gets fouled, his body control is better than mine ... I'm working on it."

Kelsey has no fonder memory than of those days when she and Chelsea mixed it up with their brothers in the family driveway in pickup games at their Woodlawn home. Even though she has played on the highest level of the AAU circuit, the lights have never been brighter than in the Mitchell driveway.

"We had a light on top of the basket," Kelsey recalls. "We thought we were in the NBA. I remember playing out there since I was 8 or 9 years old, playing till 3 or 4 in the morning. It's as much fun as I've ever had playing basketball. It was the best."

Five days later, an Enquirer reporter reconnects with the Mitchells at Princeton's season opener vs. Mercy at Cincinnati State.

It took Kelsey no time at all to get off to a hot start, leading her team to a big win, in which she scored 38 points. It was a "quiet 38,"even though it was a girls' school record at Princeton, done the way a great player would do it. She distributed the ball to her teammates and - when the shots were there – got some points herself, then always got back on defense.

Because defense is where it starts.

Coach's daughter, remember.

It keeps everything in perspective when you watch Kelsey Mitchell.

She knows where her teammates should be, moving onto option two if they are not. She can do it all: Crossover, freeze you, hit the three. Take you off the dribble, score or dish in the congestion of the middle. And, oh my, can she ever push it. A 17-year-old girl who makes college coaches forget it's their wedding anniversary.

Our favorite moment is when Chelsea Mitchell drives toward the hoop and then kicks it out. Kelsey Mitchell's 3-point shot is gone in an instant, almost before the ball touches her hands. Swish.

"We look for each other at crunch time," Chelsea explains. "I know my sister is always going to pick me up. But I feel the same way about my brothers. I feel like we're all of the same mind. Just in different bodies."

As you watch Kelsey, something flashes back. The IU Southeast game five days ago. Kevin Mitchell. Only now he is playing in the Princeton vs. Mercy game. He's a girl and he's 17. Kelsey Mitchell.

It is scary and uncanny, all at the same time.

And then you understand: Her father didn't need to push her.

Sometimes Kelsey rushes a bit. Sometimes she goes to a part of her game that she doesn't need to go to quite yet. Play the game you've got that day. Play the game the opponent is giving you. When they change, you can give them that other part. Until that, take the easy money. You don't need to show it all.

Situational basketball. Recognizing it. Letting the game come to you.

This is good. It means there is room for improvement.
Kelsey, says Jenkins says, "can go anywhere she wants." Even UConn.

Kelsey calls the college recruiting "chaotic."

 "But when I talk to coaches, they understand me, and I understand them," she says. "I like the coaches. They have a job to do. But I do worry a lot. I think, 'What am I doing?' I'm too young to be worrying, but I do. My attitude is to try to let it come to me. When it happens, it happens. When I make my choice, I make my choice. As of right now, I don't know what I'm going to do."

"She could play point guard for us right now," says Taft's Kenny Kaufman, who knows of what he speaks – he is one of the Senators' point guards. "I've tried to guard her, and she's had me dancing. She can do so many things. You never know which one of them she's going to do next."

"I've never see a girl play like her," agrees another Taft guard, Dre Smith.

The Enquirer dropped by two weekends ago to watch parts of three Taft games, and here's what we can say about the Senators: They hustle, play tenacious D, are extremely unselfish and crash the boards.

Nobody should be surprised; they are Mark Mitchell's team.

The Senators could use Kelsey's jump shot, but with time, it will come, if not quite as prettily.

Most of all, the Senators are young and hungry.

It is a good combination.

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