Two young boys, eyes bulging, could not believe their luck.
As they walked out of Staples Center on a late December evening, SDSU forward Matt Mitchell, who had starred on the court an hour earlier in the Aztecs dismantling of Utah, was leaving the arena. Seeing the children staring at him but too shy to approach, Mitchell came over, bent down on their level, and with a smile began a conversation.
He gave the boys an experience they still talk about. Mitchell exited through the doors reserved for spectators because with four days until Christmas and a week until their next game. Brian Dutcher allowed his 12-0 team to celebrate with their families; Mitchell was heading home.
The holidays have always been important for him and his family. His mother, raised in El Centro, and his father, born in Los Angeles, built a life together in Riverside. During his childhood, they would shuttle Mitchell back to the neighborhoods of their youth to partake in the traditional festivities with extended family and friends. Away from his family for the first time in his life, Mitchell has found new significance in the season.
“It took, maybe, two weeks before Thanksgiving to realize that in Europe, Thanksgiving wasn’t a thing,” Mitchell told EVT in an exclusive interview. “It hit me late because it had been so routine that Thanksgiving is coming up. One of my older teammates brought up, ‘well, you have to remember it’s not a thing out here.”
In lieu of his family, Mitchell spent the holiday with his teammates. His club, SIG Strasbourg, was on a FIBA break, a pause in the league schedule to allow players to compete for their international teams. It allowed the players left behind to try their hand at a different skill, cooking. Mitchell prepared mac and cheese, some wings, potato salad, and side salad for the potluck.
“It was just a wholesome experience because you find family here when your family is away,” Mitchell explained. “They kind of made it for me a home away from home. …It was very interesting, and we did it a lot differently than you would normally think of a Thanksgiving. But we sat around and watched football games and enjoyed each other’s company.”
Thanksgiving 2021 was indicative of the new life Mitchell is living. Immersed in a new country on a new continent, there are new challenges and opportunities around every turn. As he looks to make a new world for himself in the Old World, the future Aztec Hall of Famer is thriving because his past experiences have properly prepared him for basketball overseas.
An interdisciplinary studies major, his degree emphasized sociology, history, recreation, and tourism management. Whether it is roaming the ruins of Heidelberg Palace in Germany, exploring the cities of Paris, Bordeaux, or Nice in France, or marveling at the bunkers, relics of the World Wars, in the forest ten minutes from is apartment, the world-class education he received at San Diego State has given him an openness and appreciation of the history and cultures around him.
“Honestly, with my majors in school, I don’t think I realized it until the first few weeks of me being here out that it actually paid off,” Mitchell said. “A lot of guys go into college, get into stuff like business, communications. I just wanted to go in and get a new aspect of something that’s going to open your mind to the world, with history just tying everything together. I don’t think there’s another experience I could have had that brought me to realize that it all paid off and made me feel like a kid in a candy store.”
Moving from studying history in a book to living in it has been remarkable for Mitchell, a true scholar who authentically modeled what a student-athlete should be during his time at SDSU. Still, life lessons, new perspectives, and hands-on learning can only go so far in mitigating the worst part of life overseas, loneliness.
Nothing was easy for Mitchell when he first arrived in France. Even small tasks like going to the grocery store or a hardware store to buy the correct plug to charge his phone and laptop were difficult. His teammates and people he has met over the years on the AAU circuit helped him to adjust, but at the end of the day, he had to figure it out by himself. It was a constant reminder that he was away from home. The mental aspects took a toll, but Mitchell has stayed sharp by tapping into his roots.
“One person that’s helped me along recently has actually been Jaamal Franklin,” Mitchell said. “He’s not playing in Europe, of course. But at the same time, he’s been over here doing this for a while. I’ve known him for just about half of my life, so having Jamaal in my corner has been big time.”
Franklin and Mitchell’s connection runs deeper than professional basketball or hall of fame careers with the Aztecs. They are among a special group of Aztecs who prepped in the Inland Empire (IE) before moving to the Mesa. There is something special about the way sports are played in IE. With key players in program history like Kawhi Leonard, Franklin, JJ O’Brien, Lamont Butler, and Mitchell, SDSU could be called the Inland Empire Aztecs.
“I feel like (Riverside), and the Inland Empire too is just underrated,” Lamont Butler Jr told EVT this week. “We don’t get a bunch of notoriety often, so us being together, it just creates a good environment for us to be in, so when we do go play other big teams, other big schools, we’re able to show what we got and a lot of times we excelled. We all have an underdog mentality when we’re coming from the IE.”
The Bobby Bonds Gym is the epicenter of Butler’s corner of the IE, Riverside. There, older and younger players grind together with sage wisdom imparted between trips to the water fountain. Around the competition in the pick-up games, a family environment formed. The ‘us against the world’ mentality and the search for respect gave rise to something truly unique in such a competitive sport.
“All I can say is, if you are a hooper, then everyone that’s somebody will push you and make sure you have everything you need to succeed on and off the court,” Lamont Butler Sr. told EVT. When his son went down with an injury early this year, it was this same community that rallied around the family.
“Their general message was, ‘I’m going to come back stronger,’” Butler Jr said. “‘Just keep my head right. Don’t think this is the name of the world. Know that everybody got your back. They love me and just keep working, stay in shape.’ … I was kind of down because of the injury, but everything was positive. It lifted me.”
Franklin’s advice to Mitchell was nearly the same. Though Mitchell is playing in the highest levels of European Basketball, there are goals yet to be met that he is chasing. Keeping his eyes on his career aims while blocking out the positive and negative distractions of living in a foreign place was Franklin’s sage wisdom. Franklin has navigated life overseas, primarily in China, reaching the heights of fame and paychecks few players anywhere in the world enjoy.
Mitchell has put Franklin’s words into practice. On and off the court, he is focused on the grind of personal and team success, and it is paying off. The last three contests, he has scored 18, 19, and 16 points, respectively, bringing his overall scoring average up to is averaging 10.2 points a game in league play and 12 a game in the Basketball Champions League. His next game is today against Paris with a very palatable 11 am start time in San Diego (possible streams here).
With his sights still set on winning league and European titles with the SIG and continuing to chase NBA dreams, Mitchell is focused more than ever on the game he loves. The next week will see him compete in his home city of Strasbourg on the 18th, Ostend, Belgium on the 21st, back in Strasbourg two days before Christmas before traveling to Nanterre, France, a city neighboring Paris on the 26th.
It is a grueling stretch Mitchell is privileged to participate in. Tapping into the academic training he received at SDSU and apprenticeship of life learned from growing up in Riverside, he is excelling playing basketball overseas. With NBA scouts in attendance at nearly all of his games, there is a chance he may even return to the States at some point in his journey. But in 2021, Matt Mitchell will not be home for the holidays.