You may never have known his name but his face may well be familiar, if you’ve ever watched a Duke men’s basketball game in Cameron Indoor Stadium anytime in the past 37 years.
Because every time broadcast cameras inevitably panned onto Coach Mike Krzyzewski sitting, standing or screaming on the sidelines of a Cameron-played game, Steven “Steve” Lee Mitchell was right there, sitting behind him.
Guards, forwards and centers, assistant coaches and trainers have all come and gone throughout the Coach K-era but Mitchell was always there, sitting and watching, cheering and cursing along with “Coach” through nearly all of it.
Mitchell, of Durham, was born with Down Syndrome on Sept. 5, 1954, and died June 4.
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“He learned some words from Krzyzewski Momma and Daddy didn’t like to hear,” his brother, Crafton Mitchell, said. “He had trouble pronouncing some of them. He said ‘Dodd-mn it!’”
But Crafton Mitchell said, after witnessing a turnover, his brother, “Steve,” could holler a long, protracted ‘Sh---t’ as good as anyone else.
Coach K – who, enters the arena to deafening cheers, flanked-by serious-faced men in suits as Cameron’s Crazies pay homage – walked over to 5-foot, 2-inch Mitchell and shook his hand every time for three decades.
“I think it was a mutual feeling,” Mitchell’s sister, Janice King, said of her brother’s and Coach K’s ritual, game-day shake. “I think they gained strength from each other.
“I cannot speak for Coach K,” she added.
“Steve became a good friend, one who had some challenges. He was loved deeply by his family. It always felt good shaking his hand before games because I admired him and was proud of him,” Coach Krzyzewski wrote in an email. “Steve never asked for anything. He just wanted be to down there to support us. I always felt like he had my back. That felt good.”
In the winter of 1980 the only thing Mitchell wanted for Christmas was a Duke basketball ticket. As a new coach spurred new life into Blue Devil fandom, the demand for tickets rose, making them hard to find.
But Mitchell’s brother ran a construction and restoration company with a job that winter to fix up that new coach’s house.
Working on the Krzyzewskis’ home, Crafton Mitchell asked the coach how one might find a purchasable ticket and explained his brother’s Christmas wish.
“He can sit behind me,” Kryzewski said. Mitchell got a ticket, behind the bench.
The following season, 1981-82, Mitchell sent Coach K a handwritten letter saying, “Coach, I know we’re going to have another great year. I was hoping that I could sit near you again.”
Coach K wrote Mitchell back a handwritten letter saying that, “yes,” he could.
The coach and Mitchell exchanged nearly the same letters every season thereafter. A single ticket, reserved for one “Steve Mitchell,” has always awaited pickup at Will Call before every game.
From 1980 to 2017, rarely, if ever, did a day go by that Mitchell didn’t wear Duke-themed attire.
Born in Durham
He was born with Down Syndrome at a time when there was less understanding of intellectual disabilities and of how to care for those affected. Immediately following Mitchell’s birth, a pediatrician recommended that his father and mother leave their “retarded” newborn in the care of the Murdoch Developmental Center in Butner.
They said, they’d be keeping their son at home.
On Sunday mornings, Mitchell’s parents dropped him off in the church nursery with the congregation’s other infants while they listened to the week’s sermon. In the 1950s, Mitchell was considered a “peculiarity” and some parishioners slipped out of the church’s service to poke their heads in the nursery to glimpse Mitchell.
“You see, Down Syndrome individuals give us a chance to see joy even in the most boring or tense times,” said Mitchell’s niece, Anne Stubbins Powers. “They say what they think, dance when they hear music, are loyal and loving until your last days, routine and predictable, and they are passionate about what they love.”
He competed in Durham Special Olympics throughout his life on basketball and golf teams, and in his youth in swim meets.
In 1981, Mitchell, then 25, and his little sister Candace Black, then 23, were at home alone and swimming in their parent’s pool when Candace Black had an epileptic seizure and began to drown. Mitchell swam well. He pulled her to the water’s edge, propping her on pool steps and called 911, but they couldn’t understand him. He called a brother-in-law who lived nearby: “Clint, there’s an emergency in the swimming pool, come quick!”
Candace Black slipped off the stairs back into the water. She floated face down without a noticeable pulse and wasn’t breathing by the time Clint King and her other brother, Crafton Mitchell, arrived to perform CPR. Bethesda volunteer firemen revived her.
When Coach K passed out during a timeout in a 2005 game versus Georgia Tech, the sight of the coach lying on the linoleum deeply scared Mitchell – reminding him of his sister in the pool.
President Jimmy Carter wrote Mitchell a handwritten letter congratulating him on being “a hero.”
In Raleigh, Gov. Jim Hunt presented Mitchell with the Governor’s Award for Bravery and Heroism on September 10, 1981, for saving his sister’s life.
Cameras flashed as Mitchell strode right up to North Carolina’s governor amid applause and flatly said, “Thanks, Hunt.”
Mitchell was an N.C. State fan until his sister Candace married Barry Black. Mitchell thought Black, who would drive him to Cameron and walk him in for the past 20 years, was one cool dude.
Mitchell’s going up to the Will Call window on his own, asking for his ticket and getting to his seat was one of the few things he did in life unmonitored by caretakers.
“It was tremendous for his confidence,” Crafton Mitchell said.
For years, the entire Mitchell family pooled together tens of thousands of dollars to afford an annual Iron Duke fee and secure a season ticket so someone could watch over “Steve.” Barry couldn’t sit with him behind the bench but monitored from a second-tier, Iron Duke seat.
“He really felt like he was part of the team,” Janice King, said. “He was a friendly, very friendly, positive, a great, outgoing person. He wasn’t afraid to shake hands with anybody.”
When former Duke players like Gene Banks, Christian Laettner, Danny Ferry, Shane Battier, Grant Hill, J.J. Redick and Bobby Hurley came back to Durham to catch a game, they would stop by, chat with Mitchell court-side and shake his hand.
Once when Barry went to retrieve Mitchell after a game, Mitchell suddenly bolted for the other end of the court. Barry panicked, “What’s going on?” Mitchell rammed right through four security guards standing between him and Dick Vitale.
“Hey, Dick,” he said.
“Hey Steve,” Vitale replied.
Mitchell retired after 32 years of work at Durham Exchange Club Industries. He lived with his parents until he was 50. His aging parents searched desperately for a home for their son to live in after they died. After the first retirement facility for intellectually disabled residents in NC, Spring Glen Retirement Community of Residential Services Inc., opened in Durham, Mitchell moved in on May 26, 2005. Both of his parents died within six months.
“It was as if they were living to find a place for Steve,” said Spring Glen staff member Miranda Isaacs.
Keeping routines like his pregame close-shave for the cameras helped, but nonetheless, the transition was hard. But the Spring Glen staff loved to watch Duke’s away games with Mitchell, Mitchell with his face two to three feet from the TV screen, clapping at shots made and cursing like “Coach” at the misses. He started to like Spring Glen after all.
Died in Chapel Hill
Mitchell had a stroke on May 23 which left him in UNC Hospitals unable to speak or swallow. His room overlooked the “Dean Dome.”
“We didn’t tell him what it was,” Candace Black said.
Every year, Mitchell would spend all of November with his sister, Janice King, shopping for small gifts to give every one of his over 40 family members on Christmas Eve.
“If I forgot anyone, he’d say ‘Janice, what about...’” Janice King said. “He didn’t forget anybody. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”