You may never have known his name but you may have seen his face as he sat behind the Duke basketball bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium for 37 years.
Every time broadcast cameras panned onto Blue Devils’ coach Mike Krzyzewski on the sidelines, Steve Mitchell was right there, sitting behind him.
Players, assistant coaches and trainers have come and gone throughout the Krzyzewski era that began in 1980 but Mitchell, who died on June 4 at 62, was always there watching, cheering and cursing along with “Coach” through nearly all of it.
Krzyzewski, flanked by police and Duke staff, walked over to Mitchell, who had Down syndrome, and shook his hand before every home game.
“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,” Krzyzewski wrote in an email. “Steve never asked for anything. He just wanted to be down there to support us. I always felt like he had my back. That felt good.”
Mitchell’s brother Crafton said, after witnessing a turnover, Steve could holler a long, protracted ‘sh---t’ as good as anyone else.
“He learned some words from Krzyzewski Momma and Daddy didn’t like to hear,” Crafton said. “He had trouble pronouncing some of them. He said, ‘Dodd-mn it!’ ”
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 Krzyzewski’s home, Crafton asked the coach how one might find a ticket to buy and explained his brother’s Christmas wish.
“He can sit behind me,” Krzyzewski said. Mitchell got a ticket, behind the bench.
The following season, 1981-82, Mitchell sent Krzyzewski 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.”
The coach wrote Mitchell back saying, “yes,” he could.
Krzyzewski and Mitchell exchanged nearly the same letters every season thereafter. A single ticket, reserved for one “Steve Mitchell,” was waiting 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
Mitchell was born with Down syndrome at a time when there was less understanding of intellectual disabilities and of how to care for those affected. After Mitchell’s birth, a pediatrician recommended that his father and mother leave their 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 service to poke their heads in the nursery to glimpse at the baby.
“You see, Down syndrome individuals give us a chance to see joy even in the most boring or tense times,” Mitchell’s niece, Anne Stubbins Powers, said. “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.”
Mitchell competed in Durham Special Olympics throughout his life on basketball and golf teams and in his youth in swim meets.
In 1981, Mitchell and his sister Candace Black were swimming together in their parent’s pool when Black had an epileptic seizure and began to drown. Mitchell swam well. He pulled her to the water’s edge, propped her on pool steps and called 911 but they couldn’t understand him. So he called a brother-in-law who lived nearby.
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 Crafton Mitchell arrived to deliver CPR. Bethesda volunteer firemen revived her.
Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, wrote Mitchell a handwritten letter congratulating him on being “a hero.”
In Raleigh, then-Gov. James “Jim” Hunt presented Mitchell with the Governor’s Award for Bravery and Heroism for saving his sister’s life.
Cameras flashed as Mitchell strode 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 last 20 years, was one cool dude.
Going to the will call window, asking for his ticket and getting to his seat were a few things Mitchell did that were not monitored 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’d stop-by, chat with Mitchell courtside 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 himself and Dick Vitale.
“Hey Dick,” he said.
“Hey Steve,” Vitale replied.
Mitchell retired after working for 32 years at Durham Exchange Club Industries. He lived with his parents until he was 50. As his parents got older, they searched for a home where he could go live after they died. In May 2005, Mitchell moved into Spring Glen Retirement Community of Residential Services, a facility in Durham for the intellectually disabled. Both of his parents died within six months of him moving there.
The transition was hard for Mitchell. The Spring Glen staff watched Duke’s away games with Mitchell, who would keep his face two-to-three feet away from the TV screen, clapping at shots made and cursing like “Coach” at the misses. He started to like Spring Glen after all.
On May 23, Mitchell had a stroke that left him in UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill unable to speak or swallow. His room overlooked the Smith Center.
“We didn’t tell him what it was,” Candace Black said.