ZEIGLER — It's been a full four decades since Jim ("Jimmy") Mitchell dominated the Black Diamond Conference in basketball.
Forty years since his Zeigler-Royalton ballclub notched 22 consecutive league wins and earned back-to-back league titles, as well as the school's only two regional championships.
Mitchell, who stood 6-feet, 3 inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds as an upperclassmen during the 1978-79 and '79-'80 campaigns, was a brute inside the paint, yet possessed Velcro-like hands and one of the softest shooting touches around.
"Jimmy was a big, strong kid right from the start," said former Z-R head coach Art Brandon, who remains close to Mitchell to this day. "He made the transition to high school ball quickly and learned how to play with his back to the basket. That was the biggest thing for him in terms of his success."
Brandon said he knew early on of Mitchell's ability to use either hand near the basket and his extension to rebound effectively.
"Jimmy occupied the space (inside the lane). He was able to catch the ball in traffic very well. One of the things we worked on the most in practice was how and when to make the entry pass to Jimmy. By doing that, we were able to keep everybody else in the flow of the offense."
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Mitchell said an injury at an early age actually benefited in his development as an all-around player.
"I was originally left-handed, but broke my arm three different times in grade school," Mitchell said. "That forced me to learn to throw right-handed. I remember pitching with both hands in Little League. And that kind of carried over to basketball. I could shoot with either hand."
Mitchell said he had "no idea" he would make the varsity as a freshman, much less start.
"In seventh grade, I couldn't chew gum and walk at the same time, but by eighth grade, I became more coordinated and started improving quite a bit. I worked especially hard that summer before my freshman year. I owe a lot of credit to the older guys on the team — guys like Dennis Drust and Barry Colson, for example. They helped me a lot my freshman year. Playing with them was a great honor."
Whereas it was his father, the late Charlie Mitchell, who helped teach his son about the value of athletics, it was his high school coach, Brandon, who sanded off the rough edges and made him into the player he became.
Brandon said that what separated Mitchell from other fine post players in the region was his ability to shoot from the outside when necessary.
"I remember a game at Christopher one night. They (Bearcats, coached by Tom Wheeler) were big and physical and it was getting a little intolerable under the basket, so Jimmy went outside and knocked down some big shots. That's what won the game for us. He could bring the ball down against pressure. He could pass. He could rebound and he could shoot."
Building on a 16-win season his sophomore year, Mitchell and the Tornadoes exploded onto the scene his junior year ('78-'79), going 25-3. That season included the school's first-ever regional championship at Waltonville (78-761 over the host Spartans). That effort was followed up with an opening-round win at the Norris City Sectional over the host Cardinals before falling to David Taborn and the state-bound Carrier Mills Wildcats, 88-68. Taborn tallied 37 of his team's 88 points on that night. Mitchell had 43 of Z-R's 68.
The '79-'80 group's success on the hardwood virtually matched the previous year.
The Tornadoes finished 24-4, including 21-3 during the regular season. Z-R captured the Du Quoin Regional, beating a very good Christopher team for the ninth consecutive time in two seasons, 63-48. They went on to upset Metropolis (not consolidated into Massac County at the time), 62-61, before falling to South Seven Conference representative, Benton, 74-50.
"We had unbelievable crowds those two years," Brandon said. "We packed the gyms everywhere we went. I remember seeing some people sitting on the floor around the gym. We even had people volunteering to drive the bus because they wanted to experience that thrill of victory on the ride home. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Brandon added that successful sports teams like Z-R's run in basketball are often short-lived with small schools, which makes the run that much more memorable.
"The kids gave it their all and so did the communities of Zeigler and Royalton. People were joyful when watching us play. I've never seen anything like it before or since. As for Jimmy, he put in the work to be successful. He can be proud of what he and all of us accomplished."
POST Z-R ATHLETICS
Mitchell was recruited hard by local community colleges John A. Logan and Rend Lake and chose Logan in the end.
"I had some good games, but looking back, I might have gotten more playing time if I had gone to Rend Lake. Still, it was a good experience to play at Logan. I got a lot of razzing in the years after that, though, from John Kretz (Rend Lake assistant coach who recruited him). We played a lot of softball together," Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who earned a degree at Logan in mining technology, never did work in the mines as it turned out. Instead, he went to work for Pepsi and then later Anheuser-Busch and Miller before a car accident on the north end of Zeigler sidelined him — almost permanently — on April 19, 2010. Today, Mitchell spends much of his day in a wheelchair at home.
"It (the accident) changed my life," Mitchell said as tears welled up in his eyes. "I couldn't have gotten through it, though, without my wife (Gayla). When I got wounded, she got wounded, too. She's taken care of me ever since."
Mitchell is also proud of his two sons (Andrew and Tyler). Andrew is an information technologist in the mining industry. Tyler is a teacher/coach at Odin High School.
"Jimmy's a tough guy, a brave guy. He lived through that accident and many other issues since then," Brandon said. "But like he did as a player, he has worked hard to get a life back to where he can enjoy his kids and grandkids. I couldn't be more proud of him."
Mitchell said his basketball playing days still brings a smile to his face.
"I just remember how hard the work was, which made the wins so satisfying. I'd like to think I had a great career. What more could I have done? But as important to me as winning was... the friendships I made along the way mean even more. I am very thankful to my teammates, a coach who believed in me, and to the fans who supported us."