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Basketball St. Anthony

Feature: St. Anthony’s Alan Mitchell, Coaching Through Heartbreak, Has Team on Brink of History

Coaching through the heartbreak of losing his father this season, St. Anthony boys’ basketball coach Alan Mitchell has his Saints on the brink of history. They’ll be facing Rolling Hills Prep in the Division 2AA final at Azusa Pacific tonight at 8 p.m. as part of an SA championship doubleheader, with the girls’ team facing Moreno Valley at 6 p.m.

Every season is a rollercoaster of emotions for a high school basketball coach, but few carry more heartwrenching twists and turns than the one Mitchell is having. He lost his father, Anthony Mitchell Sr., in January of this year. In a late night interview the evening before his team tries to make history, MItchell reflected on how he’s made it through a season of tribulation.

“It’s just prayer,” he said. “Not even my own but those around me and the prayers I don’t hear. My wife has been extremely supportive. My father and me were very close, everyone who knows me knows that.”

The man known as “Bear” was a huge presence in his son’s life. He put a basketball in Alan’s hands when he was still learning to walk and began coaching him when he was six. 

“He always told me you can’t shoot unless you get a steal so I was playing defense like crazy,” said Mitchell. “He was always my coach my first years playing competitively basketball and football. I was used to him being there.”

Bear was also working, trying to support a family of five children. That meant graveyard and swing shifts at the Montebello printing factory where he worked for 30 years. And those shifts meant that as Alan grew, his dad wasn’t always in the stands when he played.

“We butted heads about it, and at that time I didn’t understand,” he said. “You got five kids in the house, you don’t get to go to every game. Selfishly, I didn’t understand that.”

The two were too alike to stay mad for long, though. They mended hurt feelings quickly and were inseparable after that.

“It didn’t last long, man, and once we got back close, it was nothing separating us,” he said. “Peanut butter and jelly. Big Bear and Little Bear.”

Anyone who’s followed Mitchell’s rise from an assistant coach with the Saints to take the program over a few years ago has seen Big Bear, as he spent as much time watching his son coach as he could. 

“My whole career he’s always been there,” said Mitchell. “Once I started doing it he found a lot of joy in it.”

Big Bear had a talented eye, too. He was actually the first to notice this Saints team’s championship potential, pulling Little Bear aside after a spring league game at Jordan High.

“He called it man,” said Mitchell. “He saw most of the boys grew a few inches from the previous year, he saw the size and physicality and speed and said, ‘Man your boys are playing hard for you. You guys could really win it this year.’”

Little Bear and Big Bear after a tournament win for the Saints this year.

Mitchell Sr. was a fixture at Saints games as usual this year, traveling with them for the Torrey Pines Classic. But in late December he fell ill, and his health declined. Mitchell shared what was happening with his team. Before a pivotal game at St. Bernard’s, he shared with the team that his father was in the hospital.

“I didn’t say too much, I told them my pops wasn’t doing too good, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” said Mitchell. “I told them I’m here with you guys because my dad would want me to be here. You know how he felt about y’all. They embraced me.”

That game was a turning point for the Saints, with them erasing a big halftime deficit to earn their first win over Bernard’s in years.

“When we huddled after that game I told my team that I loved them,” said Mitchell. “They didn’t know how much that game meant to me.”

After the win, Little Bear drove to the hospital to be with Big Bear.

The following Wednesday, Mitchell Sr. passed away at 11:35am, with his son and family at his side. After his father passed, Mitchell drove home and changed clothes, and then made a pivotal decision. His Saints had a big game against Bishop Montgomery that night.

“I wasn’t going to go at all, and I didn’t really want to,” he said. “But I knew that if I didn’t coach that night I wouldn’t be able to finish the season. I couldn’t really stop.”

The Saints traveled to Bishop Montgomery that night and picked up another big win. Mitchell was deep in his own emotions, and said it was a solid two weeks before he was fully there on the sideline–a stretch where he leaned on his assistants, but also spoke openly with his team about what he was going through.

“I share quite a bit with my boys,” he said. “I’ve just tried to do my best. When I don’t have a good moment I try to just let it be. Sometimes it comes randomly, sometimes before a game or even during one league game I had to compose myself.”

Mitchell’s entire team came to his father’s services to pay their respect, and to support their coach. Now, they’re all on the brink of making history together.

“This game, if you go 1-0 you’re on the right side of history for the rest of your life,” said Mitchell. “If you don’t go 1-0 you’re on the wrong side. The hardest part for me is just wishing my dad was here to see it.”

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Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.