Lowell basketball legend Tracy Mitchell reflects on career, brush with Celtics stardom

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LOWELL — Being cut from a basketball team was a new experience.

But Tracy Mitchell doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the team for two reasons. One, it occurred nearly 37 years ago. Two, he was one of the last cuts of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, among the greatest NBA teams ever assembled.

“When you think about it, you realize how long ago it was,” said Mitchell, who turned 62 on Thursday but looks much younger. “Nothing but good memories. How can you not have good memories?”

The Lowell legend still lives in the city. He had the experience of a lifetime during his brief Celtics career. He played in four preseason games. In practice, he was surrounded by players who could make up a separate wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

He was teammates of Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish and Bill Walton. His coach, K.C. Jones, is also in the Hall of Fame. Parish even gave Mitchell a nickname.

The 1985-86 Celtics went 40-1 at the Boston Garden during the regular season, 67-15 overall. They steamrolled to the NBA title by going 15-3 in the playoffs.

Wearing No. 42, Mitchell got a firsthand look at what would become one of basketball’s true great teams. He said playing with Bird & Co. was a “surreal” experience.

“It was just a tough team, a championship team,” he said. “It wasn’t like a team that was rebuilding. I loved the competition with that team. You would have loved to have made that team. You’re just thankful to have the opportunity. I felt pretty comfortable.”

Mitchell was in the Boston Garden to watch the Celtics win a pair of playoff games that spring, including the famous victory when a young Michael Jordan scored 63 points for the Chicago Bulls.

He still follows the team and is encouraged about the team’s playoff chances this spring.

“I grew up a Celtics fan, and to have an opportunity to play on the court and be given an opportunity to make the team, it just made me more of a Celtics fan,” he said.

The Celtics carried 12 players for the 1985-86 season. Mitchell believes he was the second to last cut. Jones gave him the bad news, that he was cut, following a preseason game in Portland, Maine.

“The team was just solid,” he said.

Mitchell never played in a regular-season NBA game. He advanced as far as the Continental Basketball Association, the former top feeder league of the NBA.

Today, the Celtics practice in a state-of-the-art facility. In 1985, the team practiced at a run-down Hellenic College facility, hardly an opulent place for the best team in the world to train.

Mitchell, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard, was in superb shape. He didn’t get to show off his conditioning much in practice.

“We didn’t run a lot. We did a lot of shooting drills. It wasn’t like (Jones) was going to run you until your tongue was hanging on the ground. That was a veteran team. He trusted the guys to be in shape,” he said.

Surgeries on both shoulders ended his playing career about a decade ago. But Mitchell still sprints up and down courts all over New England. A referee for about 25 years, Mitchell works collegiate and high school games. He realizes today’s players have no idea about his playing career.

“If it’s brought up, yeah, but I don’t talk a whole lot about it. I don’t want people to think I’m just (bragging). I was never like that,” he said.

He worked a prep school championship game at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., this past season. A man walked up to another referee and said, “Is that Tracy Mitchell? He’s probably the best player in the gym today.”

He coached at Greater Lowell Tech before turning to refereeing. Despite turning 62, Mitchell recently was chosen to work some Northeast-10 (Division 2) games. Had he become more serious about being a referee earlier, maybe he would have risen to the Division 1 level by now.

One thing’s for sure. Mitchell, who weighs only 10 pounds more than he did in 1985, can still keep up with today’s players.

“I’ve been fortunate to not have leg injuries. I feel good. I feel healthy. I’ve got good genes. Hopefully they can carry me for a few more years,” he said.

Mitchell was a playground legend in Lowell. Exploits of his dunking exhibitions reverberated throughout the city’s neighborhoods in the 1970s. It didn’t matter what part of Lowell a person was from. Athletes knew Tracy Mitchell.

He went on to star at Lowell High, averaging 19.1 points per game as a senior in the 1978-79 season. Other Red Raiders have scored more points. Perhaps none have played with more flair. He was called the “Father of the Slam Dunk” at LHS.

After a post-grad year at Maine Central Institute and a season at Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, Calif., Mitchell took his talents to Texas Christian University.

He compiled 151 rebounds, 252 assists and 68 steals in two seasons at TCU, where he averaged 11.4 and 9.3 points per game in his two years.

Disappointed not to be drafted, Mitchell was thrilled to get an invitation to Boston’s rookie camp. He turned enough heads to be invited to veteran camp.

Mitchell offered some thoughts on the five Hall of Fame players he was briefly teammates with.

On Bird: “Larry Bird was an unbelievable player for his size and speed. Very smart. Very knowledgeable in the game. Talked a lot of smack, I’ll tell you that, but he could back it up. He saw the game at a different level than anybody else.”

On McHale: “Kevin McHale was a practical joker. Him and Danny Ainge were the two practical jokers. Especially toward each other. Very good player. He had long arms.”

On Johnson: “Dennis Johnson was a good guy for me to be around. He was a fun guy. Defensively, he was very good. He was very quick with his feet.”

On Parish: “A good guy. He came up with my nickname: Eat ’Em Up. I was on the bus coming back from Providence and I’m sitting there with a bag of popcorn on my lap. He looked serious all the time, but he wasn’t.”

Walton: “Bill Walton was quiet. Bill Walton is big. He was a very skilled player. Very knowledgeable about the game. Smart. He’s a joker, too. They would all take jabs at each other.”

Bird made $1.8 million that season. Rookie guard Sam Vincent, the team’s first-round draft pick in 1985 and the primary reason Mitchell didn’t make the team, was the low man on the salary totem pole. He made $87,500.

“That’s chump change compared to what they make now,” Mitchell said.

When Mitchell was a Lowell High student, he lived in the Highlands section of Lowell. Today Mitchell, a father of three, lives across the Merrimack River in Centralville with his wife, Carmen. He works in the shipping department of Edwards Vacuum Systems in Chelmsford when he’s not blowing his referee whistle.

Long ago, Mitchell wrote a story for The Sun about his Celtics experience during the 1985-86 season.

He wrote, “I came home after I got cut and I told myself that I don’t want the people here in Lowell feeling sorry for me in any way. I just want people to stay behind me.”

He has no regrets. He gave everything he had to make the Celtics. He came up short. The fact that the team went on to win the 1986 world championship provides comfort.

“It didn’t hurt quite so much,” Mitchell said.

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