‘He’s stubborn as hell’: How Steffon Mitchell’s competitive spirit helps BC basketball

He grew up quickly by battling older players in Minnesota throughout his childhood.

Boston College head coach Jim Christian believes forward Steffon Mitchell is often able to make hustle plays because of his intelligence and preparedness.
Boston College head coach Jim Christian believes forward Steffon Mitchell is often able to make hustle plays because of his intelligence and preparedness. –Gerry Broome/AP Photo

Hours before Boston College hosted Virginia last Tuesday, Steffon Mitchell started to feel dizzy.

His head throbbed and his stomach wasn’t right, and he knew he had to sit down and get some help. He threw up as he stumbled off the court, and 20 minutes later, he was stuck in an isolated room a few hours before the game.

Mitchell had never needed intravenous therapy (IV) before, but the team doctor and head coach Jim Christian convinced him it was the right decision.

“I didn’t know what that was like,” Mitchell told Boston.com. “Could I play with that?”

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In many cases, the answer to that question would be no, but in Mitchell’s case, it became a definitive and resounding yes after some initial ambiguity.

After eating only two cups of Cheddar Goldfish the entire day, and psyching himself up as much as he could, Mitchell played 30 minutes and helped the Eagles knock off the defending national champion Cavaliers, 60-53, for their biggest win of the season.

“It was inspiring to see him do that,” said Jared Hamilton, who hit the eventual game-winning 3-pointer. “Putting the team before himself was something that really carried over and inspired us throughout the game. If he can play through this, there’s no reason why anything out there should be able to affect any of us.”

Mitchell finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, and two steals, but as usual it was the more nuanced moments and the signature hustle plays that defined his night. The 6-foot-8-inch big man shut down diminutive guard UVA Kihei Clark late in the game. He also brought the ball up, gathered a huge rebound in the final seconds, and hit two free throws to help seal the win.

Those who know him well weren’t at all surprised. They’re used to the effort and energy he brings as the ultimate glue guy, yet that doesn’t make them any less impressed when he pieces together performances like this one.

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“He’s got the heart of a lion,” Christian said. “We all knew that. If he was able to play, he was going to play. We kept asking him at timeouts, ‘How you doing, do you need a blow?’ When he got his third foul, he wanted to stay in the game. You need to sit over here for a minute, but that’s him.”

Mitchell has always been wired that way. His childhood in Shakopee, Minnesota, his experience moonlighting as a high school tennis star, and his ascension at BC all revolve around a common theme: He’ll do absolutely anything he has to in order to win.

He ranked in the 98th percentile for competitiveness.

When Mitchell was a kid, he and his younger brother, Garrett, gravitated toward anything that involved competition, so much so that their parents, Gina and Juan, went out of their way to appeal to their audience.

“It didn’t matter if it was who was going to get in the shower, who had to do a chore around the house, Juan would always come up with little things,” Gina Mitchell said. “Steffon always wanted to compete in rock-paper-scissors, a game of cards. He’s just always been that way.”

Once, when Gina and Juan attended a parent-teacher conference, the psychology teacher told them their son scored in the 98th percentile for competitiveness on a Myers-Briggs equivalent. Their only question was where that other 2 percent went.

“We looked at each other, nodded our heads and turned back to the teacher, like, ‘So what? What are you trying to tell us?’” Gina said. “For us, those kinds of things are just part of who he is.”

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That competitiveness surfaced in their house, in the classroom, and in just about anything, but it was no more present than in sports. Following a five-overtime, buzzer-beater, state semifinal high school hoops loss, Mitchell said he couldn’t watch SportsCenter for about a month. He’s still motivated after his basketball team finished third in the state twice.

It likely won’t come as a surprise that Mitchell scored almost 2,000 points in high school. It’s not shocking that he also played football and was a dominant tight end and corner (despite his height). What is surprising about his high school athletic career is that he was also a tennis star.

He didn’t just dabble, either. Mitchell started playing in sixth grade, and he made the varsity lineup the first year he could, as a seventh-grader. He didn’t devote nearly as much time to it as he did basketball and football, however it didn’t end up mattering all too much.

Steffon Mitchell was a tennis star in high school. —Photo courtesy The Mitchell Family

Gina and Juan recall a moment in seventh grade when the Shakopee coach approached them and told them it was OK that Mitchell was down in a match because he would learn from it and get better. Once again, they glanced at each other in bemusement.

“I looked at Juan, and I said, ‘I’m not counting him out yet,’” Gina said. “This kid just has this innate will to win. He came back and he won that match. I think everybody around us was pretty surprised. The coach talked with us afterward. I think that’s just indicative of who he’s always been. He’s never counted himself out.”

They believe that the bigger the environment, the more likely it is that Mitchell is going to rise to the occasion. Juan recalls that Mitchell’s tennis strokes weren’t necessarily picturesque. If he had to hit the ball over 30 times to win a point, he would. Whatever worked.

He ended up making it to a national tournament through Junior Team Tennis, but the practices weren’t for him. Mitchell still plays tennis for fun at BC, but make no mistake, it’s all about basketball. It always was.

Growing up in Shakopee, Minnesota, Steffon Mitchell quickly realized he loved several sports. Football and tennis were key parts of his childhood, but basketball ultimately stuck. —Photo courtesy The Mitchell Family

He grew up quickly by competing against older players.

The grittiness Mitchell displays in every facet of life is no more transparent than on the basketball court. A lot of that stems from his inner makeup, but a portion of it also comes from his surroundings.

Juan coaches girls hoops, and he did everything in his power to ensure Steffon mastered the fundamentals and could do everything well on the court. He worked in a school, so he always had a key to the gym, and he ensured that workouts were fun for his kids.

He knew they were special athletes, but he made sure they didn’t feel any pressure. Juan wanted them to fall in love with sports themselves. When he realized Steffon was truly passionate about basketball, ramping up the intensity felt natural and unforced.

“He loves the game,” Juan said. “He just wants to get better in every phase of it.”

Juan Mitchell is a basketball coach, and he always made sure his son, Steffon, could do everything well on the court. —Photo courtesy The Mitchell Family

Growing up, Mitchell competed against kids eight years older in his backyard in Shakopee. When he got his shot blocked, he had to learn on the fly and adjust. In fourth or fifth grade, he started battling Juan’s high school players at camps and quickly learned how to hold his own.

He was blessed with height and coordination, and he worked hard to turn any weaknesses he had into strengths. As one of the youngest players on the court most of his life, he learned that the best way to earn the trust of those around him was to not force shots and focus on making winning plays.

Of course he took over games at times, too, but for the most part, he prided himself on being the consummate teammate. In the meantime, what they didn’t see was the extra work in the lab. He had his eyes on a bigger prize, and he knew what he had to do to get there.

“I think seventh grade is when I first knew I was going to be a Division 1 basketball player,” Mitchell said. “I was playing a couple Division 1 players at the time. They were better than me, but they weren’t crazy better than me. I was in seventh grade, and I was like, ‘I can do this. I love basketball and I love competing.’ I was like, ‘I will be a Division 1 basketball player if I keep working hard.’”

He does a little bit of everything.

After some uncertainty about where he would play, Mitchell believes Boston College has been the perfect landing spot.

He could do without the aggressive drivers who are anything but Minnesota nice, but he values education and constantly wants to show the basketball world he belongs, which aligns with everything BC is about. After a standout career at Shakopee, Mitchell attended Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas, hoping to make even more of a name for himself among elite competition.

Coach Christian was intrigued, and he watched him work out and offered him a spot on the team. Mitchell visited BC a few days later, and he committed a day after that.

“I wanted to prove that I could play at a high major level,” Mitchell said.

Christian didn’t know just how competitive he was right away, but he could tell Mitchell carried himself with a certain swagger and a perpetual chip on his shoulder.

“It doesn’t really matter to us who was recruiting him,” Christian said. “He fit the role that we needed, and we’re very thankful we got him.”

When he got to BC, he contributed in many areas right away. As a freshman, he finished first on the team in blocks, first in rebounds, second in steals, third in assists, fourth in minutes, and fifth in points. The next year, he was first in blocks again, second in steals again, second in assists, fourth in minutes, and seventh in points.

This season – after staying at BC to work on his shot instead of going home for the summer – he’s first in blocks, steals, rebounds, and minutes, second in assists, and fourth in points, as of Thursday. The balance is impressive when put in the context of the team, but the numbers are even more staggering when examined with a wider lens.

As of Tuesday, he’s the only player in Division 1 since 2017-18 to have 633 rebounds, 181 assists, 107 steals, and 86 blocks. He’s also the only player nationally to log 8.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.2 blocked shots per game this season.

From the 1996-97 season until earlier this year, an Atlantic Coast Conference player has tallied at least 13 points, 12 rebounds, five steals, and two assists in a game six times. Mitchell did it twice in a week this December.

“He’s one of those players that I think every team in the league would want,” Christian said. “The role may not be the same on every team in the league, but everybody knows he’s about winning. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win, and that’s what makes him special.”

“He’s stubborn as hell.”

Earlier this season, when Christian believed Mitchell should have taken a shot with the shot clock at five, Mitchell saw it differently. He’s happy to shoot, but he didn’t feel it was the right time to do so and he didn’t shy away from that belief.

Christian said they debated for 10 minutes whether he should have shot it, adding that everybody in the world would have said yes except Mitchell. He doesn’t always see situations the same way as other people, yet sometimes that’s refreshing and beneficial.

“He’s stubborn as hell,” Christian said. “His biggest strength is the most annoying thing about him. I love him to death, but there are some times we’ve debated over stuff that could go on for hours. That’s kind of who he is. I embrace it.”

Mitchell hopes a unique blend of skill, stubbornness, and savvy can help him make it to the NBA. He appreciates the Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Draymond Green comparisons he’s gotten over the years, and he hopes to make winning plays at the next level like they do.

First, he has unfinished business at BC, and that’s where his focus lies at the moment. The Virginia win was a start, but he’s hoping to accomplish much more with the Eagles.

“He’s probably one of the most loyal guys I’ve ever coached,” Christian said. “He would run through a wall for this program, and we would run through a wall for him.”