Youth basketball coach was well-suited to be a much-needed presence in his town
Published on May 28, 2017
One thing small towns have in common is that the people in them seem to have a keen sense, a strong desire and a willing commitment to impact lives and make the community better day-in and day-out.
Well, Mitchell Hill, Jr. was one of those people in LaGrange, GA.
Hill was a pillar in his town, the backbone of his family and a reliable firm presence in the lives of young people.
“His whole life was about serving the community,” says Mitchell’s wife, Kay Hill. “Who he was and what encompassed was community service and giving back to the youth. He was very involved and invested in young people.”
Mitchell Hill, Jr. passed away last July at the age of 47 due to complications of heart failure but he did not leave this world silently.
“One of the first times I met Mitchell was through work,” Hill says, who was married to Mitchell for 15 years and had two kids together, Avery, 14 and Kaitlyn, 10. “He was working at Twin Cedars at the time and I worked at Community Mental Health for Pathways. I was the counselor and he was a case manager who worked in a group home, so we both were kind of in the work of community service and special services. The first time I paid attention to Mitchell was when I saw him taking this kid under his wing and the kid happened to be one of my clients, who had some behavior problems. I saw Mitchell because we worked together before and the little kid was with him and I asked him, ‘Why is he with you?’ Mitchell said, ‘Oh, I’m just mentoring him.’”
Hill was in total surprise.
“I remember that real clearly because that kid lived close to the recreation center and Mitchell was mentoring him for no good reason but just to mentor a kid who needed a role model,” says Hill, as she thought back. “It wasn’t through any kind of structural program. It was just a kid in the community and he interacted with him probably through coming to the rec. That’s who he was. I thought that’s a man with integrity and a man whose heart is in the right place.”
Born and raised in LaGrange (a graduate of LaGrange High School in 1988), Mitchell began working at Twin Cedars Youth Services while working with at risk youth, after returning home from college. He later joined the Parks and Recreation Department in Troup County, where Mitchell started to work attentively with and mentor youths through the lens of sports and recreation.
Working with kids at the William J. Griggs Recreation Center on 716 Glenn Robertson Drive became the norm for Mitchell and he soon began to bond and connect with the younger crowd due to both their enjoyment of the game of basketball.
“The recreation center sits on the corner of Glenn Robertson Drive and Brown Street because we lived on Brown Street,” says Cami Hill, Mitchell’s sister. “Everyday after school we would walk to the recreational center together and it’s funny that it comes back around that he ends up working there.”
Cami even remembers a time before Mitchell went off to college, where he was surrounded by children and took on the responsibility of raising them.
“When Mitchell went off to college, he had a cousin who had children at a young age and he helped raise them,” Cami says.
Mitchell’s cousin was going through a rough period, so him and Cami took the three boys in and practically raised them.
“I had three children of my own at the time, so they all came to live with me,” says Cami. “Five boys and one girl. I had a six-year-old, seven-year-old and nine-year-old. The three boys were five, 10 and 11 when they came to live with me.”
Then Cami added, “He’s always been around kids and raised them the majority of his life. So Mitchell had children before he actually had children.”
When Kay first met Mitchell, his three nephews were around the age’s three to six.
“When he came back from college, he helped me raise the kids. They called him ‘Uncle Jr’” laughed Cami.
If there’s one area where Mitchell could reach young kids, it was undoubtedly through coaching athletics.
“He played quarterback when he was at LaGrange High School,” says Cami. “He played basketball too but he was a little better at football.”
Mitchell’s first coaching gig came through coaching football at Troup County’s Parks and Recs and also was on the football coaching staff at Gardner Newman Middle School for a while.
Mitchell’s affection for basketball soon kicked in, as he started coaching girls’ basketball, then transitioned to teaching the boys. That soon led to him creating the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Wolverines Basketball Program in 2003, where he coached multiple boys’ age groups from eight to 18 — both boys and girls.
Mitchell’s major incentive for forming the program was to provide an opportunity for young athletes to learn life lessons about growth, success, failure, teamwork, achievement and character. He seeked individuals who he felt could reach their full potential not only in basketball but in life skills and Mitchell wanted to be the one to bring it out of them.
“He was an excellent coach. He was real well-rounded,” says Hill. “His philosophy was he believed every kid should play. Traveling ball is really competitive. There are tryouts. People put a lot of money into it. One of the things we fussed about and it’s one of the reasons why I admire him is that he never wanted money to be a barrier when it came to a child playing.”
Through his years coaching the traveling team, there were multiple times when Mitchell and Kay would pay for another kid so they could play in a tournament because the kid’s family didn’t have enough money to pay for the trip. Mitchell would never let an obstacle stand in the way of a kid having the opportunity to play, even if things got tight financially.
“He would always think about how we would do it,” says Cami. “What’s the kid going to eat on the trip? Does he need shoes? Does she have a jersey? Does the jersey fit them? On a trip, the girls would always be in my hotel room and the boys would stay in Mitchell and Kay’s room. He really wanted to give the boys and girls some exposure outside of LaGrange.”
The Wolverines AAU basketball teams have traveled to play tournaments all through the South, everywhere from Georgia to Kentucky to North Carolina to South Carolina to Tennessee to Florida to Mississippi to Alabama. Not only did Mitchell coach kids from Troup County High School, Callaway High School and LaGrange High School but his team consisted of a mix of players from Greenville and Manchester. He also coached his nephews, his nieces and his son, Avery.
“He was harder on me as my coach,” says Avery, an eighth-grader who plays shooting guard at Gardner Newman Middle School. “He wanted me to be a good player and not mess up. He wasn’t all about just playing the game but it was about being a better man. He taught us not to fight against the other team. He would always be getting onto us if we messed up but he didn’t like to gloat if we beat the other team. He would yell a lot but he was trying to teach us what was right and we knew he had our back no matter what.”
Cami’s son, Kyrean played for his uncle on the summer traveling team, who currently serves as the girls’ basketball coach at LaGrange High for junior varsity.
“Kyrean was the only ninth-grader on the varsity team for LaGrange High in 2010 when they were undefeated, until they loss the (Class AAA) state championship game to Columbia High from Decatur,” says Cami, who credits her brother for helping his nephew get a chance to play college basketball in Nebraska. “Really, seven of the players on that team — including Kyrean — Mitchell coached before.”
Cami then dived into the coach’s mind of her brother, who the majority of his players called “Coach Mitch.”
“Mitchell just wasn’t a coach, he was a teacher,” says Cami. “He was a teacher of the sport. The And-1, the flipping the ball around, the around-the-back stuff…he hated it. He wanted his players to play basic basketball. He would tell his players, ‘It’s no time for showtime.’”
“The thing to me that distinguishes Mitchell from other coaches was that he not only wanted to win but he made an conscious effort to not just play his starters and depend on them the whole game but he gave every kid on the bench playing time no matter what,” says Cami, emphasizing Mitchell’s willingness to involve each and every kid in the team aspect that played for him. “He was the best substitute. He knew how to blend the good players in with maybe some of the players that might not have been as good. He let the lesser players know, ‘You might not can do this but you can do this to help the team.’”
“He just knew how to create those opportunities for the lesser-skilled players and to see that player celebrate after making a shot or that play was really rewarding for Mitch,” Hill says, with much pride. “Mitchell rarely got complaints from parents about their kid not getting enough playing time.”
Not just a coach was Mitchell but he was a huge advocate of AAU basketball and the culture that the multi-sport organization provides for both male and female young amateur athletes, in which he served on the AAU Girls Basketball Advisory Board on the state level for 12 years.
Says Hill, “The AAU community thought highly of Mitchell because of his support in creating quality competition.”
While Mitchell’s coaching style exuded tough-mindedness and discipline, he also had an ability to get the best out of his teams and provide an educational lecture when needed.
“He had a way of motivating the team and if you thought you were more important than the team, then you were gonna ride the bench,” says Cami. “It was all about the team for him.”
“When Mitchell and a player would bump heads and that player would have an attitude problem, he would use that time to mentor or teach them,” says Hill. “He would turn conflict into lessons.”
It’s pretty hard to find a family that has faced the difficulties and misfortunes along the way that the Hill family has come across this past year.
“Mitchell was diagnosed with heart failure soon after Avery was born and he did pretty well with his heart problems,” says Hill. “He had to watch his diet, lose some weight, not eat things that were high in sodium and take high blood pressure medication. As time progressed over the last two years (his heart problems began in 2014), his heart failure kind of took a turn for the worst.”
Early on, it took some time to really grasp what was going on with Mitchell’s state of health and Hill soon connected with Emory hospital in Atlanta to get further information.
“The very first appointment they were talking about a heart transplant and right then I realized how serious this was,” says Hill. “I don’t think he was real receptive of that.”
Six months after the first appointment, Mitchell was in ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Emory, what Hill describes as her husband “being on his death bed.”
“He nearly loss his life,” says Hill.
“At that point we got a special heart pump device called an LVAD, which is a bridge to a transplant and he just kind of came back to life,” Hill says.
A LVAD (left ventricular assist device) is a mechanical pump that is implanted inside a person’s chest to help a weakened heart pump blood.
“He had his LVAD for about a year and really for that last year-in-a-half, he just lived,” says Hill. “He went back to work. He coached again. His relationships with his children, with me and certainly with many others just deepened on a deeper level.”
Hill stated that Mitchell was a little bit in denial about his condition but sensed that he knew how close he was to actually dying and in that last year-in-a-half, he was able to put things in his life in the proper perspective.
“As a family we had to learn to situate our lives around the cares of his device and how to make that all work,” says Hill. “LVAD requires a care giver and a family to be educated about it. It’s not just a peacemaker inside of him.”
Mitchell soon had complications with his LVAD and quickly developed a blood clot in his equipment that led to him passing on Saturday July 9, 2016 in Emory hospital.
If it wasn’t hard enough for the Hill family to lose a husband, a father and a brother, then more setbacks were soon to hit them.
Three days after Mitchell passed and still dealing with the aftermath, the family came back home and the immediate focus transitioned to preparing for the funeral but untimely, unexpected events occurred.
“We got back home and lighting struck our home,” says Hill. “Kaitlyn and Avery were actually home and I wasn’t at the house at the time. I was with my mother and Kaitlyn actually saw the smoke and the fire and contacted someone about the fire.”
The Hill’s house was at Lakemont subdivision and a fire occurred that completely destroyed their home.
“Of course when that happened…I don’t even know how you process that,” says Hill, looking back at that time. “You just kind of go into survival mode.”
When the Hill’s house burned down, the home was on sale. It had been on the market for eight months and the family was actually in the process of building a new house (which is the current house they live in now).
After enduring so much in a short period of time, Hill contemplated and wondered whether she should continue to go through with the construction of the house that her and Mitchell were expecting to spend many more years together in.
“For that to happen, being like an act of God with lightning striking, we just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Hill. “I kind of took is as a sign that we should continue and I thought maybe that was Mitchell’s way of saying we need to move forward and reorganize our lives.”
The Hill’s temporarily relocated in a hotel for a while, then transitioned into moving into an apartment. When the house was finally complete, Hill along with Avery and Kaitlyn, moved into their new residence in November 2016.
“The first night we slept in this house, the next morning was me and Mitchell’s 15th wedding anniversary,” says Hill. “I just think that was so significant.”
Hill then pondered and put into words the best she could, of what the family had to experience throughout that rough stretch.
“It was a lot to deal with,” says Hill. “Losing Mitchell, then a house fire and having to deal with the business side of it, the grief, moving into a new house and just the children handling losing their father at such a young age was difficult.”
“It’s kind of been like hard times,” says Kaitlyn. “I haven’t cried as much this year as I did last year but sometimes it just comes out and I think about him but I know he’s watching over us and that he is proud of me being a silver hawk.”
(Note: Silver hawk is an honor received at Hollis Hand Elementary School in LaGrange — where Kaitlyn attends –for positive behavior and demonstrating good character.)
“It started out rough and it got more hard because I was trying not to tell anybody and hold it all in to myself,” says Avery. “It affected me a lot in school and I couldn’t go anywhere without thinking about him. It hasn’t really gotten any easier but what helps me is playing basketball and hanging out with my friends.”
“I hope the kids learn that they have to be strong,” said their aunt Cami. “Things happen in life and you have to try and move forward the best way you can.”
A couple of months after Mitchell passed, Mitchell’s mother, Kay and Cami were all sitting down and they discussed the idea of putting together a scholarship in Mitchell’s name.
“The second time we talked about it in January, we decided that if we want to do this we need to get moving,” says Hill. “We went to a bank and opened up an account. We applied for a 501c-3 status and we got approved as a charitable organization.”
A section 501c-3 is a portion of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that allows for federal tax exemption of non-profit organizations, specifically for those that are considered public charities, private foundations or private operating foundations. It is regulated and directed by the U.S. Department of Treasury through the IRS.
Titled “The Mitchell Hill Memorial Scholarship Fund” the newly-developed scholarship will be largely depended on fundraisers, donor contributions and donations. They all can be mailed directly to the BB&T Bank located at 310 Broad St. in LaGrange.
“The scholarship can help turn tragedy into something important,” Hill says. “He had a way of bringing people together but he had a way of bringing a diverse group of people together. Mitchell could function around a number of different people. The scholarship has brought our family closer together. I think working on this scholarship has helped me in the healing process.”
“Were just doing what he would have done and that’s just giving back to the kids and the community,” says Cami.
This will be the first year Hill and Cami will hand the scholarship out and there goal is to give a scholarship to one student at each high school (LaGrange High, Troup High, Callaway High) in Troup County. Hill has said that they have already partnered with each high school and have raised enough money to hand out one scholarship to a student at all three schools.
After Hill finished explaining how the scholarship came to fruition, she then dived into the criteria that students must meet in order to become a viable candidate in the eyes of selection committee members.
“Mitchell’s motto and vision for the Wolverines Basketball Program was ‘Better Man, Better Student, Better Player,’” says Hill. “The candidate we want to give it to will demonstrate good academics, community service, leadership and athletic components. The scholarship will be awarded to an athlete who is a graduating senior in Troup County and has been accepted to a college or university.”
When evaluating the qualifications for the scholarship, student-athletes must submit an completed application (shows evidence of being involved in community work, scholarly academics and sports participation/honors), GPA (must have a grade point grade average between 2.5 and 4.0), recommendation letters (letter from a teacher and a coach nominating you) and an essay (articulates yourself in a manner that allows the selection committee to learn more about the scholarship candidate and provides some insight into who the candidate is beyond athletics).
“The student has to have played sports — any sport — in high school but doesn’t have to be going to college to play sports,” says Hill. “Were asking for two athletes at each school to be nominated, so that will give us six student-athletes to choose from. The scholarship will be for the amount of $1,000 and will be intended for things like laptops, groceries, a refrigerator and just things students need to settle down in a dorm room or apartment.”
Applications for the scholarship were due on April 28 and towards the end of May (near the end of the academic school year), the committee members will make their final decisions and the recipient will be notified.
All in all, Mitchell Hill’s life will always be defined by the word: impact.
Impact in the LaGrange community. Impact on youths. Impact on people of all walks of life. Impact on the foundation and success of the Wolverines Basketball Program he built. Most importantly, the impact he had on his lovely family.
“He had courage and he built up the Wolverines Basketball team and taught them about courage,” says Kaitlyn. “He showed me how to be tough and brave and have faith in the people I care about and love.”
“My dad was a good person,” says Avery. “He’s always trying to make sure you do good in school. If you were going through something tough, he could help you out with it. He helped me to do good in school and to become a man.”
“This is a project that I want to live on year after year,” says Hill. “I don’t want it to be a one-time thing. I want it to grow and this is really something that will allow Mitchell’s legacy to live on and the things that he stood for because he impacted so many people in the community, especially at the rec center. It’s just a different feeling when you walk in now.”
Something tells me, the word impact being attached to Mitchell’s name, would work just fine by him.