Back in the summer of ‘89 I was still riding high after helping my high school team capture the California State Division II basketball title, but having decided to attend the University of Arizona, the writing was on the wall that my playing days were coming to an end. That didn’t diminish the fact that my love for the game was still at a feverish pitch so when I got a call from my friend Rose to get my tail over to Kelly Park, aka The Onetta Harris Community Center in East Menlo Park, to witness the freakiest leaper he’d ever seen I immediately dropped what I was doing and sped off in my ‘63 Chevy Biscayne with either The Scorpions, Grateful Dead or Too Short in the tape deck. Yes I was musically confused.
Menlo Park is generally regarded as one of the nicer upscale neighborhoods in the Bay Area but back in the late 80’s the East side of Highway 101 was a rough area with gangs, drugs and crime a part of daily life on the streets. Traveling over to the gym nestled in the middle of this precarious zone as a teenage white male always felt like an adventure that heightened the senses and got the adrenaline flowing.
There was a buzz in the air as I strode into the gym and after taking my seat it didn’t take long to find out why. In the pregame layup line I suddenly witnessed a man jump off vert, kiss the backboard with his lips, twist to look at the crowd and throw down a reverse dunk that shook the glass. I remember making eye contact with a high school teammate a few rows down and bursting into uncontrollable laughter. My aforementioned friend Rose was on the court as a teammate to this magician and gave me the knowing nod and wink that says, “I told you so!”
The magician I’m referring to was Oakland hoop playground legend Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell. Roughly 6’ tall and built more like a running back, Hook’s vertical leap was however high he needed to go to dunk on somebody or win a contest. That night as the college league tipped off, I saw stuff that I had only dreamed about. Keep in mind that he wasn’t playing with a group of scrubs. These were D1 players from around the Bay Area, including future NBA power forward Antonio Davis and a high school guard named Jason Kidd.
A few plays into the game a shot bounced off the back iron and Hook exploded from the dotted line and jumped over all the bigs vying for the board and threw down a monster jam that had both grownups and kids alike running for the exit doors. The game was basically stopped for a few seconds while the celebration ensued. To describe the dunk, try to envision the guys that entertain at NBA games by jumping off trampolines and you get the picture. I swear he was almost laid out parallel to the court over the heads of 6’8’’ guys when he grabbed the ball and dunked it.
He later stole a pass at halfcourt and slowed down to wait for somebody to challenge him. Santa Clara’s Jeffty Connelly sprinted back to contest and Hook posterized him like Shawn Kemp over Alton Lister. Again the audience broke into a wild dance party. I think I skipped the dancing and went straight into a gator on the bleacher bench.
After the game Hook piled into a caravan of lowered mini vans and rolled out of there with enough bass to break windows. The locals outside of the gym gave him a send off by raising their 40oz malt liquors and doing doughnuts on their street bikes and 1980 Mercury Cougars. It was pure pandemonium and a joy to witness.
For the game the following week I recruited two friends to tag along after rambling incessantly about the insanity that took place and we arrived 30 minutes early to catch all of warm ups. With 5 minutes to go there was still no sign of Hook and the capacity gym was growing restless. I felt like we were throwing a party and the guest of honor was refusing to show. The entire half went by and still no Hook. I think even the players on the floor felt let down.
But as the halftime clock was winding down suddenly you could feel the vibration of exploding 808 bass in the distance and much to our delight, it was the caravan of mini trucks transporting Hook to the gym. I was so excited for my friends to see the man in person that I could hardly contain myself. Unfortunately, “Our Hook” looked like he may have had a little too much reefer and did a couple of layups in street clothes without jumping and then looked around like he didn’t even have a clue which team he was running with. But you don’t get called the greatest player in Oakland playground history for nothing so after shedding his baggy pants and slapping on a jersey, Hook made a couple of drives to the hole that got his juices flowing.
Somewhere around the 10 minute mark in the second half a lefty guard launched an attempted alley oop from half court that looked to be sailing over the backboard. Suddenly exploding down the baseline like a tiger on the verge of a kill, Hook went up to the top right corner of the glass, caught the ball, and dunked it with such force that he shattered the backboard. The court was instantly rushed by all in attendance. In fact, one guy was so quick to get on the floor that he was cut by the flying debris. Hook was lying on the floor in a shower of glass as we surrounded him and the first words that came out of his mouth were, “I ain’t paying for none of that shit!!” He then proceeded to go into the bathroom and climb out the back window to get back to his caravan. The rest of us all floated around replaying the dunk a hundred times. It was like a crime scene and we were all witnesses recounting what we saw. Eye witness accounts varied and The Dunk was already growing by mythic proportions. We were so caught up in the moment that we failed to notice the mini vans headed off to the next gig.
People often ask why wasn’t Hook able to play in the NBA and my take was he was severely mentally ill. He had all the physical tools to play with the best but his substance abuse issues and horrid upbringing had left him with no chance to ever be able to follow instructions or play in a structured setting. My friend Rose once played against Hook while he was “attending” Cal-State Hayward and told me that Hook joined his team during a timeout huddle to steal their plays. Could you imagine pulling that stunt in a pro game? His career would have lasted mere minutes before becoming another Chris Washburn. Sadly Hook was destined to spend his prime locked away behind bars but the story does have a happy ending. In 2004 a documentary titled “Hooked” brought this story back to the fore and all of the Oakland greats paid homage to the man’s legendary skills. And more importantly, Hook had found a purpose in life by helping other at risk youth back in his community.