From impersonating Dr. J to coaching D-III, Steve Mix enjoying basketball

From impersonating Dr. J to coaching D-III, Steve Mix enjoying basketball
March 3, 2013, 12:00 pm
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The night of March 29, 1982, the Sixers were in Milwaukee for a game the following night against the Bucks. Julius Erving and his longtime road roommate, Steve Mix, settled in their hotel room to watch the NCAA championship game between North Carolina and Georgetown, a game ultimately decided on a jumper by a Tar Heels freshman named Michael Jordan. They were joined by George Shirk, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s beat writer.

Before tipoff, Erving had a craving for hot-fudge sundaes, and called room service.

The game began. No sundaes.

Halftime arrived. Still nothing.

Erving rose to use the restroom. Mix, always of a mischievous bent, dialed room service himself. And in his best Erving voice he wondered just who in creation these people thought they were, taking forever and a day to bring Dr. J his hot-fudge sundae.

No sooner did Erving emerge from the restroom than the sundaes arrived.

“He doesn’t have to know about this,” Mix whispered to Shirk.

“I used to do that a lot,” Mix recalled. “I think sometimes he kept me as a roommate so that I could answer the phone. He would get calls all the time, from various people. I would use that, ‘Hello, this is Julius Erving.’”

These days Mix finds himself playing a new role – that of women’s basketball coach at Division III Trine University, in Angola, Ind. He led the Thunder to a 14-12 record in his first season on the job, which ended last week. It is the first time Trine has finished above .500 since it went 18-13 in 2002-03, its last season in the NAIA ranks.

“This has been fun,” he said a few days before his team closed out its season with a loss to Calvin in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament. “The kids have been extremely enjoyable. They work hard, and they do everything I ask of them.”

He asked a lot of them at the defensive end of the court, since the Thunder was, he said, “offensively challenged.” And during games it was more a demand than a request. He was “very, very intense” then, said senior forward Sydney Spragg, a captain and the team’s leading scorer. Also “quite animated,” she added.

“Sometimes it was fun to deal with, and sometimes it wasn’t,” she said. “He made sure to tell you when you did good. He was on you when you messed up.”

And yes, there were times he trotted out stories of his days as a Sixers forward, usually during practice. He would talk to his players about the way in which he would try to challenge guys like Erving every day, and how that would bring the best out in both of them.

Everybody seemed to grasp that, and tried to put their best foot forward. And on Senior Night, he hugged Spragg and the other two seniors, and thanked them for all they had done.

“That,” Spragg said, “was definitely the best part of the season to me – him saying thank you for playing for me.”

In an inadvertent bit of symbolism, one player’s sister also produced a bubblegum card from Mix’s playing days that night, and asked him to sign it.
Same guy, different guise.

The position at Trine was not one the 65-year-old Mix actively sought, but he was recommended by the parent of a girl he had coached in AAU ball, back in his hometown of Toledo. School officials reached out to Mix last spring, and he visited the campus in Angola – a rural town of some 8,600 souls, in the northeast corner of Indiana – for a sit-down with the university president.

Mix was concerned as to whether the school was truly interested in winning – “because,” he said, “there’s a lot of times the ADs, with women’s sports anyway, where it’s just a matter of filling a spot.” He received assurances that the administration was all in, which is all he needed to hear.

During the subsequent interview process, he met with Spragg and 10 other returning players. She said his background in pro hoops was “definitely intriguing” to all of them.

“Then again,” she said, “the NBA’s different than D-3 girls’ basketball.”

“Coaching’s coaching,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding out what the players can do and can’t do, and then putting in a system based on their strengths and not their weaknesses. I was able to do that.”

He told the players that he would want them to be in shape before the season began. That he would want them to practice and play fast. That he would hope to press and run. And for the most part, Spragg said, he stuck to his plan.

After a 13-year NBA career, he spent 22 years as a part- or full-time color analyst on the Sixers’ telecasts, then five years doing games in the Mid-American Conference. Sprinkled in were various coaching stints: 20 years of AAU girls’ ball … five years as an assistant with the Canadian men’s national team … four with his son’s high school team in summer ball.

He also ran his own basketball academy and worked with the Sixers’ big men one summer when former teammate Maurice Cheeks was the coach. He interviewed for a post on Doug Collins’ staff three years ago and yearns to get back with the Sixers in some capacity, believing that their bigs can always use more polish.

His attachment to the franchise runs deep. Drafted out of the University of Toledo by Detroit in 1969, he spent two-plus years with the Pistons before going to camp in 1972 with the Sixers, only to be cut – cut by a team destined to fashion the worst 82-game record in NBA history (9-73). He has often said it was the best thing that ever happened to him, in that it allowed him to return to his hometown and work out that year with fellow Toledo native Howard Komives, whose 10-year pro career was winding down.

Always a rugged rebounder and low-post defender, Mix knew he needed to hone his outside touch, and he did so, in long, sweaty sessions with Komives. He made time for those while working at a wine and beer distributorship at night.

And on weekends, he and his wife would drive to Grand Rapids, Mich., so that he could play for a team called the Pickers of the Continental League. There were times, he said, when the team traveled by camper to road games – meaning 10 guys were crammed into one vehicle, driven by the coach. And the pay was paltry – $105 for a win, $85 for a loss.

But he tore it up in that league, and his team won the title. And the next year, he made the Sixers. The year after that – 1974-75 – he made his one and only All-Star team. He became so proficient at knocking down jumpers from the right baseline that broadcaster Bill Campbell took to calling that area of the court “Mixville.”

“Then Doc came (in 1976),” Mix said with a laugh, “and I was relegated to the bench. I was a little upset with Doc. I thought he should be playing behind me.”

He remained with the Sixers until 1982, playing in three Finals. He was also part of a Lakers team that lost to the Sixers in the ’83 Finals, having been signed away from Milwaukee late in the season after James Worthy broke a leg.

In other words, the Sixers celebrated a championship his last night in uniform – May 31, 1983 – but he happened to be wearing the wrong one.

“I think I got the most out of my ability I could,” he said. “There was nothing left in the tank when I retired.”

There was plenty of time for other guises, though. Plenty of time to fill roles even he might not have envisioned.

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