Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mitch Henderson, Nice To Meet You

John Mack, the 10-time Heptagonal track champion from Princeton who is now an associate athletic director at Northwestern, told TigerBlog something yesterday that he didn't previously know about Princeton's new head men's basketball coach.

Mitch Henderson, it turns out, is a squash player. According to Mack, he's a pretty good one at that.

TB doesn't doubt it, not with the athleticism that Henderson was given at birth. And, as Henderson stood in TB's office yesterday, TB couldn't help but notice that Henderson is taller than TB remembers, which probably translates into good court coverage and would make it difficult to lob over him.

As squash is now TB's preferred method of exercise, he assumes he will get to see Henderson's game up close at some point in the not-so-distant future.

Still, TB never really thought about wanting to play squash like Henderson.

He did, in all the years he played lunchtime basketball, want to pass like Henderson.

For all of the great passers Princeton basketball has had since TB has been here, nobody other than Nate Walton compares to Henderson.

Henderson was an amazing passer, back when he the Tiger point guard on the Ivy League championship teams of 1996, 1997 and 1998.

TB wrote in a game program story about Henderson was he was a senior, and the story began with the time that then-head coach Bill Carmody dragged TB up to his office to show him the tape of a pass that Henderson had thrown the weekend before.

"That pass would be even more special if there weren't literally 100 others like it," TB wrote. "Henderson has 101 assists on the season, and a whole bunch of those have brought out the 'wow' in anyone who saw them. They have been lefthanded, righthanded. Bounce passes. Chest passes. One-handed. Two-handed. And they all have common denominators: They have very little margin for error, and they almost always end up where they're supposed to go."

TB would throw one-handed passes off the dribble as soon as he saw someone cut, just like he would see each weekend from Henderson, only they would hardly ever end up going where they were supposed to go. Ultimately, John Thompson III would tell him to knock it off and stop throwing the ball away.

In Henderson's case, that wasn't an issue.

TB's biggest memory of Henderson as a Princeton player is his ability to pass. Well, plus his toughness. And his natural warmth, which was summed up yesterday to TB by someone who called him "Midwestern."

The Mitch Henderson who walked in here yesterday was like a kid who woke up on a white Midwestern Christmas morning and found the present he'd always dreamed of under the tree, and he could hardly contain his excitement.

He shook hands, introducing himself to people who've worked here for years and yet never saw him as a player. He asked each what they did, where they went to school, what their background was. He found something they had in common and suggested that they'd pursue it together.

He could have been running for office, except that it came across as so genuine, so honest, so free of any pretense. As first impressions went for those just meeting him, he couldn't have done any better.

TigerBlog has been around a lot of teams at Princeton in a lot of different sports.

There's nothing that can touch what happened between 1996 and 1998, when the men's basketball team defeated UCLA in Carril's last year and then went 51-6 in Bill Carmody's first two years while rising into the Top 10 nationally and when the men's lacrosse team won three straight NCAA titles.

Both teams had great groups of players, and TB was lucky to be around them, to see some of the greatest athletes and people Princeton University has ever produced as they competed, as they prepared to compete and as they were just being themselves.

If TB is correct, he's spoken to Henderson fewer than five times in the 13 years since he graduated. Still, he'd watch Northwestern basketball games on television to root for Carmody and Henderson, and he couldn't help but smile when he saw Henderson on the Wildcat bench.

Why? Because if you can't root for Mitch Henderson, there's something wrong with you.

Every time TB would see him on TV, he'd remember all the times he'd see him in a hotel or after practice or before a game or walking around campus and how every single time, Henderson would say "hi, how are you" in that rarest way that made you realize he actually cared what the response was.

But that's not his only side.

TB also remembers practice two days before the 1996 Ivy League playoff game between Princeton and Penn, when Pete Carril implored his team to push back if Penn tried to push the Tigers around. To that point, Princeton had lost eight straight to the Quakers.

Early in the game, Henderson literally did push back, shoving Garrett Kreitz of Penn after Kreitz shoved him after a scramble for the ball. TB can't remember if Henderson got a technical foul, and he lent the book that has the box score in it to Sean Gregory for his great story on the Princeton-UCLA game from Time last month.

Still, it was the symbolic play that Princeton needed, the one that said "hey, we're here, and we're not going away easily."

Henderson was that kind of player. He made all the plays that needed to be made. And he was so tough, played so hard, all the time.

Eventually, what most people remember Henderson for is The Picture, the one where he has his arms extended after the UCLA game, with a dejected Toby Bailey and an elated Sydney Johnson in the background.

TB loves to watch the end of the UCLA game and see the exact moment that the picture was taken, and Gregory's story includes an anecdote about how the photographer thought he'd captured it but wasn't completely sure until he saw the negatives.

Henderson said yesterday that he loves the picture and never gets tired of it but that Princeton is hiring the coach, not the player.

After spending time with the new coach yesterday and today, TB realizes that those two people are pretty much the same.

Back then, he made you root for him because of who he was and how he carried himself.

Starting now, he'll do the same as Princeton's head men's basketball coach.

1 comment:

HuddleClub said...

I met Mitch, and his family, in the hotel after the UCLA game. The hotel was so far away from the Hoosier Dome that the press wasn't there. It was the coaches, the staff, the players, and the families. I remember how proud all the parents were of their kids, and how all the Princeton folks had a "we knew we could do it, but nobody else believed us" reaction. If I recall correctly, Mitch's dad died unexpectedly within a few months after that game. How proud he was then. How proud he must be now.

Mitch, may you have as much success as Sydney against the admissions standards-challenged team from Cambridge. Go