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Catching up with...Mitch Henderson.

Mitch Henderson was co-captain of the 1997-98 Princeton Tigers. He finished his career at Princeton in the Tiger top ten for career three-point field goals made and in the top five for career assists and steals. During his senior year Princeton set team records for wins [27], longest winning streak [20 games], fewest losses [2] and highest winning percentage in a season [.931]. Mitch took the time to field some of your questions about his time at Princeton and his first year away from the team. Here are his responses.

This interview originally ran in July 1999.

What have you been doing in the year since your graduation?

Since graduation, I have been all over the map. I went to the pre-draft camp in Chicago with Steve Goodrich in early June. I had workouts for two days with the Sacramento Kings-run mostly by Coach Carrll-and then I attended the Atlanta Hawks mini-camp the last week in June. When the lockout started on July 1st, I was lost. Fast forward to late September. . .I took an offer to play in Ireland for a few months knowing that I would return to the States when the lockout ended. In January when the dust settled, I played in one game in the CBA before being invited to the Hawks training camp for five days. I've been in limbo since then-playing as much as I can and getting ready for a good summer of playing basketball. That's it in a nutshell.

What was/is the life of a NBA "free agent" like?

I have not been in a position to call myself a legitimate "free agent" although that's certainly what I am at this moment in time. The closest I came to feeling like a free agent was when I was with Atlanta and I signed a contract for the league minimum. So, in my mind, being a free agent in the NBA doesn't mean anything unless you are Scottie Pippen and you can change a team's chemistry. I didn't feel that way in Atlanta-I was just excited to get a crack for a few days.

How was your experience in the Atlanta Hawks camp?

The Hawks camp was exhausting. Although the sessions in the morning and evening rarely went past two hours each-they were very intense. I was frustrated at first when Mookie Blaylock was zooming by me and disrupting everything I was trying to do. But, I had to keep telling myself that he was an All-Star guard and I should just relax and play my game. I thought the camp went well and I was disapointed when I was released. The Hawks had some similar cuts in their offense that we use at Princeton-so I felt like I picked it up quickly and I was confident in my ability to keep things moving and to not miss too much of a beat when Mookie took a breater.

You worked out in Sacramento and spent time guarding Jason Williams. How did that task go? How was it seeing Coach Carril out there?

I did spend some time guarding Jason Williams in Sacramento and I didn't fare any better than anyone else did this year. He's extremely athletic and confident and it makes for a potent mix. It was nice to have Coach Carril there at the workouts. We ran some drills that he used at Princeton and my understanding of the drills helped to calm me down. Larry Hughes was there as well-but I think he wasn't too excited to be in Sacramento and he let me get a few easy lay-ups on him (courtesy of some nice backdoor passes from Carril). I was surprised to see how many guys took it easy during the workouts if they didn't feel like playing in that particular city.

You played one game in the CBA last season. Why did you not return to that league? Any chance we will see you playing in Europe or back in the CBA/USBL/IBL? Do you still aspire to play basketball on a professional level?

As I mentioned before, I was invited to the Hawks camp after my brief stint with the CBA team. When I was released by the Hawks, the Idaho Stampede(CBA) decided to release me as well. Both in the same day! As for my plans for the future, I'm not sure. But I am going to continue to play through this summer and hopefully get invited to another NBA camp or attend a CBA camp. I still love to play and I will continue playing as long as it is still fun.

What are some of your memories of playing at Princeton?

That's a very tough question. Basketball took up such a big part of my Princeton experience. I would have a hard time picking out something that defined the entire experience. We had several great wins, and that is certainly what I remember most about playing. But, my memories that I think about most are what we tried to do as a team and as players. Everyone was trying to play to their fullest potential without excuses. It may sound cheesy, but it is what defined me most as a player and I use the same thinking in what I do today in my life.

What do you miss most about your time at Princeton, either on or off the court? Do you keep in touch with the players and the coaching staff?

I miss being around the guys on the team the most. I think that is natural. I must say that I have kept in good contact with everyone that I played with at Princeton and the guys on the team are without a doubt my best friends. We had a nice chemistry together at Princeton and I feel like everyone has moved along and we still have a good bond. I do keep in touch with the coaches. They have been very supportive in my efforts to play professional basketball.

Playing for Coach Carril and then playing for Coach Carmody, how was the transition between the two, and what were some differences between the two coaches?

The transition between the two coaches was perfect. That should tell you everything. Coach Carril was very demanding of his players and in turn you became demanding of yourself as a person and as a player. I discovered fountains of energy inside of me that I never knew I had when I came to Princeton. Carril taught us all to play smart and to play harder than anyone else. At the same time, he wasn't about defensive slides and screaming bloody murder at us to run sprints harder-like a lot of coaches would. He respected the simplicity of the game and how easy it was to score when you made 3's, made lay-ups, stayed in front of your man, and got your hands on passes. It was simple stuff but very effective when it was carried out. He taught me to never sell myself short on any of those parts of the game-or any other part of the game. And in turn, I became a better player than I ever thought I would be. Having said that about Carril, I would say the same thing about Carmody. The transition was smooth for us because we knew that Coach Carmody expected the same thing out of us that Carril did. There was a little less tension during practice and I think everyone developed a little more confidence because of it. I felt like we all got much better as players under Carmody.

What made you decide to come to Princeton?

I visited Princeton late in the Spring of my senior year. When I walked into Coach's office he told me that I had a questionable outside shot and he wasn't sure if I could dribble with my left hand. This was so different than anything else that I heard from other coaches. I was sold.

How long did it take before you felt you mastered the Princeton offense well enough to run it without thinking about it? Was there a moment when a light went on or did it come like most things, gradually? What is the key piece of advice you would give El Nokali to help him with that task next year?

Mastering is a term that I associate with a Jedi Knight. I never felt like I mastered the offense because there is so much one can do within the system. But, I knew the offense in my sleep by the end of my sophomore year. From then on it was just a matter of knowing when to use what plays. Before that point, it was a constant struggle to learn the offense and to develop my own ways to score within the offense without fouling up everything and better yet, everyone. It was a very gradual process. Ahmed is going to be a very good player here. With Brian gone, a lot of the ballhandling duties will be his. He'll be fine. He's extremely capable and he will surprise many people next year at how capable he is.

I read where you were scheduled to work this past year with Eugene Baah. How would you assess his strengths and weaknesses in the various phases of his game? Do you see him as a starter or a sixth man?

For incoming freshmen and sophomores, where would you recommend placing most of their off-season emphasis - individual workouts or pick-up games and summer league?

I haven't really worked with Eugene but we've played together a few times. He has tons of potential. I know Sydney doesn't like the term potential-but what the hell. Eugene has all the tools, and he can really defend, which I think can't be taught. He will have to compete for a spot as a starter next year just like everyone else. I really couldn't say where he stood on the team. As far as working out in the off-season, I think a lot of the guys do a pretty good job of lifting and playing in summer leagues. There was one summer when a few of us stayed around campus to work out together-but that is tough to do. Everyone says players are made in the summers.

Do you feel high proficiency in another sport, such as your case - as a baseball shortstop - or others as soccer players - can manifest itself in providing a range of skills not normally seen on the court, particularly on the defensive end?

Many of the guys on the team were proficient at other sports and yes, I do think that it works to your advantage. I don't think baseball comes into play much-besides the strong hand-eye coordination skills. As I said before, I think that playing defense is an innate skill that is very tough to teach. Tapping old resources such as knowledge of baseball or football might help you stay in front of your man-I just don't know. I think its just a matter of effort and quickness.

Princeton seemingly paid the price in the second half of the Xavier NIT game of going with "a few good men," playing Lewullis and Earl 40 minutes a night, almost back-to-back on the road, against opponents that were constantly substituting. Any thoughts on getting more of the bench guys key minutes during the year in preparation so that the top players don't run out of gas down the stretch?

Any college basketball player can play 40 minutes a game. I have always had trouble understanding the issue here with players supposedly getting tired playing the entire game. With TV timeouts, and referee timeouts there is plenty of time to rest. I have never seen a team that looks fatigued on the court. Now, that's one side of the story. It would be nice to see everyone play 25 minutes and see action from 10 different players in one game. This is a tough topic to discuss as I'm sure you know. At what point do you sub in for an Earl or a Lewullis in a game like the Xavier game to give someone minutes who will be there for three more years? Don't you always want to play to win? Shouldn't the best team always be on the floor? I don't know how to tackle this issue without sticking my foot in my mouth.

I always thought you had the ability to make a real contribution to a team like the Utah Jazz. If you are focusing on playing pro basketball, what aspects of your game are you developing and how are you going about it?

Believe it or not, I've been working on my jump shot. 8^) I know that you have to be an expert dribller to play in the NBA and you have to be able to hit an open shot when it comes your way. I feel confident about my knowledge of the game and my physical skills. So, I've been working on my weaknesses.

After the last 3 seasons, and after a few eyebrow rasing recruiting classes, the question has come up - Can Princeton, with Ivy League admission standards and no scholarships, establish itself as a perennial top 20 team, or should Princeton fans be content with winning the Ivy every couple of years and an NCAA tournament win every 5 years, or is it possible to do more? Will we ever see a Princeton team in the Final 4?

I am a bit biased, but I do think that Princeton could win the League every year and yes, I do think there is a possibility for a Final Four appearance. Realistically, this is going to be very tough. I don't think the admissions standards play as much a part in this as one would think. The lack of scholarships will always be something to deal with in the Ivy League-its what sets the league apart. But I feel like the talent that Princeton brings in every year is equivalent to the rest of the nation, regardless of scholarships. The real key, however, is not the talent level but the cohesiveness that develops among the team. When I was a junior, I felt like we were just hitting our stride as a team when the NCAA tournament came around. Although we lost a tough game to Cal, we were very confident as a group because we had played together for two years. Senior year was just as good if not better-we just had more experience than the teams we played against. I saw the same thing with the Penn team that won 3 championships in a row with with Matt Malloney and Jerome Allen and its possible that you will see the same thing with last years group of Freshman here at Princeton. It takes some time to learn to work together. I hope that answers your question.

During Coach Carril's last few years at Princeton, he admitted that it was getting more difficult for him to coach in today's environment. During your four years at Princeton, did you sense that this was the case? If so, how did the team react?

I never felt like the team was being difficult for Coach Carril when he was here. In my two years playing for him, much like everyone else, there were some very difficult times. He was a demanding coach as I have mentioned before and as Sydney mentioned in last month's Q&A. He would not except mediocrity from anyone. I think that he was ready to try something new when he decided to retire.

Mitch, it's been over a year now since the loss to Michigan State in the 2nd round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. Have you reflected on it at all? What are your thoughts about that game, the way the game ended, and the way the season ended for PU your senior year? If you could play that game again, what do you think your team could have done differently to perhaps win the game?

I still haven't dealt properly with that loss to Michigan State. We all had high hopes for the tournament and that loss was very disheartening. I have yet to watch that game on tape and I don't think I ever will. They just seemed to know what we were doing the entire game. I suppose hitting some free throws would have been nice if we wanted to win.

I'd like to ask you to discuss the Princeton-Penn rivalry in several respects. First of all, can you share what you think are some of the emotions the players feel about the rivalry? For example, do PU players "hate" Penn players (and do you think Penn players hate PU players)? When Penn plays a big out of conference game (let's say they're playing in the NCAA tournament), do you cheer for them or against them? Before playing Penn, I can tell you from the fan's perspective that there is apprehension if not fear. Do the players feel that way as well? Do you have any specific memories from Penn games that you can share?

When I arrived at Princeton, Penn had just won two championships in a row and they had a certain mystique about them. It wasn't until sophomore year that I felt a real rivalry began between us. But, seeing that either Penn or Princeton has won something like 35 of the last 38 Ivy titles, there is going to be natural tension. Every year the race for the title comes between us or them. I remember feeling a severe hatred for Garret Kreitz, one of the Penn guards, when I was a sophomore. The race was very intense that year for the title. It would be safe to say that we all got extra pumped to play Penn and we tried to have the best week of practice before both Penn games each year. By senior year, I felt like the tables had turned and we just rolled through Penn (at times). The rivalry became a little more friendly in my eyes. The second half of the Penn game my junior year was one of the best experiences we had together. Everything was clicking and the Palestra was silent. I do enjoy rooting for Penn when they are in the tournament. I like to see the Ivy League represented well. But, if they are playing during the regular season against a powerhouse, I don't mind when they get trounced.

Before taking the floor at your last PU homegame, there was quite a tribute given to the seniors. I recall a statement to the effect that the class of '98 had sparked a return of a Princeton basketball dynasty. I'd like your impressions about where PU basketball is today. How competitive do you think PU is in Div. I basketball? Is it your impression that the success of the program in 1998 (top 10 ranking) was a fluke or can PU consistently play top 25 basketball? What do you think it would take for PU to become a perrenial top 25 power in basketball? Do you think Princeton could ever appear again in the Final Four (as it did when Bill Bradley was a senior in 1965)?

The schedule we played when I was a freshman included Syracuse, UMass, and Illinois. We lost all three games by a wide margin and we never really competed in any of them [the Syracuse game did go to overtime -JS]. This last season, Princeton beat Texas, Florida State, UNC-Wilmington, Georgetown and NC State. These were all very solid teams in legitimate conferences. I think that Princeton has come a long way from the near upset at Georgetown in the late 80's and has emerged as a perennial top 25 team. Next year's schedule might be the toughest one in years. The NCAA tournament is one of the toughest events to win in sports. I don't think its impossible to see a Prnceton team in the Final Four in the near future, but it will be very tough. And finally. . .yes, I do think that team we played on in 1998 was a top ten team. I also believe that our success has helped future teams to grow with solid recruiting and a good reputation as a team that can win big games. This may just be my opinion, but I think the days are gone when people look at Princeteon and just think upset. I think this is a top 25 type program.

I asked this question of Sydney Johnson but I'd like your take as well on the difference between Pete Carril as a coach and Bill Carmody. Of course, everybody talks about how they have different styles but I would appreciate any specific thoughts you have on their differences as basketball tacticians. I recall that when Carrill announced his retirement, he admitted that he thought his coaching abilities were slipping a little. I don't mean to put you on the spot too much, but do you agree with that and had you noticed anything in that regard?

I mentioned a little about Coach Carril and Carmody earlier but I didn't talk about their differences as tacticians. I agree with Sydney in that the only difference I see during the games was Coach Carmody's willingness to press. Even against North Carolina my senior year, Coach Carmody wanted to press a strong UNC backcourt. I loved the fact that he showed confindence in us as a pressing team and that he wanted to be the aggressor. The huge Penn uspset this year was caused primarily by a tenacious Princeton press-and some Earl three's. I think that our mentality with Carril was to pack the defense in each time down the floor, stopping any chance of a fast break. I think this is the only difference in their styles as coaches, and its not a big difference. In general, we played the same way under both Coaches. As far as Coach Carril slipping, I didn't think it was an issue. Don't get me wrong, he was very hard to play for and if I thought he was slipping it was because I didn't like hearing what he was saying. It was just me being frustrated. I don't think it was an issue.

Mitch, do you think that different Ivy League b-ball programs have different personalities? In other words, is Princeton known for attracting or developing a certain kind of player as compared to Penn or Dartmouth or Harvard, etc.?? What are some of the stereotypes of the different Ivy programs and what do you think were some of the stereotypes about Princeton from the perspective of other Ivy League b-ball players?

This is a touchy question for me. I don't want to stick my foot in my mouth here either. I will say this; I went to visit Dartmouth as a senior in High School in the fall, before I visited Princeton. I was basically ready to commit after my visit. I enjoyed the school and I felt like the coaches really wanted me there. My parents convinced me to wait and see what happened in the Spring, plus I had some baseball aspirations as well. When Princeton came into the picture, there was no doubt in my mind which program was committed to winning. I realized there was a reason that Princeton had won so many titles. I knew right then that I wanted to contribute to the winning tradition. I do feel like Princeton attracts a certain type of player. Everyone that comes here is hungry to get better and to win. That's my perception. The other programs in the league seem to do things very different from us. I can remember several instances where we would be sitting around before or after a league game and watching Dartmouth or Brown and we all felt very removed from them. I think it is because Coach Carril always wanted us to consider ourselves Div 1 basketball players and not Ivy League players. I don't think it was that we felt superior to anyone else, we just knew we would win every game in the league. That was how we looked at it. We tried to take care of business. I'm not sure if the rest of the teams in the league are able to do that.

Why did you choose basketball over baseball?

I decided to come to Princeton in the Spring of my senior year in High School. At that point, I made up my mind that I wanted to play college basketball. After having a good baseball season and then being drafted by the Yankees in June of that year, I was honored but still very clear about what I would do. I tried to play baseball at Princeton my Freshman year but I found it too difficult to play one sport right after the other. That was just me - Chris Young is the next superman.

Did your Indiana upbringing play a part - or is all that Hoosier stuff a myth?

The Hoosier stuff is no myth. I grew up with nothing else to do but to shoot hoops with the neighborhood kids. There aren't a lot of urban influences in Indiana and sport seems to bring everyone in each town together. It's really something to behold - Ten Thousand fans at a High School basketball game.

Where do you see yourself in relation to sports 10 or 15 years from now?

I keep telling myself that I will just drop the game completely when I'm through with it. I don't think that's realistic. I love to play the game because of the virtues that it brings to me as a person and as a team worker. I think that I will be involved with kids playing basketball as long as I can. I would like to try to teach them what I learned here at Princeton.

I enjoyed answering these questions. I hope that I was able to capture some things about the team and playing at Princeton with my responses. I wanted to give everyone the right impression about something so sacred to my heart. Thanks for being so interested and for supporting the team-it means so much to us.

On a very personal note, I would like to say something about someone who was very close to the team and the program for many years. Anthony Trani, "Red", passed away on June 25th here in Princeton. He was our most devoted fan. Several players worked for Red in the summers as an assistant to his Masonry work. I helped him out one summer and it was a blast and I'll never forget it. He was a huge fan of Tiger Basketball. But better yet, he was a great friend to all of us, a best friend. He'll be missed.

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