WATERVILLE — Damien Strahorn arrived at Colby College as a transfer student from Foothill College in California in fall 2000. His new Colby men’s basketball teammates and coaches welcomed Strahorn with open arms, particularly assistant coach John “Swisher” Mitchell.

“Swish was one of those guys, you feel and sense his presence as soon as you see him,” said Strahorn, Colby’s head men’s basketball coach for the last seven seasons. “And it was really neat to see how the guys responded to him. As we got started in the season, his presence over on the score table, and his smile, his laughter, just the way he connected with every single person, was truly special.”

A Waterville icon, Mitchell died Wednesday morning. He was 91. Known first as the point guard on the Waterville Senior High School basketball team that won the 1944 New England high school championship, Mitchell played college basketball at the University of Rhode Island, where he was an all-Yankee Conference selection. A member of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, Mitchell was a Colby assistant basketball coach under Dick Whitmore for 44 years, until his retirement in 2011.

“Who could even count the number of hours he spent in the gym watching practice through the decades?” Strahorn said.

On Thursday, Colby men’s basketball alumni remembered their former coach fondly.

“He’s one of the greatest players in Maine history,” said Cony boys basketball coach TJ Maines, who played at Colby in the early 1990s.

Added Strahorn: “It’s incredible to hear of who he was as a player. Back in 2000, he was starting to maybe slow down a little bit and wasn’t quite on the court as much as he was in the previous decade. There would still be moments where all of a sudden, he would spring back into action, and he’d be out there.”

Maines was a grade school student attending the Pine Tree Basketball Camp at Colby when he got to know Mitchell. It wasn’t long before Maines and Mitchell became close. Mitchell was a basketball coach who focused on the fundamentals, Maines said.

“He was a point guard. I was a point guard. Before I went in (to the game), he always said ‘Don’t turn the ball over.’ Turnovers drove him crazy,” Maines said. “If you reached on defense, he was going to scream at you.”

While Whitmore looked at the big picture, Mitchell was good at helping players see the little things, and often helped players make small adjustments during a game.

“He could point out different things you could do in a specific play. He could offer those insights,” said Matt Gaudet, a Rumford native who also played point guard for the Mules in the early 1990s. “When Coach Whitmore would make a substitution, a seat would open next to Swisher on the bench, and you’d get that one-on-one coaching.”

When Mitchell wanted to make an important point, he would gently grab your arm and look you in the eye.

“Once I was done playing and began coaching with him, you really got to see the depth with how he interacted with all the guys on the team. He was able to take his observations and really quickly give someone one or two things that were just fantastic insights,” said Strahorn, who served alongside Mitchell as a Colby assistant coach for four years. “You would see the alumni come back, and how excited they were to reconnect with him. I think he had a zinger for every single guy. He could just zap them… It’s one of the reasons why I want to coach, to try and have anything close to the impact on the players that come through here. He was truly a special man.”

Throughout Wednesday and Thursday, former Colby basketball players traded Swisher stories via text messages and Facebook posts, Gaudet said. Maines recalled how excited Mitchell was when the Mules went to Williams College and upset the Ephs for the ECAC championship in 1993. A snowstorm forced the team to spend the night in a hotel. There, Mitchell urged the players to call the pub in town where Williams students were known to hang out and ask how the victory party was going. Mitchell had that mischievous spark, right to the end of his life, Maines said. Maines and Colby basketball alum Chad Higgins visited Mitchell last week.

“I saw him a week ago, and he recognized me right away. He looked at me and said ‘TJ, I could still beat you in a 100-yard dash,'” Maines said.

When Whitmore retired in 2011, Mitchell retired, too, but was still around the Colby men’s basketball program. Mitchell attended most home games, sitting right behind the Mules bench, Strahorn said.

“Even though he wasn’t officially on staff, he was still so invested in our team and our players and wanted them to be successful,” Strahorn said.

There were seven players in Strahorn’s first recruiting class, the class of 2016. Of the seven, Michael Loginoff waited the longest to get his turn for more playing time. Toward the end of Loginoff’s senior year, Mitchell called Strahorn and asked him to bring Loginoff to his house for a visit. It was a request Strahorn was happy to oblige.

“We spent 45 minutes just connecting with Swish,” Strahorn said.

Maines said Mitchell’s way with players is something he tries hard to emulate in his own coaching style.

“That idea of having that personal connection with kids, he personified that. I try to do that with my guys,” Maines said. “We’d go into practice, and he’d know you’d had a test and wanted to know how you did.”

In April last year, dozens of Colby alumni gathered on campus to celebrate Mitchell’s 90th birthday and to honor their coach with the John “Swisher” Mitchell Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball, the first endowed assistant coaching position in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. In five weeks, close to $1 million was raised for the endowment. Mitchell will be missed by the Colby community, Gaudet said.

“Even when your first met him, it felt like you’d known him forever,” Gaudet said. “He always made you feel like part of his family.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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