Hoop life across the pond

Former Gael Simon Mitchell plies his trade in English basketball

Former Gaels’ guard Simon Mitchell (41) now plays professionally for the Kent Crusaders in the second division of English basketball.
Former Gaels’ guard Simon Mitchell (41) now plays professionally for the Kent Crusaders in the second division of English basketball.
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Despite playing for smaller crowds than he’s used to and a smaller paycheque than he’d like, Simon Mitchell’s year playing professional basketball has exceeded his expectations. The former Queen’s basketball guard is playing his trade with the Kent Crusaders in England’s second division.

“[Crusaders chairman and director of basketball Jesse Sazant] was telling me it’s a step down from CIS basketball and it would be a culture shock because it’s not as big of a sport as it is in Canada or the States, but it’s actually pretty good,” Mitchell said. “I would say it’s similar to not top CIS teams, but the mid CIS teams. The competition has been good so far.”

It hasn’t been an easy path to this point for Mitchell. He was set to graduate from Queen’s with a commerce degree in 2007 and take Sazant up on an offer to play professionally, but wound up having to spend an extra year at the CIS level to fulfill work permit requirements.

“[Sazant] e-mailed all the university basketball coaches two years ago saying he’s a coach over here and if any players from Canada want to get to Europe and play ball, he’d be able to help,” Mitchell said. “So I e-mailed him and I found out if I wanted to play in England I’d need four years of university basketball and at that time I’d only played three years. I asked him if there’s any way around it, if I can prove that I’m able to play, and he’s like, ‘No, it’s actually an immigration requirement.’ So I went back to Queen’s for a year, just to play ball really, and kept in touch with him over that year. In May 2008, I sent him game tapes and my basketball resume and he was going to send them around to help me out. In July, he offered me a contract with his team and I just took it.”

Mitchell said playing professionally is quite different from the years he spent at Queen’s.

“There’s more of the business aspect to it where you are getting paid and there’s different expectations,” he said. “It is a bit different from where you’re just playing on your own and practicing in your spare time. Here, there’s more expectations about contributing and producing within games. It is different from that business aspect; you treat it like a job.”

Mitchell’s more than just a player for the Crusaders. He also works as a coach at their high school basketball academy, which he said has been a great experience.

“Right now, I’m coaching high-school kids, basically 16- and 17-year olds five times a week for an hour and a bit,” he said. “It’s all just skill development. It’s been good. You notice a significant improvement over eight months and that’s been pretty rewarding.”

Mitchell’s spreading his love of basketball to younger kids as well.

“I coach at primary schools where it’s anywhere from five years old to 12, 13, 14 years old,” he said. “That’s just mostly introducing the sport to them and giving them basic skills, running little games. That’s been fun too, for the most part.”

Mitchell has been working hard off the court as well. He’s taking courses to become a chartered financial analyst, and will finish those in June. He said his long-term goal is to work in the financial world.

“I’d like to wind up somewhere in the finance industry, probably in investment management or investment banking,” he said. “That’s what I’d like to do once I retire from basketball.”

Mitchell said his immediate future is up in the air.

“I honestly have no idea right now,” he said. “It’s 50-50 whether I keep playing next year or come back to Canada and try to get a job in my field.”

Mitchell said if he makes the decision to keep playing, he’ll stay for several more years and try to crack one of the higher European leagues.

“I know guys that play in Germany or other leagues like Belgium where you can get a lot more money and actually make a decent living,” he said. “If I decided to play next year, I’d probably play for a couple more years and make a career out of it.”

Even if this year is his only one in the pros, it will still have been worth it, he said, adding that he’s enjoyed experiencing a different culture and travelling around Europe on his occasional weekends off.

“I’m really glad I did it,” he said.

But he said he still feels nostalgic for the university game at times.

“I’ve been thinking about that recently. Playing at university where there’s not that business side of it is actually more fun,” he said.

Mitchell said he may return to the CIS someday.

“I still have one year of eligibility left, so if I was ever to do a master’s degree, I think I’d try and play basketball again just because it’s really fun,” he said. “I miss the atmosphere at the games. It would be cool if I ever come back to play again in front of that kind of crowd.”

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