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Hempstead's Jennifer Mitchell was a star before her time

Competing in the 1970s, she once scored 60 of Hempstead High School's 62 points in a girls basketball win and more than held her own playing with guys. 

Jennifer Mitchell of Hempstead High School was one

Jennifer Mitchell of Hempstead High School was one of the first great high school girls basketball players on Long Island. She scored 60 points in a game in 1972, a Long Island record that stood for nearly 40 years.

No one had ever seen anything like her.

Jennifer Mitchell had close-cropped hair, wore baggy clothes and could hold her own with the boys at Kennedy Park in Hempstead, the mecca for serious Long Island basketball players in the 1970s. Mitchell had a sensational jump shot, could go to the basket with both hands and was a tenacious defender.

Her local legend was solidified when she scored what was then a state-record 60 points for Hempstead High in a 1972 win over Bethpage. She practiced with the men’s team the next season at Nassau Community College and would have played in their games if the athletic director had allowed it.

She went on to earn the name “Jump Shot Jen” at Washington D.C.’s Federal City College, which had a nationally ranked women’s program in the mid-1970s. Her coach there said she could have averaged 35 points a game and played on the first women’s Olympic team in 1976 if a breathing condition hadn’t limited her minutes.

“Jennifer was the best girls player I’ve ever been around,” said Knicks president Steve Mills, a distant cousin of Mitchell’s who played with her in Hempstead.

And, until now, the best girls player you’ve never heard of.

Mitchell’s story has gone largely undocumented, given the sexist nature of the era in which she played and the fact that her life was cut tragically short at the age of 22 in 1977, when she died from what newspapers reported was a blood clot the night after she played in an AAU game.

Mitchell was the first great female basketball player to come out of Long Island, an area that has produced more than its fair share of great players, including current and past WNBA players Sue Bird, Sue Wicks, Sammy Prahalis and Bria Hartley.

None of them ever faced the challenges Mitchell faced in order to play the game she loved.

PLAYING IN A VACCUM

It’s hard to overstate just how little attention was paid to girls and women playing sports in the early 1970s. Though girls basketball was played widely on Long Island at the time, you wouldn’t have known it from reading the newspaper. Sports sections, including Newsday’s, did not cover girls basketball — or any girls sports, for that matter. There were no reporters at Mitchell’s 60-point game, which Hempstead won, 62-60. There was no published boxscore. There is not even a mention of the game or the team in Hempstead High’s 1972 yearbook.

“She was a special player, but she was special in the wrong time in the evolution of women’s sports,” said Mike Candel, who coached the Nassau Community College men’s team.

The sole formal documentation of Mitchell’s 60-point game — which remained a Long Island record for four decades — is on the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s record website. Her 60 ranks eighth all-time. The current record is 80 points, shared by Buffalo Burgard’s Felice Mann and Pearl River’s Kristin McGarvey. The Long Island record of 63 was set by Upper Room’s Sydney Zambrotta.

BEHIND THE NAME

Who was Jennifer Mitchell? To get a fuller picture of the 5-7 guard and unsung pioneer, Newsday conducted interviews with 14 of Mitchell’s family members, friends, former coaches, teammates and a teacher.

Like most legends that have been passed on by word of mouth, some of the details are a bit murky around the edges.

No one is sure exactly how long there had been a girls basketball team at Hempstead, but apparently it was kicked into high gear by Mitchell around 1970, when she systematically went through the school convincing the best athletes to join her on the team.

Rosetta Cannon was recruited from the track team, even though she never had played in a game. Cannon said she will never forget the game at Bethpage, which was played in the winter of 1972, months before the passage of a federal law called Title IX that paved the way for the growth of girls sports.

Cannon was the only player other than Mitchell to score in the game, and hers was the winning basket out of necessity. Mitchell had all five Bethpage defenders on her by the end of the game, Cannon recalled in a recent phone conversation.

“Jennifer was watching me and she told me where to go,” said Cannon, who lives in Southern California. “She gave me the ball and I remember I was afraid to shoot, but I ran and did the layup like we had practiced. I remember her screaming, ‘You did it! You did it!’ Then the whole team rushed out on the court and we put her on our shoulders.”

Sixty points. It would stand as a Long Island record for 40 years. Center Moriches’ Wicks would come close to breaking it with a 59-point game in 1984, but not until Zambrotta scored her 63 for Upper Room Christian School in 2012 was the mark surpassed.

It was at Kennedy Park, however, where Mitchell really honed both her legend and game. The oldest of six children, Mitchell started playing when she was 8, said her brother Jerome, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She soon was a fixture at Kennedy, which had been one of Hall of Famer Julius Erving’s haunts when he was growing up in Hempstead and Roosevelt.

“She was a gym rat. She was there all the time,” said John Pitts, 63, a Hempstead High School star who played with Hall of Famer Robert Parish at Centenary College and now works for the Town of Hempstead. “She just fit right in. She was such a good player. No one ever gave the fact that she was a girl a second thought.”

Mills, 59, who went to Friends Academy and played at Princeton, said Mitchell could hold her own at Kennedy.

“She was like a tomboy and would play with the guys all day,” he said. “This was kind of unheard of for a girl at the time, but we all knew her. We knew she was a girl. But when people came in from outside our town, they wouldn’t have really known. She could just really play.”

Edwin Atlas, a childhood friend of Jennifer’s, wrote a poem about Mitchell in his book about the  history of Hempstead hoops. “If you ever had a chance to see her play,'' he said, "you witnessed a work of art.” 

Not everyone, however, was thrilled to be playing with a female.

BEYOND HIGH SCHOOL

After Mitchell graduated from Hempstead, she attended Nassau Community College, where she practiced with Candel’s team. Candel wanted to play her in games but was told insurance would not cover it if she got hurt. He had one player who was so upset about having to practice with a female that he left the team.

“This was an all-league player in Nassau County, and she was embarrassing him every day in practice,” said Candel, 76. “He told me he didn’t want to guard a girl in practice. I said, ‘Until you can dominate her, we’re not talking about this.’ He eventually quit.”

Women’s college basketball was in its infancy, but some schools were starting to assemble pretty good programs. Queens College was one of those schools and so was Federal City College, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., that is now part of the University of the District of Columbia.

Federal coach Bessie Stockard, who would become an assistant coach on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team — the first time women’s basketball was played in the Olympics — already had a few New Yorkers on her team when she started hearing stories of Mitchell and her playground prowess on Long Island.

Stockard, who at age 86 still teaches at the University of the District of Columbia, said in a recent interview that when she brought Mitchell down to the school, she found out she had a “breathing disorder.” Stockard said she took Mitchell to two doctors who assured her that if she followed their instructions and monitored her playing time, she would be fine to play.

The NCAA did not conduct its first women’s tournament until 1982. Women’s basketball was regulated in the 1970s by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). There were no full-ride scholarships. No fancy gyms. Federal, in fact, had no gym, no dorms, no real campus. The Pantherettes, as the team was known, either lived with members of Stockard’s church or boarded at the nearby YWCA. The team had a Byzantine practice schedule using the gym at several dozen high schools.

In 1974-75, Federal entered the season with its best team ever and the hopes of becoming the first black college to win a national championship in women’s basketball.

The team had a frontcourt that included three players who were 6 feet or taller and two more who were 5-10. The addition of Mitchell gave them an outside game, and her talent was so evident that after watching her play, Washington Post columnist Leonard Shapiro noted that “she may be the purest jump shooter in the country.”

The Pantherettes’ dream of going all the way was dashed in the opening round of the AIAW Tournament when they lost to eventual champion Delta State University, 77-75. The Pantherettes vowed not to come home empty-handed after being forced into the consolation bracket, but it looked as if they were going to be pushed out of the tournament when Queens College went up by double figures against them.

Stockard liked to call Mitchell her secret weapon. She never started her, preferring to save her minutes for when the team might really need them. With Federal’s entire front line fouling out, Stockard had little option but to go to Mitchell to get the team back in the game.

Being a New Yorker, Mitchell knew some of the players on the Queens team, and she seemed determined to not let them get the best of her team.

“Jennifer just took over,” Stockard remembered. “It was a one-woman show. She could do that.”

Mitchell started hitting jumper after jumper. As the game got tighter, Queens threw two and three defenders on her. But there was no stopping her in this game, Stockard remembered.

“She reminded you of Russell Westbrook,” Stockard said. “She had so much energy. She was so agile and she had strength and tenaciousness. She would fake you, going right and left and the ball through the legs and the head fake. And before you knew it, she had gone by you and made two points.”

Mitchell scored nearly one-third of Federal’s points, collecting 30 to lead the Pantherettes to a 99-97 double-overtime victory.

As National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates noted two decades later in a magazine piece on Federal, it was the type of performance that “generally leads to sonnets” on the sports pages. Instead, all it got was a boxscore and a few lines in The Washington Post.

Federal ended up losing in the next round, but Mitchell finished the tournament averaging 25 points off the bench. That was noteworthy enough that she was listed on the 1975-76 Street and Smith’s All-American team.

The team, however, would not make it back to the tournament.

Mitchell tried out for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team — the tryouts were open — but could not be put on the team because of her breathing condition, according to Stockard.

Stockard said she had issues with the new athletic director at Federal and was replaced at the start of the 1976-77 season. Several of her players, including Mitchell, left the team in protest.

UNTIMELY DEATH

Mitchell was attending Federal and playing for an AAU team called the Sophisticated Ladies on the last day of her life. She had scored 18 points in a game on the afternoon of Feb. 6, 1977, in Baltimore.

The following morning, she was found unconscious at a friend’s home and pronounced dead at Doctors Hospital in Lanham, Maryland, according to a story in The Washington Post.

Her cause of death remains a mystery.

At her funeral, according to a Long Island Press report, it was said that Mitchell died of a “blood clot,” although Newsday could not confirm that was the actual diagnosis.

An autopsy was performed, the Maryland medical examiner’s office told Newsday, but the staff could not find a copy of the 40-year-old report stating cause.

The news of her passing stunned the Hempstead community, which turned out in force for services at Faith Baptist Church. Friends, coaches, teachers and the mayor of Hempstead spoke. A game was played in her memory and the Hempstead boys team dedicated that season to her.

“It was a shock,” said Hempstead mayor Don Ryan, who then was a teacher at the high school and the coordinator of the youth basketball program. “She was such a sweet person and was so full of life. She loved basketball and was a really good player.”

Though it’s been more than 40 years since Mitchell played, Candel, who later was a sportswriter for Newsday, still marvels at what she was able to do.

“Jennifer Mitchell was an eye-opener for me and a lot of people,” he said. “I did not know how good a girl could be. She just wanted to play and everything she did, she did without help. There were no girls youth leagues, nothing. I believe she would be playing in the WNBA if she were here today.

“She was before her time.”

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