The call left him reeling.
Justin Mitchell and his twin brother Jescus — who he calls Zuess — had spent the night at their mom’s home in Fort Wayne rather than at the Clinton Street house where they lived with their dad.
When the phone rang, everyone was still asleep. Justin, who was then 16, answered:
“It was my younger brother, Levi,” he said. “And he goes, ‘Aaaah…Dad’s dead!’
“I was like ‘Whaaat?’
“And he just says, ‘Dad got killed last night!’
“I remember going in the restroom and just staring in the mirror. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know how I was going to tell Zeuss. When I finally did, he just started crying.”
Mitchell, now the standout senior point guard at Wright State, quietly shared his story as he sat on the deserted concourse at the Nutter Center after practice Wednesday:
“We went over to the house and when you first walk in, you’re like in the kitchen. All we saw was blood and where Dad was lying. There was blood all over the house.
“We went upstairs and there was a big hole. And the drawers were all run through where they’d been looking for money.”
As Mitchell learned the details, he was devastated not only by what had happened, but by who was involved.
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His father, 58-year-old Gregory Mitchell, had been killed that June night in 2012 in a home invasion set in motion by Alisha Kizer, the 20-year-old sister of Justin’s former girlfriend.
“She set my dad up,” he said. “She knew how to get into the house and she came there with three guys to find any money they could.
“For me, at first, it wasn’t so much anger that got me as it just was ‘Why?’ Why would someone do that to an innocent man? Our dad helped a lot of kids at the community center, including her.
“I just couldn’t believe it ended like that.”
Justin, Zeuss and Levi, who is a year younger, had been through a lot with their father. All were basketball talents, and he had been their very hands-on AAU coach.
“He was almost like LaVar Ball is with his three sons now,” Mitchell said. “He really believed in us and pushed us to be successful.”
Their dad also managed their singing group, Revolution X, which included Justin, his ex-girlfriend, Zeuss and Levi.
“We made up raps and did church songs and mostly kept it to gospel,” Mitchell said. “We did a little R&B once in a while, but there was no cursing, no profanity.
“I played the drums and sang. Levi played piano. Zuess was a lead singer and (the girl) was, too. We had matching clothes. And we played in different cities and different states. At churches, competitions, everything.”
Yet, for all the good memories, there were tough times, too.
“People don’t know it, but for a while we were homeless, too,” Mitchell said in little more than a whisper as he looked away, as if not wanting to linger on that portion of the past.
“We were in high school already, but we didn’t have food or no place to stay. At night, if we didn’t go to our mom’s, we stayed at my dad’s job. I think he slept in the car. It was tough.”
They forged through all that and things were better and then came their dad’s brutal murder.
At the courthouse before the trial — where Kizer later would be found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison with 10 suspended — Mitchell said his uncle made him go over and ask Li Li, as they called her, that one question:
“I said, ‘We treated you like family.’ And she told me they didn’t go in there to kill him, they just wanted money. And I guess my dad said, ‘If you want money, you’re gonna have to kill me.’
“They shot him 12 times.”
Mitchell said he and his twin brother reacted differently to the murder:
“For a good while it changed Zeuss as a person. It was like a spirit got ahold of him. He was angry. There was a lot of hate. He wanted to kill the people that did that to our dad.”
While the twins both played basketball at Wayne High School in Fort Wayne, it was Justin who said he pushed through the ordeal by “praying for my enemies,” while he also immersed himself in his sport.
His senior season he averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game and garnered all-state recognition.
Once at Wright State, he struggled for a couple seasons as he dealt with a position change and injuries. But last year new coach Scott Nagy, partly out of necessity, made him the Raiders point guard and he quickly blossomed.
He scored 22 points against Detroit and 21 against Urbana. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds against Milwaukee and 16 rebounds against Valparaiso.
Averaging 8.3 boards a game as a point guard, he ended the season No. 2 in the Horizon League behind Valpo’s 6-foot-9 Alex Peters, who now plays in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns.
He was also fifth in assists, eighth in field-goal percentage, 19th in steals and 21st in scoring.
“He’s not a natural point guard and gets mad at me when I say that,” Nagy said. “But where he takes that as a negative, I see a positive. He has a high assist-to-turnover ratio, shoots a high percentage and gets almost nine rebounds a game.
“He is a tremendous rebounder.”
And he’s shown that ability to rebound not only on the court, but in coping with life’s toughest blows away from the game, as well.
Helped by Hollins
Mitchell grew up in a large family.
“I’ve got 12 brothers and three sisters,” he said. Most were fathered by his dad and several were good athletes.
“One of my older brothers, Steven Hall, played in the NFL for the Colts,” he said of the defensive back who played with Indianapolis in 1996.
His 21-year-old brother Levi is now a senior guard at Park University just outside Kansas City and he said Zeuss, who has gotten his life back together, just tried out for the Ivy Tech Community College team in Fort Wayne.
Justin ended up at Wright State thanks to Vernard Hollins, the former Raiders great who’s also from Fort Wayne.
Playing at WSU from 2001-04, Hollins scored 1,700 points, fifth on the school’s all-time scoring list.
“My dad and his dad were friends and Nard was kind of like a big brother to me,” Mitchell said.
When Hollins began what would become a 12-year career of pro ball in Europe, he’d sometimes send home game tapes for the young Mitchell to watch. He also trained Justin in the offseason and then accompanied him to WSU for his official visit.
They met with then-coach Billy Donlon, were sold on the program, and Justin showed up in the fall of 2014.
On a team decimated by injuries, he was moved to a forward spot and struggled at times when he got off the bench. The following year he was hampered by injuries.
Add in the struggles his twin brother was going through back home and his own suppressed grieving, and by the end of his sophomore year, Mitchell was unsettled and wanted to transfer.
But when Nagy took over the program, he became a point guard who played the second most minutes on last year’s team.
“I know I’m not a true point guard, but I’m a different point guard and I love it,” he said. “Now it might sound crazy, but this year I want to average a triple-double and help us hang up a banner. I want to lead this team through the way I play.”
‘Good kid, good heart’
If you were at the annual “Feast of Giving” communal dinner at the Dayton Convention Center last Thanksgiving Day, you saw Mitchell as a team leader off the court.
The free meal for people in need draws a crowd of some 7,000 and the Raiders were one of a few area sports teams who volunteered at the event.
While the rest of the players either dished out food or bussed tables, Mitchell fully embraced all aspects of the gathering and soon had joined a group of some 100 people — old, young, black, white, Spanish, homeless, fellow workers, even a security guard — who were on the makeshift dance floor doing an Electric Slide line dance to Marcia Griffiths’ “Electric Boogie.”
He wore a hair net and a light-up-the-room smile as he danced and laughed and showed genuine love.
“Basketball gave me the opportunity to be there and to help people who really need it,” he said. “But I don’t want people to just see me as a basketball player. I care just as a person and I wanted to help them smile a little bit that day.”
Nagy watched from the back of the room and was impressed not just by Mitchell’s dance moves, but by his sincerity:
“With losing his dad growing up and everything else, life hasn’t been easy for him. He grew up like a lot of the people who were there that day and he’s able to mix with all kinds of cultures, so he doesn’t take many things for granted. He’s a good kid with a good heart.
“He loves to love on folks and he wants the same thing back from people.”
Now finally — five years after that numbing phone call and the terrible news — he is getting that.
And that shows Justin Mitchell’s true ability to rebound.
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