March Madness is upon us and sports fans across the country are excited after missing out on the tournament last year due to the pandemic. A total of 68 men’s college basketball teams will be in Indianapolis to duke it out for the championship.
For DeRohn “DJ” Mitchell, Jr., a Black and Filipino American guard on the University of Hartford’s men’s basketball team, playing in this 82-year-old American tradition has been a lifelong dream.
“Getting into March Madness is an unbelievable feeling. It’s something I have dreamt about all my life since I was a kid,” Mitchell told the Asian Journal. “I spent countless hours thinking about when I would arrive here — if I would even ever make it. Not many people believed that this was possible for me. But luckily for me, with the support of my family and friends, my dream has become a reality.”
Mitchell is excited and he is looking forward to their game this Friday, March 19 against their bracket’s top seed Baylor.
This is the first time in his school’s history that their team made it to the NCAA tournament, March Madness no less, something that Mitchell and his Hartford Hawks teammates are mighty proud of.
— Hartford Men’s Basketball (@HartfordMBB) March 13, 2021
“A few of my teammates and I have been talking about this moment over the last few weeks — about the ‘what if this?’ and ‘what if that?’ We kept circling back to ‘let’s be legendary.’ Let’s do something that no one else has done before and pave the way. Right now, we have accomplished that and we’re in unchartered territory,” Mitchell, a junior majoring in business management and administration, said. “But we traveled this far to make it all the way to Indiana — why don’t we stay awhile?”
The 21-year-old Mitchell knew he wanted to play college sports at the young age of 8; although initially, he thought it was going to be football. At 12, he found basketball and there was no looking back.
Monica Alvarez-Mitchell and her husband DeRohn fully supported their second child’s dream.
“I believe it was around 12 years old when he declared basketball to be his destiny. Like most parents, I was happy to see him enjoy a sport that I assumed he’d outgrow,” Alvarez-Mitchell said.
They sent their son to summer basketball camps and programs to nurture his passion. After a summer camp basketball program at IMG Academy in Sarasota, Florida, DJ Mitchell came back and said he wanted to attend boarding school there. After a thorough discussion of the pros and cons, the couple sent him to IMG as they saw in their kid a drive that was too compelling to ignore.
The entire family has been supportive of Mitchell’s quest ever since, something that he fully acknowledges. It has not been easy at all but they all knew that it was the price they had to pay.
It is a full-time commitment all year long, with most basketball events in school were always held over holidays and weekends. When he wasn’t in school or with the team, he was working with speed coaches and trainers at the gym.
“There isn’t a day from the moment I chose to pursue a career in basketball that I wasn’t doing something to train for it and I still continue to today. I continue to also dream of making it to pro one day,” Mitchell said.
There have been epic highs and lows so far, and like every sports parent out there, DeRohn and Monica understand this all too well.
“For me, the worst moments were the obstacles that seemed overwhelming at times and the injuries. Like any parent, injuries are scary, but for an athlete, they can be career-ending,” Alvarez-Mitchell shared.
She recalled DJ’s first scary injury when he hurt his hand, chipped his tooth, and needed stitches one year in post-grad while at St. Thomas More in Connecticut.
“When that happened though, it felt like the world was ending because during the fall, he fractured his hand, and his only thought was, ‘Can I still even play?’ It was one of the darkest moments we had,” she said.
Last year, he fell and hit his head hard.
“My heart dropped at the game watching my son hit the ground and lie still on the court. He had a massive goose egg concussion so my hubby and I took him off the court and rushed him to ER,” Alvarez-Mitchell shared. “In another crushing blow, the injury had him benched for a few weeks. But again, he healed and jumped back onto the court.”
With sheer hard work and a bit of luck, Mitchell’s perseverance is starting to pay off.
He was never the tallest or biggest, but he found a way to help the teams he played on in any way he could. He trained himself to be aware of everything on the court and knew that he had to play smarter against bigger competition.
According to his mother, Mitchell learned to speed up the game, catch a rebound, get that breakaway steal, and score a three. He was naturally athletic and he has a great vertical. He fast-tracked his basketball IQ to understand team dynamics and his competitors’ weaknesses to add more value than just a shot or two and help set up his team to win.
“It was his way to shine differently than others on the court,” she added. “Today, his value is clear; even announcers say he’s one of the most undervalued players on the court. But we believe that’s his strength. Never underestimate his will to win and making sure he is doing all he can every second he’s playing.”
Road to March Madness
Hartford’s entry to the March Madness is what hoop dreams are made of.
They were set to play Vermont for the America East Tournament title last season, but COVID-19 happened and the rest of the season got canceled. For the first time in its 81-year history, even March Madness itself was canceled.
This year, the team won over Vermont in the semifinals on March 6, then UMass-Lowell last week in the America East Tournament championship game. The major win gave Hartford the America East Championship for the first time in the school’s history and along with it, their ticket for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“Eleven years ago, I got this and I said, ‘Let the dream begin,'” Hartford coach John Gallagher told AP. “There were a lot of nightmares to get to this point. So many people to thank but this program, this neighborhood that we built, is so special. To put it into words is really hard. But we’re dancing.”
“This moment is a dream come true for us. After last year’s letdown, the team came together and played their hearts out,” Alvarez-Mitchell shared. “They finally got a ticket to the dance for the first time. This achievement has made all the lows we experienced worth it and even that more meaningful.”
DJ is grateful to his family for the support and understanding they have given him. He says all of them have worked hard and made sacrifices.
“I would be lying if I said I arrived here without my family. They have given me every opportunity in the world to make this happen,” he said, acknowledging that they haven’t had proper time off or a family vacation since his career started.
Through his journey’s ups and downs, there is one thing consistent in DJ, his motivation.
“Most people don’t know this about me, but my motivation through all of this — through everything I’ve endured, both the good and the bad — has been my little brother, Bryan,” he shared. “I wanted to show him you can achieve anything you want to and pursue different dreams that you have for yourself — to break the mold and create your path. Not everything is perfect in life, but resiliency is key. Being resilient will take you anywhere you want to go.”
Looking back now, DJ’s mom Monica couldn’t help but be proud of her young son’s achievements.
As a mom, she said she always wanted her children to dream big.
This echoes DJ’s motivation to show his younger brother to chase whatever dream he wanted.
“You live through every emotion your child has and become invested on all levels. But you keep going because there is no option. This is your child’s dream, and you will go with them to explore all roads until the end to help them achieve their destiny,” she said. “But I’ll say this to others: support your kids’ dreams — foster it and grow it. If your kid dreams big, works hard, keeps his head down grinding, never gives up, and gets a little lucky too, dreams can come true.”