By Harold Bell
In June 2019, my Aunt Elaine celebrated 100 years young. She lives in Columbia, Maryland, and her church family gave her a 100th birthday party. My car called in sick and my wife Hattie and I missed the celebration. My problem, how many times does someone get to celebrate a family members’ 100th birthday? I am 82 and I have never had such an opportunity.I called her on several times promising Hattie and I would be driving to Columbia from Suitland, Maryland for a belated birthday celebration. We had planned to take her to lunch.
In the meantime, I was trying to finish editing my Muhammad Ali documentary to make its debut in November at the Miracle Theatre on Capitol Hill in NE, Washington, DC and a book titled, “My Walk Through American Sports History With Champs & Chumps.” Before I knew it, October was upon me and I still had not made the drive to Columbia to take Aunt Elaine to lunch. I am running out of time and excuses. I don’t seem to have my priorities in the proper order. For example; what happens to make ‘Family First’?
Several weeks earlier I had ordered my second ‘First’ edition of my book and when they arrived I autographed one and mailed it to Aunt Elaine. I waited about a week before I called to see if she had received the book.
Her response, “Harold this very nice, but you are not the only super-star in the family”. I was caught completely off-guard. She did not wait for me to ask, who was the other super-star, she immediately said, ‘your cousin Donovan Mitchell plays for the Utah Jazz.’
Aunt Elaine is the matriarch on my mother’s side of the family. Donovan’s father Donovan Mitchell, Sr. is the Director of Player Relations and Community Reach-Back for the New York Met of Major League Baseball.
Donovan Mitchell, Sr.
I was a sports media personality in DC, and I had been covering the NBA since the Bullets moved from Baltimore to the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, in 1973. I had heard of the rookie Donovan Mitchell in passing.
I knew he was Rookie of the Year and NBA Slam Dunk Champion, but that was it!
The Utah Jazz was not a must-see game when they came to Washington and they came to town only once a year and national television exposure was a no-show. I think the last time I saw the Jazz play in DC was 2004. Karl Malone was the star and Prince George’s County’s own Thurl Bailey was his running partner and sidekick on that great Jazz team.
Thurl’s mother Rita, Adrian Branch’s mother Carolyn, and Sidney Lowe’s mother Carrie were all members on the Board of Directors of my non-profit Kids In Trouble. They were the first reach-back moms in pro sports.
I spent several telephone calls with Aunt Elaine visiting my “Family Tree” remembering my great-uncle William James aka Uncle Billy her mentor. He was an activist and the first black attorney to practice law in Sumpter, SC.
My mother Mattie was born in Sumpter but left at an early age when her parents suddenly died. She and siblings would move to New York and DC with relatives. My mother would settle with her cousins in DC. I remember Uncle Billy’s visits to family outings during the summer and when I was in his space I walked and spoke softly.
He was a no-nonsense type of guy. He was voted into The South Carolina Black Hall of Fame in 2000 for his contributions as an attorney and political activist.
When I was named the recipient of the National Associate of Black Journalist Pioneer Award for 2020, Aunt Elaine reminded me that Uncle Billy was looking down and smiling. Her words brought a smile to my face.
After the walk down ‘Memory Lane’ with Aunt Elaine, I then called Donovan Sr. in his New York Met office and introduced myself. He was very nice and professional and seemed like a nice guy. I then checked the Wizards’ schedule to see what date the Jazz would be in DC. They were scheduled to be in DC in February. I requested press credentials to the game for me and photographer Larry Law to meet my new-found cousin, Donovan Mitchell, Jr.
We arrived in time for the tip-off, but Donovan was nowhere to be found. He was not in the starting line-up and I could not tell whether he was on the bench from our seats in the upper section of the arena. I thought the worst he was hurt and didn’t make the trip.
During half-time, Larry and I went to the press room to check further and discovered Donovan had made the trip and he was in the locker room relaxing! The coach thought Donovan was not needed against the Wizards and decided to rest him—nothing new star players are often given days and nights off all the time when they are on the road against what is considered weak opposition.
The Jazz won and Larry and I headed to the Utah Jazz locker room. The door to the locker room was finally open to the media after a 20-minute wait. I found Donovan standing directly in front of me with a big smile and laughing with a Utah fan. I waited for a break in the conversation and introduced myself as “Cousin Harold” and his expression never changed. I told him I had spoken with his dad a week earlier in New York. My first question, ‘Donovan did you know you have a 100-year-old Aunt living here in the area?’ He seemed surprised and said, ‘no I didn’t’! Larry took pictures of us. We shook hands and hugged. I stepped off to the side for media who were waiting to interview him.
The Jazz played the NY Knicks on March 4th in New York City and Donovan Sr. was in attendance.
When Donovan Jr. tested positive for Coronavirus he was the second Jazz player known to have tested positive. His teammate Rudy Gobert was the first. Donovan Sr had to be tested for the virus—he tested negative. Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen said, “It was a sign of relief for the Met players and staff here.”
The Mets were not the only ones breathing a sigh of relief. When we discovered Donovan Jr had been infected by the virus it scared us. It hit too close to home-like ‘Family’!
Thanks to Aunt Elaine I had just discovered my cousins and I was eager to check them out. She thought I had a direct line to the Utah Jazz doctors regarding the well being of Donovan Jr. I had to explain, I was on the outside looking in just like her. In the final analysis, she was my “Inside Sports” reporter providing me with family updates on Donovan Jr.
The Mets in August had two players test positive for the virus and had games postpone with the Marlins and their cross-town rivals New York Yankees.
Amid all the scheduling disruptions this season the Mets have been lucky, no team in the majors has played more games through the month of August than the Mets’ 26.
In November 2019 my documentary “Muhammad Ali and Me” would make its debut at the Miracle Theatre in NE DC, my special guest, Aunt Elaine. I contacted the man she helped to raise, Donovan Mitchell, Sr. He had not seen or talked to her in 25 years. I explained to him that I was inviting her to the debut of my documentary. I suggested he create a video wishing her a happy belated birthday.
The video would be shown on the big screen surprising her. He liked the idea and agreed to create the video. The video arrived a day late, but I was proud that he tried to put the work into surprise Aunt Elaine—stuff happens. I was able to make a recording that allowed her to hear him wishing her a happy belated birthday.
This was his video birthday wish: “Hi Aunt Elaine this is Donovan and I just want to wish you a happy belated birthday. I know I am late but please don’t hold that against me. I love you, miss you and I wish you nothing but the best. I wish I could have been there with you for your birthday, but I have been just running around doing a whole lot of things. I know it has been a while since I have seen you and the family but a lot of things have changed I got my two kids and I am with the New York Mets. I have been in baseball for 27 years. I appreciate all the love and support you guys gave me when I was growing up. I am still chasing my dreams and I wish you the best. Thanking you for everything. I hope you are well and take care of yourself. Love you, Donovan.”
The good news is that Donovan Jr. has fully recovered and his leadership, torrid play, and scoring has given the Utah Jazz a 3-1 play-off lead over the Denver Nuggets. In the first playoff game, Utah lost 135 to 125 in OT. He scored a game-high 57 points. The Jazz and Donovan regrouped for game 2 with a 125-105 victory. Donovan was “held” to 30 points and 8 assist as the Jazz even the series at one game each. Game 3 the Jazz routed the Nuggets by 37 points. The final score 124-87.
Donovan’s clutch performance was game number 4 when he and Nugget guard Jamal Murray looked they were playing a playground favorite, the game called H-O-R-S-E. Their fourth-quarter shot-making was classic.
Donovan with his assortment of twist and turn points in the paint was amazing. Murray preferred long distant downtown shots making were jaw-dropping. In the closing minute Paul Millsap blocked one of his shots in the paint, he stared Donovan down as if to say, “don’t bring any more of that garbage in here!”
It looked like Donovan took his advice and carried Millsap out behind the three-point line and shot in his face to close down shop for the night. The final score, Jazz 127-Denver 125, Donovan’s second play-off 51 points plus game placed him in the elite company of Wilt Chamberlain (G-O-A-T), Michael Jordan and Allen Everson, the only three to duplicate the same feat in NBA history.
Monday morning Aunt Elaine called to ask if I had watched the game and I said, “Yes”! She then said, ‘he is the other superstar I was telling you about in the family.’
Aunt Elaine turned one-hundred and one in June and she still knows a superstar when she sees one!
Harold and Aunt Elaine, The Matriarch of the James Family