His doctors were telling him they had to operate immediately, that the tumor pushing against his spine was large, that all sorts of terrible endings were there for the telling if he waited. "We have arranged your surgery for Wednesday," they said.
Fang Mitchell computed that. This was two weeks ago. His team was on a winning streak. He gave the doctors a sly smile. "The, uh, South Carolina State game is Thursday night," he said. "Do you, uh, think maybe if, you know, we waited another 24 hours. . . "
His wife interrupted him. "Pay no attention to this man," she said briskly to the doctors. "This man doesn't know what he's saying. Wednesday will be fine."
Mitchell laughed his uproarious laugh as he told the story on himself yesterday in his office. It is easy for him to laugh now. The tumor was benign. The pain is slowly going away. He can actually stand up again, and sleep more than two hours a night. His biggest concern is getting his Coppin State basketball team ready for another run at the NCAA tournament.
These last months have been among the most miserable of his 43 years, though. "My spinal column literally was collapsing from the tumor pushing against it," he said. "They say I could have been permanently disabled if I'd let it go much longer. I still may not regain all my movement. It's been tough. I can't deny it."
That something was very wrong became apparent as the season unfurled. Mitchell had undergone knee surgery in September to correct an old problem, but the knee wasn't getting stronger, and then, curiously, the other one began weakening. He walked with a cane. Normally close to manic on the bench, he was rooted to his seat.
Plus, every time he raised his voice in practice or a game, pain shot through his shoulders, neck and back. A room-filling extrovert, he had to make himself cool it. "Brother, was I ever mellow," he said. "I was not myself. I just couldn't raise my voice. It hurt too much."
His doctor kept telling him it was all related to the knee surgery and a car accident he'd had last year. They would not take X-rays of his neck or back. Frustrated, Mitchell went to the Union Memorial sports medicine clinic. They determined that his knees were sound and referred him to a neurologist.
The neurologist found the problem. "They tested three times before they found the tumor," he said, "but there it was. A big one. They thought it would be benign, although they didn't know for sure. But there was no position I could sleep in. And I couldn't walk. My spine was caving in, and it was reacting in my knees."
His first instinct was to ignore it until the season ended. "I'm a strong believer in finishing a job when you have a job to do," he said. "I was worried about the team, not myself. My wife put her foot down. She said, basically, 'You fool, this is life and death.' I guess I learned you have to be selfish sometimes. I'm not that way. But you can't put this stuff off."
The surgery was 13 days ago. The members of a church he'd been attending set up a special prayer session. "You find out who your friends are," he said. "I just put it in the Lord's hands. When I came to, theonly question I asked was if it was benign. Then I went right back to sleep."
He was in the hospital for four days, then home for a week before returning Saturday for Coppin's last regular-season game. He still can't roam the sidelines, and he feels it if he raises his voice, so he doesn't. Such is his lot for the rest of the season. Coppin will have to make the NCAAs with a defanged Fang.
"It's too bad this came now," he said, "because it's been a distraction. I apologized to the players even though there was dTC nothing I could do. Now I'm making up time trying to drive home how I want this done. They love to score. They'd shoot every two seconds if they could. But defense is going to win these games. I hope I get that across in time."
The Eagles won their conference's regular-season title and finished 18-9 against a brutal schedule, but now, to make the NCAAs, must win a) the conference tournament, and b) one of the play-in games the NCAA has instituted to keep fewer small schools in the big tournament. Coppin would have to play the winner of the Southland Conference -- on the road.
"It's going to be difficult to make it, much more so than last year obviously because of that extra game," Mitchell said. "But we played all those tough non-conference games [at Oklahoma, New Mexico State and Tulsa] to toughen us up. My first goal remains no different. I don't just want to get to the NCAAs. I want to get there and win a game."
His conference tournament begins Thursday. Talk about no rest for the weary. "There are going to be long days, and I'm still basically handicapped," he said. "But I'm a strong person. It has to be done. I've had my operation. Now it's time for basketball. If I have to go through some pain, it can't be as bad as it was. We all have to go through things. I'm not complaining. I'm lucky."
Fang's back--but his bite's not the same