Mitchell’s balancing act

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Dustin Mitchell

In addition to playing center for the Warhawks, Dustin Mitchell is a father to 4-year-old JJ. Photo by Crystal Meyer.

Dustin Mitchell was surrounded by children who came and left Saturday night at the Kachel Gymnasium.

It’s something that isn’t out of the ordinary for him, however.

It was Kid’s Day as the men’s basketball team battled UW-Stout, meaning after the game, many children lined up to get Mitchell’s autograph and a picture with the 6-foot-9 senior.

After getting what they came for, they left Mitchell’s side and went back to their parents who were waiting for them in the Kachel Gymnasium lobby.

One child, however, was still waiting to see Mitchell.

JJ was waiting.

The energetic 4-year-old didn’t want an autograph; he just wanted to spend one of the last nights he had in Whitewater with his father.

 While many of his teammates had their heads to the floor after a humbling 18-point loss to UW-Stout, Mitchell didn’t have time to look for sympathy.

“[He] definitely cheers you up,” Mitchell said after the Warhawks were blown out, 95-77. “That makes me smile. It’s definitely nice whether we win or lose to see him. Even though I love the game, I still got him to look after.”

And he’s looked after JJ the entire time he’s been a UW-Whitewater student.

JJ was born during Mitchell’s freshman year, and while he said he’s learned to adapt to the situation, it was initially tough being a teenage father. 

“At that age it was a little weird, being so young,” said Mitchell, who isn’t with JJ’s mother anymore. “The other students get to be free. I tried that for a while, and you just can’t do that, because you got somebody who looks up to you and who needs you. You really got to balance it out.”

Junior guard Phil Negri, who also played alongside Mitchell at Lakeland High School before coming to UW-Whitewater, said his teammate doesn’t have a problem prioritizing.

“He handles his responsibilities,” Negri said. “He’s a family-comes-first type of guy. You like playing with those type of guys, because you can count on them. And that’s all you want out of a teammate.”

They’re also qualities Melanie Steinmann, Mitchell’s girlfriend of four years, sees everyday.

“I think if anything, he tries to balance it well,” said Steinmann, who considers herself somewhat of a stepmother to JJ. “Obviously, family comes first.”

Nevertheless, Mitchell said it was not an easy transition, especially since JJ’s mother moved to California with his son less than a year after he was born.

It was not a decision Mitchell liked, but he never feared he wasn’t going to see JJ again.

“I would have fought for it,” Mitchell said. “But she came around.”

After coming to an agreement with JJ’s mother, Mitchell now gets to spend time with his son during the summers and for a stretch during the winter.

However, that means for almost seven months of the year, Mitchell doesn’t get to see JJ.

“Definitely that’s a problem,” Mitchell said when asked if he worries about missing out on important parts of JJ’s life. “The hardest thing is to understand you don’t know what he’s doing.”

While Mitchell is in contact with his son two to three times a week when JJ’s in California, he enjoys every moment he has with him – as do Mitchell’s teammates.

“Everyone likes hanging out with him,” said Mitchell, who was joined on the team bus last week to UW-Stevens Point by JJ. “He’s just one of the guys for a while.”

Head coach Pat Miller, who coached three players who had children last year, said he enjoys having Mitchell’s son around the team.

“I think he’s done a great job in how he’s handled his situation,” Miller said. “You gain an element of maturity when you become a father. I’ve been around the program long enough to see many guys who are fathers. I can see it’s a challenge, but it’s about time management.” 

Mitchell, who said goodbye to his son yesterday until June, said devoting time to everyone in his life is the most difficult part.

But it hasn’t hurt his play on the court this season.

Mitchell, who has recorded seven double-doubles this season, has started every game for the ’Hawks (16-3, 8-2 WIAC). He has also improved his scoring from 9.6 points per game in 2009 to 19.5 this season.

He also leads the WIAC in rebounding (9.0) and shooting percentage (62.8).

“It’s really easy to see how much he puts in everyday and guys just want to rally around someone like that,” Negri said.

Just as JJ does everytime he sees his father.