In June of this year, Fort Wayne lost one of its greatest ambassadors to youth when Gregory D. Mitchell was shot and killed by a still-unknown assailant who broke into his home.
Mitchell had been with Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation for close to 10 years and had devoted his time to children, including running the Jennings Center for the last three years.
But for three brothers, Justin, Jescus and Levi Mitchell, they lost a father.
The Mitchell boys have not forgotten what happened that day, nor have they stopped honoring him both on the basketball court and in the classroom, two things that Gregory preached to his sons as important.
All three are juniors at Wayne High School and play on the varsity basketball team along with making grades good enough for the Honor Roll.
“My dad used to always talk about if he was to die the next day, what would we do?” Justin said. “He prepared us for this situation and dedicating ourselves to basketball and school and to work hard every day.”
The Mitchell boys were not home when their father was tragically killed just a week before school let out. The days and weeks that followed were filled with grief, and six months later Justin can still hear his dad yelling at him on the basketball court.
“He was like our second coach, he would always let us know how we were doing from the crowd,” Justin said. “It is kind of different without my dad.”
Justin and Jescus are twins, with Levi the third brother. At some point in elementary school, Gregory moved all three into the same grade, so they could grow up together. No one could have foreseen what kind of tragedy the family would go through, but being together has helped immeasurably.
The Wayne basketball program is off to a 3-0 start this season, with the solid chemistry of the Mitchell brothers being on the court together no doubt part of the reason.
“It is a lot easier when you have your brothers out there and you know what they are going to do,” Justin said.
The trio now lives with an aunt and uncle and has continued to earn good grades and stay out of trouble despite their father being gone.
“Their dad was a big basketball advocate and he brought them up the right way,” Wayne basketball coach Aaron Rehrer said. “He focused on academics as well and did a great job with them.
“They do not get in trouble, and they are some of the hardest workers on the basketball court.”
A lot of the basketball attention centers on Justin, a 6-foot-4 guard who is averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds so far this season. He has received letters of interest from several universities, including Butler, Indiana State and Xavier, but has yet to receive any scholarship offers.
That should change if he continues his excellent play on the court and his dedication to school off of it.
“I have known Justin since he was in sixth grade and is just a great kid,” Rehrer said. “He has started every game since his fifth game of his freshman year and he never comes off the court unless he is in foul trouble.
“He has a motor that just won't quit.”
Over the years, many prep basketball players' careers have been derailed by issues far less life-changing than what the Mitchells have gone through. But the three are refusing to let what happened to their father be an excuse to stop concentrating on their schoolwork or to get involved with the wrong crowd.
“It has been messy and difficult for all of them,” Rehrer said. “They have had to deal with that over the last several months but have still been great kids.”