If you have been a Princeton basketball fan for the past 15 years, you already know Mitch Henderson. You might even have worn him around the house.
It was the 1996 image of an ebullient Henderson, Princeton University’s then-starting point guard, leaping, arms wide open, juxtaposed with the dejected UCLA guard Toby Bailey, that became the stuff of T-shirts and local legend. The photo captured the moment Princeton basketball had taken out UCLA, the defending national champions, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Two years later, as a senior, Henderson helped knock the also-vaunted UNLV out of the NCAA race. Henderson was considered pivotal in both victories, which themselves are considered two of the greatest for the university’s basketball program. Henderson was so pivotal that he earned an invitation to the Atlanta Hawks training camp in 1998.
Though fiercely competitive, Henderson is equally modest. “It literally was a cup of coffee,” he says of his time among the elite in the NBA. “I wasn’t there long at all.” Still, he was there, and briefly or not, it taught him something about what it takes to be the best.
“Even the best prepare,” Henderson says. “Basketball is a business and the elite of the elite take it very, very seriously.”
While he did not get a job in the NBA, Henderson did get one as an assistant coach under his former Princeton coach, Bill Carmody, at Northwestern in 1999. Henderson studied the game and its lessons for life under Carmody until this April, when Henderson came back to Princeton as the head basketball coach.
Henderson will present “Slam Dunking to Success: Accountability and Leadership in Sports and Business” on Wednesday, August 17 at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club. Cost: $40. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Two kinds of teaching. As Henderson sees it, there are really only two ways to impart knowledge and wisdom — from the top down and from within. Both are necessary.
From his vantage point at the top, Henderson says his job is to lead by example. The tenor of any organization, whether basketball team or communications firm, is set by the people in charge. “We hold ourselves accountable too,” he says of his coaching staff. Even the condition of his desk, which he admits is in disarray, sends a message — if you want to be professional, you need to act professional.
But true leadership, Henderson says, is cultivated from within the ranks. Part of Princeton basketball tradition is the concept of peer leadership. “It means something to be a Princeton basketball player,” Henderson says. Older players mentor the younger ones and indoctrinate them in the ideals and values the team holds — cooperation, teamwork, being part of the community. “When one of my senior players puts his arm around a new player’s shoulder, that’s 10 times more powerful than anything I can do,” he says.
Henderson says he honed his skills as Carmody’s assistant because Carmody gave him and the other assistant coaches lots of responsibilities. It is something he has imparted to his own assistants at Princeton — let the people who work for you do what they do best.
Not about you. Basketball is the consummate team sport, Henderson says. Despite the image of the hot-dogging ball hog doing all the work, a winning basketball team is one that plays together, unselfishly.
In business, Henderson says, winning companies are those that know how to work together. And they are those that know their place in the community. Princeton’s players, he says, are conditioned to be representatives of the university and the community at large. Henderson runs the university’s summer basketball camps and plans to lead community outreaches that allow the players to interact with the community.
As Henderson sees it, his players are Princeton University. They represent the ideals and work ethic that the university strives to maintain. “It’s not all about them,” he says of his players. “It’s about the community.”
Henderson himself was one of the university’s favorite representatives during his playing days. Between 1995 and 1998 he carved out a reputation as one of the school’s best-ever point guards and was an all-around athlete.
Henderson grew up dreaming of playing professional baseball. In 1995 he was drafted in a later round by the New York Yankees. But by the time he got to Princeton, the Kentucky-born Henderson had shifted his hopes away from baseball. At first he wanted to play college football and even sent out letters to schools hoping to be recruited.
No one was interested. He shifted his attention again, this time to basketball, but again, none of the Division I schools he was hoping to woo were interested — even though he had been a 12-letter athlete at Culver Military Academy in Indiana.
Eventually he was recruited by Princeton’s most famous basketball coach, Pete Carril. Henderson entered the university looking more and more toward a professional career on the court, rather than the baseball diamond.
He did play one year of college baseball but did not fare well. Had he followed the path to the majors, he admits, he would not have lasted very long.
Basketball worked out much better for him. He served as co-captain and helped lead Princeton through two perfect Ivy League seasons. In 1998 and 1999 he played professional basketball in Ireland and then played with the Atlanta Hawks in January of 1999. After that he went to San Francisco, where he worked briefly as a research assistant for Lendx Corp.
In 2000 he got the call to assist Bill Carmody, who had moved from Princeton to Northwestern University. Under Carmody’s tutelage, Henderson says he learned a path toward mentoring greatness that he hopes to infuse in his athletes and staff. He took over as head coach in April, succeeding his former teammate Sydney Johnson, who left to coach at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
And he learned the value that honesty has for a team. “You have to be honest with each other,” he says. “It’s all about respect. It’s about showing up on time and being there for your team.