They emerged in its wake with their NBA careers strewn into three degrees of separation: Gabe Vincent (Class of 2018) waded it out, JaQuori McLaughlin (Class 2021) got dunked, and Sha’Rae Mitchell (Class of 2009) rode it all the way to her debut as an NBA referee.
Vincent Van Go
Vincent was heating up for the Miami Heat during the wintry days of December, averaging 15.9 points and 4.3 assists in the final seven games of the month. But he got put into the cold storage of the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Dec. 29.
Miami teammate Jimmy Butler teased Vincent during his hiatus by posting a “wanted” poster on Instagram. It offered a signed jersey to anyone reporting his “whereabouts,” adding that Vincent was “notorious for taking vacations and blaming COVID.”
The 6-foot-3 point guard showed no rust in his return Wednesday. He made 5-of-8 shots including four three-pointers to score 14 points in a 115-91 win at Atlanta.
Vincent did introduce one major change: an afro hairdo had replaced his normally braided coiffure.
Instagram lit up again with debate. The fans split hairs, with one demanding that “It’s time for some braids, Gabe!” and another declaring in all caps, “FRO GABE IS BACK.”
“Why?” Vincent said. “My braider got COVID.”
In Santa Cruz Control
McLaughlin, last year’s Big West Conference Player of the Year, logged only 11 minutes in four NBA games when the Dallas Mavericks cast him away. As a two-way player, he spent the bulk of this season with their G League affiliate, averaging 13.3 points, 4.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 12 games for the Texas Legends.
The 6-4 point guard entered the league’s health and safety protocols on Dec. 22. He returned a week ago Saturday, getting 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a loss to the Rio Grande Vipers. He got his pink slip the next day when the Mavericks, needing help at other positions, placed him on waivers.
The Golden State Warriors, however, threw McLaughlin a life preserver last week. They claimed him by trading their first two picks of this year’s G League Draft to Dallas.
Without a two-way contract, however, he will most likely spend the rest of this season with the Warriors’ affiliate in Santa Cruz.
McLaughlin is no stranger to the Warriors, either. He played for their NBA Summer League team under an “Exhibit 10” contract, averaging 10.2 points, 5.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds.
“I had a lot of other teams offering me deals,” he said at the time. “Golden State was the best fit for me.
“I’ve always loved the way they play, the winning culture they have as an organization … That culture was huge for me.”
McLaughlin had a ticket to the Warriors’ preseason camp in the Bay Area when the Mavericks lured him to Dallas with a two-way contract. But he left his heart in San Francisco.
“The Warriors are getting someone who is all about basketball,” he said. “I don’t go out to parties. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do any of that stuff. I just go to the gym every single day, and get my work in and stay focused on basketball.
“That is the only thing I want to do. I don’t really have any other hobbies except for basketball and hanging out with my family.”
And now that’ll be at a Summer League reunion.
Mitchell’s True Calling
Sha’Rae Mitchell’s big break came on New Year’s Day when COVID-19 thinned the ranks of NBA referees. She was promoted from the G League to work San Antonio’s game at Detroit. She also officiated Monday’s Cleveland at Sacramento contest in a poignant, circle-of-life moment.
She was 14 years old and known as Sha’Rae Gibbons when she first arrived in Sacramento under tragic circumstances. She had moved from Orem, Utah, to live with her aunt and uncle after both of her parents had died within a span of five months.
Gibbons numbed the pain with an ultra-busy schedule at Elk Grove’s Valley High School. She set for the volleyball team, played third base in softball, tended the goal in soccer, ran the mile on the track team and played just about every position in basketball.
She also got involved in theater and buried herself in schoolwork, earning a grade-point average of 4.0.
Her virtuosity was so prodigious that she won the Wendy’s Heisman Award for California prep athletes.
Her divided efforts, however, also left her off the radar of college basketball recruiters. UCSB coach Mark French noticed her only after she attended his elite basketball camp. He offered her his last scholarship of the 2004-2005 season.
“More than any other player we’ve ever signed, Sha’Rae recruited us as much as we recruited her,” French said.
After her freshman season, however, Mitchell could no longer out-run the tidal wave of grief from her parents’ deaths. She withdrew from school before the 2005-2006 season.
“I put all of myself into school and sports in high school,” she said. “And then I got to college and did the same thing, and after freshman year, I think it all just finally came crumbling down.”
She returned to Sacramento, spending much of her time in church and with family. And then she asked French if she could return to UCSB.
“I don’t know any Division I coach that would sit back and hold a scholarship for someone,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t his top player or top scorer but he did that, and it helped me a lot to know that I had a place to come back to.”
The comeback road was pocked with more obstacles. Three surgeries — two on her left knee and one on her shoulder — reduced her sophomore season to just 10 games.
But she stuck with it to become the assist leader on French’s 13th and final Big West Conference championship team of 2008. She received honorable mention on the all-league team and was picked to the Big West All-Tournament Team.
“I don’t know how she stayed so tough after all she’s been through,” French said after the Gauchos crushed UC Davis 74-59 in the Big West final.
Her new coach, Lindsay Gottlieb, saw the spark in Mitchell even before she arrived at UCSB.
“The first game I watched on film during the interview process was the USC game,” Gottlieb said. “Sha’Rae took over. She hit big shots and you could see her getting fired up on the sideline.
“I looked at the roster and said, ‘Is that kid coming back?’”
That kid always came back.
Mitchell helped Gottlieb win her first Big West title. She was also the female winner of UCSB’s 2009 Phil Womble Spirit Award for all sports.
But what next? Sports had always been her outlet. She even married a UCSB schoolmate, Noah Mitchell, who’d helped the women’s basketball team as a practice player.
She began pursuing a coaching career with the Santa Barbara Blazers youth club team during her sophomore year at UCSB. She graduated in 2009 to become the head girls basketball coach at Providence School.
Mitchell left town the following year to serve a coaching internship with Stanford’s Final Four Team of 2011. She then spent two seasons wearing multiple hats with UCLA’s program before getting hired as an assistant coach at Coastal Carolina.
But Mitchell eventually heard the siren call of the referee’s whistle. She made her G League debut in 2018 and, on Jan. 1, rang in the New Year by becoming only the 15th woman to ever officiate an NBA game.
Gottlieb, one of the first women to ever serve as an NBA assistant coach, saw the potential in Mitchell as long ago as their Big West title run of 2009.
“Sha’Rae,” she said, “is one of the most influential and important players on a team that I’ve ever been around in terms of her presence.”
And now she’s making that presence known on basketball’s biggest stage.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.