In recent weeks, Mitch Henderson has been something of a walking advertisement for Blue Cross. His nose was broken in the men's basketball team's victory over Yale Feb. 14. Last week against Penn, he sprained his ankle and reaggravated a back injury. In both games, after spending a short time on the bench, Henderson went back out on the floor. Never once did he consider sitting out.
No one should have doubted that Henderson would return. A broken nose, a sprained ankle, a bad back – it doesn't matter. The only way to keep Mitch Henderson off the court these days is with a restraining order. He's having too much fun to stop now.
The senior guard and co-captain from Lexington, Ky., will lead Princeton against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the first round of the NCAA tournament this evening in Hartford, Conn. Tonight's game could possibly be the culmination of a historic season for the Tigers and a hugely successful college career for Henderson. But if Henderson has anything to say about it, Princeton's run in the tournament will be a long one.
He is the starting point guard on the No. 8 team in the country. He is blessed with the kind of athleticism that inspires jealousy and enables him to make the difficult look easy. If that wasn't enough, Mitch Henderson is also an incredibly skilled basketball player.
He is the only athlete in the more than 100-year history of the Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind., to win 12 varsity letters – four each in baseball, basketball and football, earning all-state honors in each sport. Rarely is Mitch Henderson the basketball player written or spoken about without someone mentioning that he was drafted by the New York Yankees. While Henderson had what he called a "nice high school career" and saw the Yankees drafting him as an honor, he has no ambition to play professional baseball. He attempted to play during his freshman year at Princeton, but had difficulty at the plate.
"Hitting a baseball, I think, has got to be one of the hardest things to do in sports," Henderson says. "I haven't played in a long time. There's no way I'd be playing anymore."
Professional baseball may be out of the picture, but professional basketball is not. Henderson has been scouted by the NBA and has been invited to participate in pre-draft camps for the top seniors in the country in Portsmouth, R.I., and Phoenix next month.
Henderson is excited about the opportunity to showcase his talent before the host of NBA scouts and general managers who will attend the two camps.
"Everybody goes, no matter if you're Raef Lafrentz (of Kansas) or Miles Simon (of Arizona)," Henderson says. "I'm excited about that. If you play well in that camp, somebody might pick you up.
"I don't know how I'm going to size up," he says. "I don't consider myself to be a flashy type of player. I know what I do well, and hopefully at these camps, I'll just do those things and I'll be fine."
If the NBA doesn't work out, Henderson would like to follow former teammates Chris Doyal '96, Jesse Rosenfeld '97 and Sydney Johnson '97 to professional leagues overseas.
All of the success and accolades that Henderson has earned over his college career are sweet for a player who had trouble attracting interest from major college recruiters.
When it came time for Henderson to choose a college, he first had to decide exactly what sport he wanted to play. While basketball was always his primary focus, Henderson, who was an all-state quarterback in high school, also explored the possibility of playing college football.
"I really wanted to play college football," Henderson says. "I didn't get recruited by anybody. I was thinking about walking on at Indiana or Kentucky. I sent a letter out to a couple of schools. I was like, 'I'll be a receiver, I'll do anything.' "
The response Henderson got? "Nothing."
Henderson then turned his focus towards playing Division I basketball. Despite earning all-state honors in basketball, none of the major schools in Indiana offered him a scholarship. Not Indiana, Purdue or Notre Dame. Not Butler or Valparaiso. Not even Indiana-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
In the end though, the decision came down to Princeton and Dartmouth. After his visit to Princeton in April of his senior year, Henderson decided to play for the Tigers. Dartmouth's loss has unquestionably been Princeton's gain. He was second in the Ivy League in assists and third in steals this year, and he ranks among the top 50 in school history in scoring.
His quickness and ballhandling skills are, at times, astounding. He is a consummate playmaker, with the ability to anticipate the pass and throw it before the defense has any idea what's coming. As a defender, he routinely embarrasses the player he is assigned to guard.
"People talk about what a great athlete he is and how he was drafted by the Yankees," head coach Bill Carmody says. "But he's also a very skillful basketball player. He's a tremendous competitor. He's one of the best guards we've had since I've been here."
For his part, Henderson remains modest about his abilities.
"I try not to feel to good about myself as a passer, but when I see things that are open, I'm going to throw it," Henderson says.
In addition to his quickness and ballhandling skills, Henderson possesses many of the intangibles that coaches love – aggressiveness, intensity and toughness.
Last Tuesday against Penn, Henderson, after taking a hard spill and in obvious discomfort, limped his way to the Princeton bench. Minutes later, he was back on the floor and played the rest of the Tigers' 78-72 overtime victory.
Along with that toughness comes intensity and aggressiveness. Henderson is a player who refuses to back down from an opponent, no matter whether that player is another Ivy Leaguer or a future NBA lottery pick. In the past, Henderson has clashed with various Penn players, and earlier in the season, Henderson and six-foot, nine-inch Antawn Jamison of North Carolina exchanged words. The fact that Henderson stood up for himself against a first-team All-America is not surprising.
"I feel like he's a person on the floor and were both competing for the same thing," Henderson says. "I'm not going to give him anymore respect than P.J. Halas from Dartmouth."
It is important to point out here that if you get the impression that Mitch Henderson is the kind of person who eats glass or spits nails, you would be sorely mistaken. Henderson the basketball player is not quite the same as Henderson the person. He is as friendly, engaging and outgoing off the court as he is intense on the court.
"He's hysterically funny," says senior center Steve Goodrich, who roomed with Henderson for two years. "He's always fun to be around."
Last Saturday, as a group of loyal fans camped outside Jadwin Gym waiting for tickets to tonight's game, Henderson stopped to play H-O-R-S-E with some of the students on a portable hoop.
When Henderson arrived on campus four years ago, there was no inkling he would develop into this kind of player.
"I didn't know if the coaches knew I was on campus," Henderson says. "I didn't even know who Steve Goodrich was."
On the court, however, Henderson made an immediate impact, starting 22 games for the Tigers and becoming one of just nine players in the history of Princeton basketball to score 200 points as a freshman.
Henderson's sophomore year, the Tigers defeated Penn in a playoff game at Lehigh, 63-56, to advance to the NCAAs. The game, which ranks as one of Henderson's all-time favorites in his career, marked the first time that Princeton was able to beat the Quakers during Henderson's time with the team. That win, of course, led to the UCLA game and the Tigers' 43-41 upset.
In a picture that has become etched in Princeton basketball lore, Henderson jubilantly leapt in the air after time had expired with his arms outstretched as Bruin guard Toby Bailey looked on dejectedly.
"It was just a normal reaction," Henderson recalls now. "Everybody does that."
The picture took on greater fame when it appeared on the back of a commemorative T-shirt.
"Everyone in my family's got those," Henderson says. "They wear them around and they mock me all the time. They're like, 'We're wearing a Mitch shirt!' "
Last year however, was a trying one for Henderson. On the court, he continued to excel. He averaged 9.2 points per game and his assists per game climbed for the third straight year. For his efforts, Henderson was named honorable mention All-Ivy.
Off the court, Henderson had to face something much greater than anything he had ever experienced when his father, Robert Henderson, passed away. Mitch missed games against North Carolina and Lehigh to be at home with his family. The loss of his father put basketball in a new perspective for Henderson, causing him to appreciate the support of his teammates who helped him to regain some sense of normalcy.
"Coming back and playing didn't mean anything to me," Henderson says. "Right away I was like, 'This is not important to me.' I had just lost someone that was a huge part of me. It's something everybody goes through at some point. I think about him every day.
"I came back to what was basically 14 of my best friends in the whole world. "Guys aren't sentimental people in general, but it was just the fact that they were there and kept things normal for me."
Henderson returned to the Tigers and helped lead the team to a 24-4 record, including a perfect 14-0 mark in the Ivy League. Last season was a definite success, but this season has been even better. The team's 26-1 record and another perfect league campaign have left him excited about the tournament.
"I go to sleep at night thinking that we can win some games," Henderson says. "I know we can. We're not a Cinderella team."
"If we can cut down on our mistakes and make some shots, we can beat anybody. We all know that. I think even since the North Carolina game we've gotten better, even though our schedule hasn't been as tough. I know for sure that nobody's going to know what we're doing."
Whatever scenario plays out in Hartford, Mitch Henderson will end his career as one of the best guards in Princeton basketball history. His fondness for the school and the basketball program are apparent.
"I've never thought about coaching, but if I would ever want to coach, I'd want to coach here," Henderson says. "I like what we do as a basketball program."
For now though, all talk takes a back seat to tonight's game, as Henderson and his teammates will look to make what has already been an incredible season even better.
"I'd like to make this a better year than it's already been," Henderson says. "I'd love to win some games in the tournament."
Two wins in Hartford would get Henderson a likely reunion with Jamison. If that happens, don't expect Henderson to be intimidated. He never has been. Not by anything.
And who knows? If things work out well for the Tigers in the next few days, the Henderson family may get another "Mitch shirt" to add to its collection.