Discovering basketball at the age of six in a happy coincidence, Townsville-born Mitch Norton has since represented Australia overseas in the sport and now plays for the club he grew up supporting at every home game. Now the fresh-faced 21-year-old is being groomed for a leadership role at his much-loved Townsville Crocodiles – something he is embracing with his usual hard work ethic and enthusiasm. Looking at the picture of 6-year-old Mitch standing next to Crocs player and future coach Mike Kelly; it makes you wonder what would have happened if his soccer coach had stuck around that day…
“Mum and Dad were never really into basketball, but I guess they’ve become basketball fans over the years. They’ve come to watch every one of my games and I think they have been season ticket holders since I started playing”
How did you discover basketball as a kid growing up in Townsville? I really wanted to play soccer when I was younger, but you had to be five or six, so I waited a fair while. Finally I could go to the soccer trials: The coach turned up and rolled a few soccer balls out and told us to kick them around for a bit and he’d be back. Then he jumped in his car, and took off. A lady came over soon after and said, “Sorry boys, we won’t have a team this year… the coach has just left”. So I was pretty devastated. Then the next day at school one of my friends said, “My dad is the coach of a basketball team – come along and try it if you want”. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to play basketball”, but I went along. It was pretty fun, I made some good friends and I’ve never looked back.
What’s an average day like for you? 6.30am wake-up, breakfast and start weights at 7.30am at the PCYC at Aitkenvale. That goes for an hour – there’s a lot of leg and core work. We finish around 8.30am then head off to training at Townsville RSL Stadium. We generally start on court at 9.30am, but before that have meetings and watch films of previous games and who we are about to take on. Training is until about 1pm, but you can come back in the afternoon if you want extra. Being a younger guy you’re expected to stay on. The majority of time you have promos in the afternoon where you go to schools and spend time with the kids, which is good as I got that growing up.
“The harder you work, the luckier you get and that’s what I believe in. Almost every day I was in the backyard shooting around. It wasn’t an amazing hoop, but it was a hoop and it’s just something you need to put your mind to”
Is it funny that you work with some of those players now? Yes, I remember Mike Kelly coming to my primary school, which was Currajong State School, in Year 4. It’s crazy how it works as now he’s back as assistant coach. He doesn’t like to talk about it too much as it makes him feel old, but it was his birthday the other day so I reminded him (laughs).
Are you happy with how you’ve been playing so far this season? I’ve started a few times this year, which has been pretty good. I’m 21, so I’m still super young, but I’m trying to live-up to the leadership role I have in the team this year. So that’s pretty exciting; knowing that I’m part of the leadership group and still so young, but I’m getting better and better each day.
In your position as Point Guard, is it all about speed, or do you need to be a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’? As Point Guard, I’m the smallest guy on the court (laughs). In basketball it’s probably not ideal to be small, but there’s lots of other things to work on – speed; strength is a big one going up against all those tall guys – it’s about how you use your body; and change of pace. It’s an all-round game – going inside against those tall guys and knowing there’s going to be a bit of contact – so it’s being able to take a bit of contact and read how defence plays you.
What gives you a buzz in the game? Always when you hit a shot and hear the crowd roar, especially at home in front of your friends and family. It makes you play with passion. In Perth we played in front of 12,000 people the other week and when you score and the whole opposing crowd goes quiet, it’s like, YES! It’s just as rewarding. Plus the travel is one of the best things of our job and I love that aspect. I’ve already been to places that my friends at Uni have been saving up for years to get to.
What’s on the cards long-term? Me playing in Europe – the quality of basketball is really, really good over there. Europe’s pretty close to the USA, but it’s just Europe’s style of play is really similar to over here, whereas in the US they are just athletes and can jump and run on a whole different level. I’m signed until 2018 so still have a while here, but then I’d love to take off overseas and play some ball there.
What about short term? I think I’d like to become more of a leader and demand more of teammates. As a point guard it’s your job anyway, but moving forward in my career I need to develop more of a voice on court and lead that way.
“At training you can turn up and go through the motions, but then you can put the hard yards in. At some training sessions you feel like dying, but that’s when you get better”
Is it challenging being younger and needing to tell older guys what to do? Yes, that’s the tricky thing being young, but your teammates still look upon you to lead. It’s tough trying to tell an older guy who has been in the League a number of years that, “You’re not doing your job, make sure you do it”…
…In the nicest possible way because you’re taller than me and bigger than me…? And older, and you’ve done it for longer (laughs). Yeah, that’s the hardest job, but I think I’ve gained more and more respect, as it’s my fourth year with the Crocs now.
Is your family still in Townsville? Yes, and I live at home with Mum and Dad – I’m saving as much money as I can, which is good. A lot of my teammates are quite jealous I’m still at home not paying rent, not washing, cooking etc; so I’m very thankful to Mum and Dad for putting up with me. They are sort of like the ‘Mum and Dad of the Crocs’ and a lot of the younger guys come over to watch the games, and those who aren’t going away will be having Christmas at the Norton’s. Mum and Dad were never really into basketball, but I guess they’ve become basketball fans over the years. They’ve come to watch every one of my games and I think they have been season ticket holders since I started playing. We’ve been supporters of the club for a long, long time – I think it’s been 15 years.
Do you have siblings too? I have one younger brother who plays basketball too. He’s 14.
Is there any chance of him following in your footsteps? If he wants to: At the moment he’s chilling out and enjoying his basketball and not taking it too seriously, but at that age you don’t need to.
“When you come into team huddles you don’t have long to talk to everyone so it’s got to be clear and to the point and sometimes it’s going to be brutal – players are going to hear things they’re not going to like”
Do you have any advice for young athletes wanting to pursue a career in sport? Being in Townsville you’re in a smaller town, in particular with basketball. Going down to Melbourne there are lots of courts you can get on and shoot around, whereas here after school pretty much all the courts are booked out. It really depends on you and what you want. The harder you work, the luckier you get and that’s what I believe in. Almost every day I was in the backyard shooting around. It wasn’t an amazing hoop, but it was a hoop and it’s just something you need to put your mind to. If you want to set a goal you need to work hard to reach it and I did that for a few years. My biggest goal was to make the Australian U17 team to go to Germany for the World Championships. Being in Townsville you’re going up against kids from Melbourne, Sydney and Perth – a lot bigger towns with more resources. But I was really hungry to get it, worked hard and got picked.
Is that your best sporting achievement to-date? Yes, both when I made the U17s and U19s Australian teams. With the U17s I phoned Mum and Dad to say I’d made it, so I think the next day they went to the bank and got a loan so they could fly over and watch me play over there, which was pretty special. It was an amazing experience to be over in Germany and to look up and have my whole family there watching. It was the first time I ever saw my brother emotional. The other time was when I made the U19 Australian team. I was a year younger than everyone else so it was pretty special to make that team alongside some really good players.
You have a really positive attitude, but do you ever feel the pressure? I guess the Crocs have signed me for a long time so they have a lot of faith in me, so that’s a fair bit of pressure – it’s on me to reward them back. So there’s a little bit of pressure, but as long as I keep working as hard as I do, day-in-day-out, I’m pretty confident I’m going to get better and better. At training you can turn up and go through the motions, but then you can put the hard yards in. At some training sessions you feel like dying, but that’s when you get better. There will be times in a game where there’s foul trouble or someone may get sick and you need to play 30 minutes straight, so training’s where it all starts.
What lessons have you learned already this season? How much being a leader is important: When you come into team huddles you don’t have long to talk to everyone so it’s got to be clear and to the point and sometimes it’s going to be brutal – players are going to hear things they’re not going to like. This year has been the best in terms of leadership for me. We’ve got such a good group that it’s pretty easy to lead these guys. Everyone’s determined and we all want to reach our goal of making the finals.
Any final words to add? I’ve had lots of coaches who have helped me to get to where I am and I’m very grateful for that. I was going to Crocs’ training from when I was about six or seven years old so I was pretty lucky. I was floor sweeping – it wasn’t much – but just being around that professional environment made me more hungry to reach that level. I’ve seen a few kids around Townsville Basketball now who are really putting in the hard yards and shooting by themselves, which is exactly what I did when I was young and it’s good to see. Also, I’m so grateful for the great support of the people behind me; especially my family and girlfriend who are always there for me.
Finally – for those who’ve never seen a game – why should they go? I think the brand of basketball we are playing this year is very exciting. There are dunks, they are blocks… everything people see on TV happening on the NBA is happening here and I don’t think some people realise that.
The Townsville Crocodiles have school holiday programs for kids and all training sessions are open so you can watch them every day at 9.30am at RSL Stadium.
The full schedule of games throughout the season is here: crocodiles.com.au/home