Experiencing a men’s basketball game in the Harry West Gym is exhilarating mixed with excitement as the team plays at a fast pace. It’s almost impossible to keep a steady eye on the ball as it travels through the court by players and lands into the 10 foot basket multiple times. For the past 12 years, Coach Mitch Charlens has led the men’s basketball team to infinite victories. Once a college player himself, he recognizes what needs to be done in order to succeed as a player and collaboratively as a team.
A native San Diegan, Coach Charlens picked up basketball in his early teens. A friend introduced him to the sport and his interests gravitated solely to it. “I played baseball and football as a kid, but then my best friend started going to basketball practice… and that’s when I started playing basketball. I didn’t wanna do anything else right when I found basketball,” Charlens explained.
Charlens appreciated basketball more than other sports he’d like prior because according to him, this was the only sport where he could practice on his own. He detailed football and baseball requires another person, but only a ball and a hoop were expected for basketball. When a gym opened near his home, he consumed his time practicing and perfecting his skills on the hardwood court.
“It didn’t matter if it was a Monday or a Friday night, I was there. My friends wanted to hang out, they had to come to the gym to get me when it closed because that’s where they knew I’d be. But it didn’t seem like work, that’s just where I wanted to be.”
From his hard work and dedication, he found his way onto Saddleback Community College’s men’s basketball team. During the two years there, the team won the conference championships both seasons and was the 8th leading team in the state. When his time wrapped up at Saddleback, he entered a new court at San Francisco State University where he played for another two years and received a Bachelor’s degree in business.
Upon graduating, he unexpectedly became a coach for high school basketball in the Bay Area while working in business. The following year, Charlens became an assistant coach for SF State.
“I never thought I was going to be a coach.” Charlens said. However, he found himself excited with every practice and game he attended and coaching the team in the early morning. The happiness he found in coaching was no match to the business job that required him to wear a suit and tie. “… I realized – I was still working in the city – I didn’t want to waste time in business anymore. I just wanted to be with the team all the time. I was working the guys out at 5 in the morning before I had to go to work, and I realized that was the first time in my life I was excited about getting up that early, because I was so excited to be with the guys.”
This led Charlens to pursue a Master’s degree at Chico State University where he also became assistant coach for the men’s basketball team there. After receiving his degree, he moved to College of the Sequoias for teaching and coaching and soon after became the head coach at City.
While the Harry West Gym was being built, the team practiced and played home games across the way at San Diego High School. The team was undefeated at home and had a winning streak unlike the years before. Since his first year coaching at City, Charlens has been able to coach a new batch of players every season and train them to become outstanding and helped them transfer on to universities.
Assistant Coach Joe D’Ambro commented on Charlens, “Mitch is a player’s coach, that’s what a lot of athletes like to call him. He gives a lot of guys the freedom to play their style of basketball with our system as a program. Really cares about the guys.”
D’Ambro also said, “I think he really knows how to motivate guys. Once we identify what drives a young player, he’s very good at motivating young men to all achieve the common goal.”
During games, Coach Charlens scans the team like a hawk as they collectively work to shoot baskets and guard their post from opponents. He may be perceived as stern and hard on the team, however sophomore player Spencer Maddox explains otherwise.
“Outside looking in people are like, ‘oh, this guy is crazy.’ All they see him is yelling and everything,” Maddox said. “Throughout practice, knowing him and everything, he loves the game.”
Maddox continues to say Charlens is highly educated on the sport and in turn teaches that to the team. “He wishes he could still play but he teaches us what he learned as a player. And coaching for years, he’s been coach of the year for a couple times so he knows his stuff.
“You’d think that the emotions would dull, but they don’t,” Charlens said. “Every win is amazing, every loss is heartbreaking. I guess when that changes, it’s time to stop.”