The Bonds of Basketball

Panthers player grew up loving the game

[Image] The Bonds of Basketball
Photo: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

By Nick Bornheimer

Folding towels and fetching balls – that was the story for Mitch Roelke as he spent the 2009-10 season as the UW-Milwaukee men’s basketball team manager.

Ample time to think about how difficult it was to be so close to the game without a team name on his chest and a number on his back.

He opted to attend UWM after receiving minimal basketball consideration out of high school, but sought out a role as manager.

Many might view the role of setting up before every practice and game, and cleaning up afterwards as boring and tedious. Roelke saw it as an opportunity.

“I needed to be around basketball,” he said. “If I couldn’t play I wanted to be the closest I could to the game. I knew this gave me a chance.”

Every so often, that chance would become reality. It started in practice when Roelke would be asked to step in due to absences.

“I knew I had to make the most of those opportunities in practice when I had the chance,” he said. “It was the first time in my whole life that I hadn’t played competitive basketball since I could remember, so this fire grew inside of me to want to compete.”

After a season spent watching from the sidelines, Roelke knew he couldn’t remain a game day spectator. He was determined to earn a roster spot.

He eagerly worked out with the team every day in the offseason, including the summer workouts, with zero guarantee of a roster spot. He didn’t go back to his hometown of Waunakee during summer, he didn’t take a day off – he practiced, and practiced.

“His story is incredible,” said current teammate J.J. Panoske. “Not many guys have that much will or determination.”

At no point did Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter promise, but Roelke continued to train.

“Right at the last second before the start of the season they gave me my No. 20 jersey,” said Roelke. “It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced.”

The self-proclaimed “6 feet on a good day” Roelke might not shake you on top of the key, drive into the lane and throw it down, but helping the team in any way helps him know he’s doing his part.

Though Roelke has scored only 41 career points at UWM, his first six are ones he’ll never forget. Down by two against the Golden Mustangs of Southwest St. Minnesota, Roelke’s name was called in the first game of the 2011-12 season.

Roelke scored six of the final eight points in the half on 2-2 shooting behind the arc, one of which occurred at the buzzer, giving the Panthers a nine-point lead. Milwaukee won 71-65; Roelke’s six points were the difference.

“Those were pretty special to have been my first six [points],” he said. “That was an amazing game and moment.”

There weren’t too many amazing moments the following year, though, as Roelke pointed out.

In a disastrous 8-24 season, their worst record since the 1997-98 season when Ric Cobb coached the squad to 3-24, Milwaukee finished in the basement of the Horizon League and won just three conference games.

Despite the team woes, Roelke never stopped taking extra shots in the UWM Pavilion. In a season where he averaged less than five minutes-per-game and just over one point-per-game, he still played pick-up games with friends he’s been playing with for years in his down time to help better craft his overall game.

The small in-game role didn’t make the losses feel any better for Roelke.

“I don’t think I’ve ever lost that many games in my entire basketball career combined,” said Roelke, reflecting on the 24 losses. “It was a different kind of feeling for me, but it didn’t stop my will to compete.”

He was right. In his four years of high school basketball, the Waunakee Warriors experienced defeat just five times. As the starting point guard for the varsity squad his junior and senior year, the team went 23-1 and 20-3, respectively, and lost to Madison Memorial, the WIAA Division 1 runner-up in 2008 and the champions in 2009, in the sectional finals both years.

He averaged 10 points-per-game and earned second team all-conference accolades his senior year and served as the court general.

The kid was one of my favorite players to coach in my 21 years doing this,” Waunakee Warriors head basketball coach Dana MacKenzie said. “He had to work for everything he got, and I respect him for that. He played like a coach on the floor.  He’s not blessed with unbelievable athletic ability or size, but was determined and as competitive as anyone we have had.

Roelke’s best friends, Paul Fitzpatrick, Jeff Tagarelli and Seppi Reda, all played basketball with Roelke in high school and all attend UWM.

“Mitch was and still is a natural born leader,” Fitzpatrick said as the four focused on the TV screen in Roelke’s Milwaukee living room, attempting to outrace one another in the Nintendo 64 video game Mario Kart. “Mitch and I became really close in high school, mostly because of basketball. I always try to do extra hours in the gym rebounding him.”

Even Roelke’s high school football team lost only two times in two years while he played defensive back on varsity; both losses in the round before the Division 1 State Championship game.

Roelke became accustomed to winning in his younger years. His middle school basketball team took third, first and second place in state in his sixth, seventh and eighth grade seasons respectively.

It was during these years, and earlier, that his will to win and passion for basketball became engrained in him, mainly because the man with the clipboard was also Paul Roelke, Mitch’s father.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had in my life,” said Roelke referring to his father. “He was always there. He’s just a good teacher. His basketball camps really made me grow to love the game of basketball and make me into to the person I am.”

Paul Roelke is in his 16th year of running basketball camps in his Waunakee backyard, literally. He noticed Mitch and his friends constantly playing and saw an opportunity to help develop them. What started as some pavement and a basketball hoop became the place where every player in Waunakee played summer basketball.

Paul graduated from Waunakee High School, played basketball growing up and became very familiar with the game. Paul even went back to school and become a physical education teacher at DeForest High School because of his love for sport.

He knew he saw a lot of potential in the Waunakee youth players, especially his son.

“Mitch was my point guard, so I had a lot of expectations for him, but he chose to love the game,” said Paul. “To this day I tell everyone that Mitch was my favorite player that I ever coached, and I’ve coached a lot of different teams, thus a lot of players.”

Basketball IQ is one thing that Roelke prides himself on, and what helped make Roelke his father’s favorite.

“As far as his basketball IQ and his knowledge of the game, I would put that against any player in the Horizon League,” Paul said.

Basketball was always a main component of the father and son relationship. The two would attend nearly every game the Wisconsin Badgers played at the nearby Kohl Center in Madison. One moment stuck out in Mitch’s memory as he reminisced and began to smile.

He described how he was asked to serve as ball boy one afternoon as the Badgers played Minnesota. Former Wisconsin great Devin Harris stole a ball and baited a Minnesota defender into an and-one dunk that shook the rim right above him.

“It was one of the coolest memories I have from a Badgers basketball game,” Roelke said. “It was both intellect and athleticism that helped Harris, and that really stuck with me. He made basically took it to Minnesota.”

It’s the love of the game that drives Roelke to keep putting in the extra hours, but also the relationships he’s been able to develop and the stories he’s able to recall that keep him so close to the sport.  

Long term, he hopes to teach high school and coach basketball, just like his father. Roelke dreams of teaching math and coaching in an English speaking school in foreign country to help kids achieve basketball scholarships, a feat he himself will be looking to achieve in his final year of eligibility.

Whether his role is increased in his senior season is yet to be determined. All Roelke knows is it won’t change his love for the game.

“I want to share the game with others like it’s been shared with me,” Roelke said. “Basketball is such a huge part of my family and my friendships. It really is more than just a game and made me into who I am. For right now, I’m going to keep doing me and ride this thing out.”

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