SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell wanted to go North Carolina and is a “fat boy” at heart, Ekpe Udoh had the worst and best year of his life while in Europe during the middle of his NBA career, and the two Utah Jazz players have a good rapport and communicate well with each other and fans.
Those are a few of the things that 75 West High students and an online viewing audience learned during a “Utah Jazz Live” Q&A session Tuesday afternoon from the school’s choir room.
Mitchell and Udoh answered questions during a moderated, unscripted conversation for about a half hour in the debut of this series.
Here’s an edited version of the chat:
Ekpe, you’re 4-0 in the preseason, what’s the feel at this point in training camp?
Udoh: We’re not there yet. We’re just trying to continue to get better. We have one more preseason game Thursday night, and then it’s that final stretch to get ready for a great year.
Donovan, this is not your first time at West, right?
Mitchell: I’ve been to a football game here. I don’t know if any of y’all were there. It was a long time ago, a year ago.
What do you like about getting out in the community?
Mitchell: I love it here. I come from New York. It's busy. It's populated. It's noisy. It's loud. To be here where it's quiet, peaceful, laid back, it's something I didn’t know I needed until I got here. It's pretty special. I love it.
How did you keep yourself motivated during high school?
Udoh: I knew I wanted to go to college, and basketball has always been a tool for me. That was a way for me to get to college because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a D-I school. By using that, I was able to make it to college, and here I am.
Mitchell: Actually, I broke my wrist, that kind of humbled me, for sure. I was a good athlete, a good baseball player. A great baseball player, I should say. I don’t brag about much, but I will about baseball — but a good basketball player. I was just not myself. I changed my work ethic, and it was night-and-day difference.
With open gym and tryouts coming up, what would you recommend for young players to work on?
Mitchell: A lot of (basketball players) think shooting and scoring is it, and it’s not. I couldn't shoot and I couldn’t score in high school. All I could do is dunk and play defense. Be the one that picks up full court. I could be against the best guard in the country and make sure he doesn't score 10 points. It doesn't matter how many I score as long as (he's) not scoring 10 points.
Udoh: Diving for loose balls, sprint hard and pay attention to the coach when he’s talking.
Any advice for preparing for college for a high school kid?
Udoh: College was a good time. Yes, it was. (Laughs). I would say just be open to new experiences. Whenever you get to college in the fall or summer, network.
Mitchell: if you do happen to get a scholarship or get a few offers, don’t choose the school that is the biggest school. Choose the one that’s right for you. Go somewhere you’re needed, not where you’re wanted.
What school did you want to go to?
Mitchell: North Carolina. I wanted to go there so bad. I held off every school just waiting for them to offer. They never did. I waited so long. I was happy every time we played them. We did pretty well, but Carolina, for sure.
Udoh: One of the home schools (in Oklahoma). As I got older, I decided I want to get away from home and experience something different, and that led me to the University of Michigan.
Advice for college? Would you do anything differently?
Udoh: Make sure you pick your own major. Don’t be pressured into a lazy major. When people asked me what I got a degree in, I always say basketball because I chose general studies. That doesn’t really take you anywhere. I was fortunate so I was able to go to the NBA, so I’ve been around different life experiences that allowed me to grow. When you go to college, pick a major that you would like and that is actually making money out here in the streets.
Donovan, you're working on finishing your degree. Why?
Mitchell: I promised my mom. I didn’t realize the significance of school until I almost didn’t qualify in high school. For me, don’t just do what everybody else does. Challenge yourself. I took extra classes in summer school. I was always the last one in the classroom. I promised my mother I would get a degree. I’m a few classes ahead where I would have been if I would have just taken regular classes, so just challenge yourself in any way you can.
How do you build confidence offensively in basketball?
Mitchell: Shoot. (Laughs.) No, honestly, if you believe in yourself, I think that’s the biggest thing. There are times when it’s tough. There are times when I was told not to shoot the ball. It’s easy to say, 'Look at Kobe Bryant.' I don’t know if you remember when he played the Utah Jazz but he shot three (four) straight airballs in the playoff game and got made fun of for that. For him to take that and become the player he was, that takes a whole lot of confidence. Just believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can't do. If they tell you can’t do that, find ways to prove them wrong. Be the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. Confidence goes a long way.
What do you do to prepare for games and practices?
Udoh: For practices, I talk noise, whoever I’m going against, and that just gets the competitive juices flowing. (Mitchell: We beat them today. Udoh: Yeah, they had a good day today. They needed a day like today.) For games, I just go through warmups. I’m a podcast guy, so I can listen to a podcast before the game and then get ready, but then I still talk noise to my guys just to make sure they’re ready to go.
What inspired you to be a basketball player? Is there any responsibility that comes with that?
Mitchell: I was going to be a baseball player. I had that set in stone in my head. My dad worked with the Mets. I’d been around baseball my whole life. Then I broke my wrist in the 10th grade, and I just stopped. I just stopped playing baseball, and just kept playing basketball. That’s what really kept me going to play basketball. There are a lot of responsibilities. Case in point, how many of y’all tweet, use Twitter and Instagram? How many of y’all curse when y’all tweet?
(One girl raised her hand. Laughs.)
Udoh: OK, so you are real! (More laughs.)
Mitchell: It’s every little thing. You know the Rookie of the Year race last year and all the little things? If I like a photo, it’s on Bleacher Report. That goes for all of us. If we comment on anything — we’re under such a small microscope. That’s just the responsibility we have with it. That's not just with me and Ekpe. It’s with Ekpe's mom, dad, friends, family. They’re a representation of who you are. You look at the Jimmy Butler trade — we were talking about this today — you look at how Andrew Wiggins's brother tweeted "Hallelujah!" that (Butler) was thinking about leaving. They’re not going to ask his brother about it, they’re going to ask Jimmy (and Andrew Wiggins) about it. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it for sure.
Udoh: It’s the responsibility of being a role model and being given this platform that you can decide which way you want to go on political and social issues but being aware and understanding what’s actually going on so when you’re posed that question or you want to do your own campaign, you’re able to give accurate information. One of the campaigns I want to start is get off social media and have face to face conversations with people. That’s big, especially as you get older. And read books. Join Ekpe's Book Club!
Udoh (looks in camera): This is a great plug. Hello, my name is Ekpe Udoh. I play for the Utah Jazz. … (He picks a different book for his club to read and discuss every week. He even sends out books and schedules. This week, he's invited an author whose book was previously featured to chat with the club.) Conversations on social media. That's my way to build a community outside of basketball. Tha’ts my way to build a community outside of basketball.
Any book recommendations for Ekpe’s Book Club?
Mitchell: I’ve got a few but they're all sports books. I like Heat by Michael Lupica. It’s about a kid who came from Cuba illegally, wanted to play baseball, starts to do well, then they find out he’s not from the U.S. and it’s kind of holding him back.
Udoh: If I do choose this book, will you join the discussion?
Mitchell: I definitely will.
How old were you when you first dunked?
Udoh: Thirteen. I was able to dunk because of my height. I’m not going to lie. (He is now 6-foot-10.)
Mitchell: Summer going into the eighth grade was mine, 12, 13. I didn’t dunk the whole eighth grade year — (just) one time in the summer. (On film?) Definitely not on film, so I could be lying. (Laughs.) I have a picture of my first in-game dunk, so that's real."
Udoh: We’re professionals now. It's not something that’s difficult. Just being in there and competing, the drills, that’s what comes with the job.
Mitchell: He's been in the league for a few years, so that’s the right answer. I hate running. I hate it. (Laughs.) That’s the one thing I hate, but it’s part of the job. You can’t run away from it. (Pun not intended.) That’s what separates good and great. Good ones kind of stop. If I was willing to just be good, I’d stop running around. But to be great, the best ones are in shape so it comes with it.
If you meet at the rim, who wins?
Udoh: He knows this answer. Let’s not do this right now.
Mitchell: I’m gonna go ahead and give it to Ekpe.
Boys basketball player: Could you come to a boys basketball game at West?
Mitchell: That's a definite. I’ll be there for sure.
Girls basketball coach: Can you come to a girls game? (Claps and laughs.)
Mitchell: As long as we don’t have a back-to-back or anything crazy, I promise you I’ll be there. (Coach: I’m going to be looking, because I’m going to be coaching. Mitchell: I got you.)
Who's your childhood hero?
Mitchell: Basketball-wise, I’d probably say LeBron (James) was a big one. I look up to not just what he did on the floor but what he's done in the community. I grew up when they hated LeBron, so for him to be able to take a lot and put a lot on his shoulders was really what stood out to me because not a lot of guys want that pressure, want that role, but he took it head on, so that was really impressive to me.
David Wright, who played for the Mets. He just retired recently. He’s someone I've known personally for a very long time. He taught me about routines, eating right. I didn't listen to him until this year. But little things like that really did help me mature for sure.
You were at The Decision, right?
Mitchell: I was at The Decision. That was right down the street from my house. I almost got hit in the head with a bottle. Knicks fans weren’t very happy, but that was fun.
Udoh: I would say Hakeem Olajuwon, becuase he's Nigerian. I’m Nigerian. He showed someone can come to the States and make it to the highest level.
Who inspires you now?
Udoh: I find inspiration every day. I’m older. I love to read. One of my inspirations is Malcolm X. If you get a chance you should read his book, "The Autobiography (of Malcolm X)" by Alex Haley. I love to read. (Mitchell: He reads a lot. Udoh: I love to read. Laughs.) You just see stuff that goes on in today’s world. What LeBron’s doing with school and his institute. Maybe see my parents, that will get me going. Seeing Donovan and seeing how he’s taking it to the next level. Just whatever I find during the day, that gets me going.
Mitchell: My mom. (Udoh: It's about to get real.) Mom was big-time. Without her, none of this is possible. Obviously, I went to Louisville. She would drive 14 hours (from Connecticut) to see me play and then drive back in the same night. There's a lot she did for me, her and my sister. To this day, I would do anything for those two, for sure.
If not basketball, what would you be doing?
Mitchell: Baseball, for sure. And if not, I would be a firefighter. That’s my thing. I like firetrucks. (Udoh: Really? That's cool.)
Udoh: I don’t know. To be honest with you, there wasn't really a Plan B. It is what it is. I grew up — everybody has their own story — but for me it was, 'You got to make it. You got to put it in.' Unless God decides to humble you and you can't play the sport anymore, until then you’ve go to go. I’m able to take care of my family and generations down the line.
What’s your favorite food?
Mitchell: Sweet potatoes. Love.
Udoh: Sushi or some type of Jamaican jerk chicken.
Mitchell: It used to be Ruth’s Chris (steaks) every night. Every night. I’ll give you a little background to that. I played at Louisville, Coach P (Rick Pitino) took us to Ruth’s Chris every time before a big game. Being drafted, you have a little more money now so you go to Ruth's Chris every night. I don’t remember if you remember the first 12 games of the season? I was not playing well at all. You want to know what really changed? I stopped eating at Ruth’s Chris every night. (Moderator Aaron Falk joked: "This is not sponsored by Ruth's Chris.") Just healthy grilled chicken, pasta (now). It's been a complete change.
Udoh: This is great. Y'all don’t really understand. He’s really a fat boy. Y'all don’t really understand the growth right now. This is great to see, though.
Mitchell: I was 220 last year. (Now listed at 6-3, 215.)
Udoh (laughing): He was just going. He loves breakfast. Look at him. He lights up at breakfast.
Mitchell: I’ve got to have my four or five pancakes, five scrambled eggs. My four pieces of bacon. Then I can carry on with my day. Then a steak at night. (Udoh: This is before practice. Mitchell: He’s not kidding. This is the real deal.) I've gotten it down to two pancakes, two eggs, steak once a week. I used to have two packs of gummy bears a day. I've cut that out. Sometimes Skittles if they didn't have gummy bears. Gatorade, a lot of Gatorade.
Who's the biggest eater?
Mitchell: Now it’s not me anymore. It used to be me.
Udoh: I’m up there. We’re laughing and joking (about Mitchell's appetite), but at the same time it shows the growth mentally that he’s gone through in this past year from not knowing and still being able to compete at a high level to now really taking it serious and going to take his game to another level just by doing that. Y’all can take from that as well.
Mitchell: It’s hard. It’s not easy trying to stop (eating). It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, trying to manage your weight and play at a high level. It’s a lot.
What’s the hardest thing to make it through?
Udoh: Probably having to go overseas to play basketball after my fifth year (in the NBA). That was really a low point in my career. Going from playing in the NBA to having to go overseas where it’s more commercial flights, you have roommates, you’re sleeping in the Euro twins beds, so you’re falling off, being away from family (and) they're not able to come out as often. But it was also the best time in my life as well. Once I was able to get comfortable, look at the mirror and accept where I was, it took me to another level.
Mitchell: He was the defensive player of the year in Europe, the whole Euroleague. (Claps.)
How do you stay humble with early success?
Mitchell: God will always find ways to humble you. When I broke my wrist in the 10th-grade year, that really hit home to me that this could be gone any second. Understand just because you make the varsity team, that ain't it. This could be gone in a second, so if you appreciate every second you're on the floor, play your hardest, play as if you have nothing to lose, you’ll realize how much better you’ll get mentally. I work my hardest when nobody’s around. It’s easy to work hard when Coach is around and at tryouts. If you’re not willing to run the same speed for a sprint when coaches aren’t around, that separates it. I've seen guys 10 times good as me. There are so many guys that you're about that are gone because they got comfortable. So many guys are gone because they became relaxed. You've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Did you always have positive mindset or did that take work and training to build that up?
Udoh: It takes work. I’m still evolving, the evolution of who you are as individuals. Some days, man, you may not want to work, you may be down on yourself. In the NBA 82-game season and playoffs, you may not be in the rotation, you have to find that energy to stay with it and continue to encourage guys. You've got to continue to work at it and you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself and then you can do whatever you want to.