LOS ANGELES — Just two years ago, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Louisville was chilling in his dorm room watching NBA All-Star Saturday night.
Donovan Mitchell could hardly contain himself as he enjoyed an epic duel between high risers Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon in Toronto — one day dreaming of being on that stage — as LaVine came out on top.
“It was insane,” Mitchell reflected. “They were making it on the first try, they went into the extra rounds and I’ve watched (Gordon) dunk since high school.”
On Saturday night at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, the Utah Jazz rookie finally got his chance. His moment. His day.
Mitchell held on to beat Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. in the final round to win the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk title with LaVine and Gordon in attendance. He also received a surprise contribution from comedian Kevin Hart.
“I wanted this so bad,” Mitchell said, smiling as he gripped the trophy. “This is one of my favorite events of All-Star weekend.”
For a self-proclaimed “dunk fanatic” like himself, Mitchell was in heaven going against Nance, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, and Dallas’s Dennis Smith Jr.
“Believe it or not, I’ve been preparing for this since I was a kid, like what am I going to do?” Mitchell said. “But I didn’t know I’d be able to jump this high, so I kind of added a few more tricks.”
Mitchell set the tone with a 48 on his opening dunk. He pulled out a second hoop to throw a lob to himself for a windmill jam.
On his second dunk, he received a 50 after gliding over his sister, Jordan, Hart and Hart’s 10-year-old son, Hendrix, for a one-handed cram from the side of the rim off an alley oop with a vintage Darrell Griffith Jazz jersey on.
"I picked Donovan to win it, but to have him represent #35 made my night! Congrats, D!" Griffith said.
Don on his sister:— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 18, 2018
"She's missed so many parties with friends. It's tough sometimes being a popular athlete's sibling. Lot of people don't know that. She's sat in the car for hours while I've had games. She's done a lot, and I'm getting kind of emotional just saying all this." pic.twitter.com/Ynw4uG0s1K
Then, in the championship round, against Nance, he was able to pull out a 98-96 victory with a 50 from a vicious alley-oop cram off the glass. He received a 48 for his final dunk in a Vince Carter jersey with a 360 windmill.
“Growing up, I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.”
Mitchell became the seventh Jazzman to participate in the dunk contest, joining Jeremy Evans, DeShawn Stevenson, Jamie Watson, David Benoit, Blue Edwards and his mentor, Griffith. Evans was the last Utah player to win the title in 2012.
Mitchell also won a couple high school dunk contests and worked with dunk coach Chuck Millan to prepare after learning he would replace Gordon last week.
The dunk contest judges were celebrities Chris Rock, Mark Wahlberg, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Lisa Leslie and DJ Khaled.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker won the 3-point contest and Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie won the 2018 Taco Bell Skills Challenge.
After all the years of studying the previous high risers such as Carter, Michael Jordan, Gordon and LaVine, Mitchell is proud to enter that category. However, don’t expect Mitchell to settle even as the Jazz are in the midst of an 11-game win streak and he leads all rookies in scoring with 19.6 points per game.
“I think it definitely builds a lot of hype around your name, but I’m going to continue being the same kid that, to be honest, a lot of you didn’t know going to Utah,” Mitchell said. “I’m just going to keep being that kid. Despite being the slam dunk champion, I’m still the same 13th pick.
“I got drafted to Utah, and we’re going to be the same team that’s hopefully continuing a multiple-game winning streak,” he added. “But the biggest thing is not letting this get to here and just continuing to stay grounded and even keeled.”