LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the heart of the University of Louisville campus, students Ryan Hudson, Seth Gordon and Lincoln Carr enjoyed the basketball game from the wooden top bar area in Griff’s restaurant.
“C’mon now,” Carr yelled at the big-screen TV while munching on a “Fastbreak” burger.
The trio would leave former Utah Jazz star Darrell Griffith’s place of business disappointed Thursday afternoon, before heading into a 4:30 p.m. special education class.
Not with the restaurant’s service, but after watching Louisville lose to Virginia, 75-58, in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.
“It’s up and down, man,” Hudson said of the team. “We have our goods and our bads, it’s just not consistent. I think that’s the biggest thing just the lack of consistency.”
Just this time last season, an athletic, 6-foot-3, guard was leading the program into the NCAA Tournament. Instead of returning to school for his junior season, former Cardinals star Donovan Mitchell is now tearing it up in his first season with the Utah Jazz.
It’s bittersweet for Louisville fans to watch the team suffer without him, but they couldn’t be happier for his NBA success as the slam-dunk champion and serious Rookie of the Year contender.
“We definitely miss him,” Hudson said. “You can see it in the league; he’s the leading scorer among rookies. He can go get a bucket when you need it and that’s what we’re missing off the team. We don’t have a scorer really or somebody you can go to, to get to the rim and get a bucket.”
Other Louisville fans showed Mitchell just how much they appreciate him Wednesday night, as more than 150 fans and alumni made the two-hour trip to Indianapolis, Indiana to see him play live. Mitchell didn’t disappoint, either, posting 20 points, six assists and three rebounds to help the Jazz win their fourth consecutive game against the Pacers, 104-84. He continues to lead all rookies in scoring with 19.8 points per game.
With all the controversy surrounding the university, including the recruiting and sex scandal which ultimately led to the 2013 men’s basketball title being vacated, Mitchell’s early pro success has lifted the fans.
“He’s definitely a bright spot with everything that’s going on around athletics right now,” said Cameron Schanie, Louisville alum who made the drive to Indiana.
At least 150 people from the @uofl are in attendance to see Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell). The university offered pregame courtside access to select alumni way back in January. pic.twitter.com/b8wxl4HCrQ— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) March 7, 2018
Mitchell has created a buzz around his college town through his continued support for the university amid the negative press.
He’s constantly draped in red Cardinals gear, dedicating posts via social media and even broke out a pair of custom Louisville-inspired Adidas Dame 4 sneakers to pay homage to the 2013 national title squad on Feb. 23 during a home game against the Portland Trail Blazers. The last names of every team member were sprinkled throughout the shoes and “2013 Champs” on the heels.
Gestures like those have traveled around Louisville hotspots such as Five Star Barbershop, Changing Images Barbershop, Lucretia’s Kitchen and 4th Street Live. Taj Louisville on Market Street and Shelby have also lifted a replica championship banner outside the bar to commemorate the forfeited title.
“They’re awesome. I love it down there,” Mitchell said of Louisville. “I’ll be down there after the season for a little bit to see my guys.”
Current Louisville players Deng Adel and Ryan McMahon were two of Mitchell’s former college teammates who continue to keep in touch with the rising star. From the dunk contest to everyday life to the Louisville sneakers, they’re witnessing it all.
“I'm proud of him. The kid is my brother,” said McMahon, a redshirt sophomore guard. “I'm happy the way everything has panned out for him. He obviously made the right decision, I told him to get out of here."
"It means everything. He's still a Cardinal and he's still our brother,” he added. “He's always looking out for us."
Adel was even aware of some of Mitchell’s dunk contest routine well in advance because of that close-knit bond they developed.
“He told me a couple of dunks he going to do, especially the one where he threw it off the other backboard and dunked it,” said Adel, a junior forward. “I'm happy for him. He's been playing terrific and just very happy for him."
Donovan Mitchell receives a nice ovation ahead of the Utah Jazz-Indiana Pacers game. Louisville is just 2 hours away from Indianapolis so he has a lot of support in the stands. pic.twitter.com/N5RRVXSPby— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) March 8, 2018
As Louisville awaits to hear whether its name will get called on Selection Sunday for the 2018 NCAA Tournament, at least Mitchell is making local students like the trio in Griff’s proud.
The world may be amazed by Mitchell’s achievements in Utah, but Louisville was exposed to the freakish athlete first.
“It doesn't surprise me to see the reception he has gotten from the fans in Utah because that's the kind of person he is,” said David Padgett, UofL interim head coach. “The basketball side of things, I don't know if any of us saw it coming that quickly at least.
“What he's doing is incredible and there's no doubt about it, he should be Rookie of the Year,” he added. “It shouldn't even be a debate. I hope he can continue to lead that team and get to the playoffs."