There’s a part of me that is starting to worry that I might have failed you as the Utah Jazz beat reporter.
It’s my job to be your eyes and ears in the spaces around the team that you can’t see and hear. It’s my job to be able to make you feel like you not only know what’s going on with the team on the court, but also to make you feel like you know the team.
I want you to know what Donovan Mitchell was really like. You deserve to know.
I don’t mean what he was like on the court or what he was capable of, because you were all able to see that. You were able to see him step into the bright lights as a rookie and put on a show of athleticism that was beyond his years.
You watched him help save the Utah Jazz in the wake of the Gordon Hayward departure, and you watched as this team became a perennial playoff contender, in large part because of Mitchell’s talent. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
You deserve to know what it was like to be around him and to hear him talk away from the cameras and microphones in his face. What his attitude and presence and emotions were like after games, in between games, when he was joking around, when he was with his family. Or what it was like when he was hurting, when he was sad, when he was frustrated.
On Friday I was scanning the Twittersphere. It had been about 24 hours since the deal was made that would send Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fans were already upset about Mitchell not having said anything on social media about his time in Utah.
“Give the guy a minute to breathe,” I thought. Then I watched fans walk back their balking when, of course, Mitchell did post something, thanking the fans and Quin Snyder.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, I went scrolling again. Some people were mad about a report that Mitchell was happy, running around a golf course with a smile on his face when he heard the news of the trade. But he gave so much of himself to this Jazz team, to Snyder, to Utah, and he isn’t someone that wants to sit around and lose. That’s where the Jazz are headed and they weren’t going to move forward with Mitchell.
So I would expect nothing less when he hears that a trade has gone down, that the saga and the negotiating and the waiting are over, that he has a new opportunity somewhere else and that he’ll be reunited with Ricky Rubio, and will have a chance to play on a really fun team. I’d be happy too. I was happy for him.
Some fans were mad at Mitchell and seemed indignant about him leaving. And, as the night wore on, the posts from Jazz fans started to shine a light on the root of the problem.
For whatever reason, there is a belief that Mitchell was arrogant, was more worried about his brand or being the center of attention than he was about his team or winning. There are some who believe that Mitchell was a bad teammate and that he didn’t try hard enough. I can say with great confidence that these things are not true.
First, I want to tell you about how generous Mitchell was with his time. NBA players are required to do a certain amount of interviews with reporters and are supposed to be made available upon request, no matter their status. For the most part, those requests and interviews happen without question and without quibbling. But there are some players in this league who shirk their requirements and turn their nose up at reporters.
In my three years of covering the Jazz, not once did Mitchell turn down a request. Every time that reporters wanted to talk to him after a morning shootaround, after a practice, after a game, on an off day, he obliged and he was never surly. He treated us as equals and he was kind and sincere, even when we were challenging him, asking tough questions, criticizing him, and even when he was talking to us after crushing defeats. He gave thoughtful answers and was as personable as any player I’ve covered.
I can understand how, after all the reports of tension between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, people would arrive at believing that Mitchell wasn’t a good teammate. There were certainly personality clashes and disagreements, but that happens on every NBA team. And even when the outside noise was deafening and people believed that there was an “unsalvageable” relationship between the Jazz’s two stars, Mitchell was a good teammate.
I remember sitting courtside at a Jazz road game last season and watching a play in which Gobert went to the floor and came up gingerly. It was a high-pressure moment and Snyder called a timeout. Mitchell, who had been sitting on the bench, was the first person to his feet walking straight toward Gobert.
Gobert started immediately explaining what had happened during the play, trying to talk to Mitchell over the din of the crowd. But Mitchell reached up and grabbed Gobert’s shoulders and yelled, “Hey,” before taking a deep breath and locking eyes with Gobert. “Are you OK?”
After getting confirmation from the big man that he was fine, just a little shaken up, the two walked together to the timeout huddle.
That’s the kind of teammate Mitchell was.
He was always engaged with what was happening, always concerned for his teammates, always wanting to do more and give more and help more. He would cheer on the 15th man on the team just as loudly as he would cheer on one of his fellow starters. He always tried to give credit to his teammates for the little things they did on the court and never tried to make the conversation about himself. He defended his teammates, including Gobert.
When the Jazz would win, Mitchell was exuberant, but measured. He wanted desperately to strike the right balance between celebrating the Jazz’s successes, but never being satisfied. Sometimes he missed the mark, but it wasn’t because he didn’t care.
I’ve watched Mitchell wipe tears from his eyes after losses before heading into an interview room. I’ve walked with him in the tunnels of an arena as he beats himself up, staring at a box score, repeating the number of turnovers he committed. I’ve seen him try to put on a happy face after a bad game, as he meets with friends or celebrities outside the locker room, only to fail in his attempt, shake his head, and go quiet.
The happiest moments I ever saw from Mitchell was when he was talking about his teammates, or when he was with his mom and sister. The bond between Mitchell and his sister, Jordan, is special and he always seemed so at ease and more centered when she was in town with their mother.
There were so many times over the last couple years when I would watch Mitchell talking to other players, his teammates or friends he had on the opposing team, or I’d watch him interacting with fans and I would think about how mature he seemed for his age.
I can’t imagine handling the pressure and expectations and the lifestyle of an NBA player who is the scoring leader on a team but is also just 23, or 24, or 25 years old.
Mitchell constantly impressed me.
When I was critical of Mitchell, I did not pull punches. I wrote and talked publicly about how his defense needed to improve, about his sometimes poor shot selection and about his need to play within a game rather than trying to rise above a game. Mitchell is not a perfect basketball player. But I never thought that Mitchell lacked effort.
Sometimes, his efforts were maybe misguided or put toward the wrong objective, but I don’t think that was ever done out of malice or negligence. Mitchell gave his all. More than a few times I walked with Mitchell toward the player’s entrance at Vivint and he was still needling himself about one play where he wished he could have done more.
The 2021-22 season was a strange one to cover. The league was slowly coming out of the cloud of the harshest moments of the pandemic, but the Jazz had the cloud of the playoff loss to the Clippers following them. It was a cloud that never seemed to truly dissipate. I know that the fans felt it.
The energy around the team was different from the beginning of the season. Where once Mitchell had been jovial and talkative walking toward the team bus after a game, Mitchell was quiet and seemed lost. But it wasn’t just him. That’s how the whole team seemed.
I’ve seen fans suggest that the Jazz weren’t playing with joy last season, and I tend to agree with that. There was just too much pressure, and not enough of everything else. That wasn’t Mitchell’s fault.
It was hard to watch Mitchell search for answers to problems he couldn’t pinpoint. To be at a loss for words when asked why the Jazz seemed like they couldn’t put it all together. He wanted to have the answers and you could tell that it was hurting him.
And despite all the reports that Mitchell didn’t like Gobert or that Mitchell didn’t like Utah or that Mitchell wanted to be somewhere else or that Mitchell wasn’t happy, and despite the lack of joy and the cloud that darkened last season, he never requested a trade.
He never indicated that he didn’t want to be here and he continued to care deeply and continued to cheer for his teammates and continued to be generous with his time.
We watched Mitchell do some absolutely brilliant things with the Jazz on the basketball court. Some things that I’ll never forget and I’m sure you won’t either.
But what I want to make sure is not forgotten is that Donovan Mitchell was a good person, a good teammate, and a basketball player with a ton of heart. He gave a piece of his heart to the Utah Jazz and to all of the fans and that doesn’t change now that he’s gone.