Nobody knew what to expect, but Donovan Mitchell’s return to Utah was overwhelmingly positive
The fans at Vivint remembered the good things that Mitchell and the Jazz accomplished on and off the court.
For months, Donovan Mitchell has looked forward to, been anxious about, and wondered what it would be like returning to Utah, when he would play on the court at Vivint Arena, but in a jersey that does not say Utah Jazz.
Mitchell knew that it wouldn’t feel like any other game this season. He had gone through a range of emotions in other games — facing the Dallas Mavericks, the team that more or less sealed his fate in Utah, playing at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks, the team that everyone expected him to be on this season, and then facing the Jazz when they were in Cleveland on Dec. 19 of this season.
“I think the bigger game will probably be when we go back out (to Utah),” Mitchell said following the Jazz’s trip to Cleveland. “I was saying to the guys, like let’s not make this bigger than it has to be. I can appreciate the recognition, the anticipation of the game, but we’ve got a job to do.”
That was the mentality heading into that night in Cleveland, but there was a bit more weight and even more anticipation heading into Tuesday night at Vivint, because no one really knew how Mitchell was going to be received.
Would the fans cheer? Would they boo? And, additionally, what emotions would Mitchell experience? Would he be able to compartmentalize enough to focus on the game?
“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It could have went one of two ways.”
Why? Why were there so many questions about how fans would react when Mitchell returned? He played five years in Utah and the team traded him. Why would the reception be anything but warm?
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota in May of 2020, much of the country was facing hard truths about racial inequality and systemic issues that harm Black Americans at a disproportionate rate.
Feelings of unrest and injustice sparked protests across the nation, and Mitchell was not quiet about his feelings and his support of movements aimed at working for racial equity and equality.
“When you have the platform that these guys have, it’s extremely important that you take advantage of it,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “These guys have an opportunity to be leaders outside the locker room, be leaders in the world, and he’s chosen to do that. He’s chosen to speak out and use his platform for things that he believes in, and it takes courage to do that. That makes Donovan who he is. He’s an extremely courageous person.”
Though Bickerstaff sees Mitchell’s actions as courageous, Mitchell was met with pushback and at times vitriol when he spoke out about racial issues in Utah. Unfortunately, so much of what professional athletes experience when it comes to interactions with fans is on social media, which is where some of the most hateful things and people in the world live and speak.
“When you you see it, sometimes it does say “Utah Jazz” in the (profile bio) and you see what the people are saying and it’s not like it’s a fake page, you know what I mean? It’s not some trolls, it’s an actual person, with an actual picture and you see that and you feel that,” Mitchell said of reading some of the more hateful comments online from people who said they were Jazz fans. “It’s not every fan, it’s not everybody, but there are things that I see and hear ... that I didn’t want to bring up because I knew how it would get a reaction on social media.”
Then, when the Jazz traded Mitchell to the Cavaliers this offseason, the hateful things that were said about Mitchell only served to reinforce the negativities he’d experienced before.
While Mitchell certainly received his fair share of support and love from fans, there was a darker side that also made itself known, and that side intensified after an interview Mitchell gave with Marc Spears from Andscape, an ESPN platform that explores intersections of race, sports and culture.
In that interview Mitchell talked about how draining it had been for him to be a Black man in Utah and to feel like he was getting pushback on his attempts to progress racial conversations and feel alone in that fight when he looked at the crowd, which was majority white. Then, people who purported to be Jazz fans on social media would say hateful things that would leave him feeling exasperated.
The weight of all of these experiences and all of negative reactions loomed over Tuesday’s game. The amount of back-and-forth and the clear difference between those who support Mitchell and those who have grown to hate him was so clear and present on social media, that it made many worry about what the reception would be like when Mitchell finally returned.
Even Jazz owner Ryan Smith started to take action directly to make sure that fans who were hoping to see Mitchell and give him a warm welcome would have the opportunity to do so.
One fan worried that her children would hear negativity even though they loved Mitchell and wanted to see him play. Smith offered to host her and her children in a suite for the game.
Another fan suggested that fans who would boo Mitchell have their tickets bought by Smith so he could give them to fans that would see things in a more positive light. Smith agreed, saying, “I’m in.”
“I hope it’s overwhelmingly positive, honestly,” Mike Conley told the Deseret News when asked about Mitchell’s return to Utah. “We know what he meant to the city and the power of his voice and all the things he put on his shoulders. He tried to be that guy for the state of Utah and representing the youth and the Utah Jazz as a whole. He was a great role model and he still is a great role model for all those people in the community and he has done a lot. That can’t be overstated.”
Mitchell arrived at Vivint a couple of hours before the game began and quietly watched from the tunnel as the game operations crew prepared for the night. Looking out toward the court and up at the giant video monitors over the court, Mitchell got a sneak peak (though he wasn’t meant to) of the video tribute the Jazz would play for him later on. That’s when the emotions hit.
“I could laugh and smile and look at myself in a Denver Nuggets hat (on draft night) talking about how I was shaking,” Mitchell said. “That was when I let the emotions ride through ... that was when I was visualizing everything that we’d done, everything that I’ve done in this arena.”
Then the moment finally came.
The Utah Jazz played the tribute video for Mitchell just before the starting lineups were announced, and the fan response was overwhelmingly positive, just as Conley had hoped. If there were any boos or jeers, they were drowned out by everyone who was there to recognize the five years of incredible basketball and leadership that Mitchell gave to the Jazz and to Utah.
“It felt like a regular Jazz game,” Mitchell said. “The support and the love you get is unmatched and I was appreciative of that.”
Mitchell’s mother Nicole and his sister Jordan were sitting courtside for the game, and so was Gail Miller and many other familiar faces that made Mitchell feel at home. And that was the overarching message that Mitchell talked about after the game was over and after the building had cleared out. This wasn’t just a night when Mitchell was returning to the place he’d played previously — it was a homecoming.
This was a place where Mitchell grew up and learned that he wanted to use his voice. Utah was where he felt empowered by his teammates and coaches to stand up for what he thought was right and where he became an All-Star on the court and a leader off the court. Utah is going to always hold a special place in Mitchell’s heart.
“I really want to harp on the fact that I don’t speak on everybody when I bring up what I bring up (the negative experiences), and I think that’s something that gets lost in the shuffle,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done a lot of good here, not just myself. My teammates — Mike, Royce (O’Neale), JC (Jordan Clarkson), Rudy (Gobert), Joe (Ingles), we can go down the line — we’ve done so, so much good to inspire change on and off the floor. That’s something that we will forever keep, and that’s that’s my biggest thing. It’s easy to point out the negative, we live in a world where everything is funneled through that, but at the end of the day, we did a lot of good.”
Though nobody was sure what to expect Tuesday night, the fans at Vivint remembered the good things that Mitchell and the Jazz accomplished on and off the court and according to Jazz head coach Will Hardy, “He got the reception he deserved.”