Facebook Twitter

Donovan Mitchell on his return to Utah, friendship, family and inspiring change

The former Jazz star opened up following his first trip to Utah since being traded to Cleveland. Here’s what he had to say

SHARE Donovan Mitchell on his return to Utah, friendship, family and inspiring change
Cleveland guard Donovan Mitchell winks at a teammate as the Utah Jazz host the Cavaliers at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.

Cleveland guard Donovan Mitchell winks at a teammate as the Utah Jazz host the Cavaliers at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. It was Mitchell’s first return visit to Vivint Arena since being traded last summer.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On Tuesday night Donovan Mitchell returned to Utah for the first time since the Jazz traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason.

Following the Jazz’s 116-114 win over the Cavs, Mitchell spoke with reporters for more than 20 minutes. You’ve probably seen stories that include some of what he said that night, but there was so much good stuff that covers myriad topics, I thought you might want to see everything he said.

Below are all the questions and answers from that interview session. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you describe the emotions you felt tonight?

Yeah. I was really comfortable, I’m not gonna lie to you. It wasn’t weird, it wasn’t anything like that. It was just like I’m playing at home like I had been for the past five years. The reception was phenomenal; I’m appreciative of it from everybody. The tribute video was great. But it felt like just a typical Jazz night — back and forth, screaming, yelling, it was awesome. It was good to be back and unfortunately we didn’t get the dub. But I gotta give them credit, they fought hard and competed to the end. But it was great to be back.

Did you watch the tribute video?

Parts. I was trying to. ... I told everybody on (the Jazz) side that I wasn’t gonna talk to them today. But JC (Jordan Clarkson) ran over and gave me a hug. I was trying to be locked in. But saw it when I first got here. I went out there and just stood and looked at the arena, kind of just to see it before you go out there, and they were playing it. So, I’d already seen it. Like I said, very appreciative of it. I spent a lot of time here, a lot of good things that you saw throughout the video and the nasty hairstyle I had when I first got to the league. I’m just very appreciative of it all.

merlin_2957434.jpg

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) talk before the teams play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Utah won 116-114.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Could you clarify when you saw it?

I got here probably like 4:30 and in the tunnel no one can really see you so that’s why I kind of just stand there ... just look around. And I just did that just to calm myself down before because I don’t go out to see the floor until I shoot and that’s when everybody’s there. So just spent some time over there to look at it and just feel all the emotion and then get back to stretch and be ready for the game. 

Were you surprised at all by the reception?

Yes and no. I mean, we did a lot of good. But I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. But when I got it, like I said, it just felt like a regular Jazz game, like you’ve been here and you know the support and the love you get, it’s unmatched. But obviously it could have went one of two ways, we all know that in this room and it went went the right way, I feel, and I appreciate that. Unfortunately we couldn’t shut everybody up and get the win. But it felt good. People courtside talking and seeing familiar faces, seeing Gail (Miller) courtside, seeing Ryan Clark from Stance Socks, everybody, my mom and sister were there. It was great.

Was a lot of the negativity you’ve experienced from fans on social media?

I would say yes and no to that. Like I said in the in the (Andscape) interview, it’s not every fan, it’s not everybody. But there are things that I see and hear that I didn’t bring up in the interview that I didn’t want to bring up because I knew how much it would get a reaction on social media. But I thought I did enough. I’ve been saying all this for years. Maybe not to the extent, but I’ve been talking about all these different things and different scenarios for a while. And yeah, you see it on social media. You see it. But, who cares what social media says, right? But at the end of the day, when you see it and sometimes it does say ‘Utah Jazz’ in the (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. That’s where I was going with that and just trying to use my voice like I have been continuously to speak for people that you guys don’t put a camera in front of because they don’t have that voice. They’re not able to speak on it and that was really my intention. That’s always gonna be my intention with what I do, and how I move forward, not just for Donovan Mitchell. Like I said in the interview, I gave my ID and I was good to go. But what about the kid, the person that’s not able to do that? That’s pretty much my sentiments towards how I go about that stuff, because we’re given such a platform and a pedestal to speak on and I want to make sure I do that as much as I can.

You mentioned that you didn’t know which way this was gonna go tonight, and I think that a lot of people were wondering about that. Was there a sense of relief at how positive the reception was?

Yeah, it was really nice. I think I’d say I was prepared for both, I had plenty of time to think about it. But when you get that — and that’s what made it feel comfortable — when you hear that, you hear your name introduced, you hear the fans screaming, it’s just like I said, I’d been playing here for five years, the only difference is I’m on the other side of the floor. But when you hear that and you see everybody courtside wearing your jerseys, screaming your name, that’s what allows you to feel comfortable and it is a sigh of relief. Like I said, I’m appreciative of it. When we were in the locker room, I told the guys, “Look, I don’t know what’s gonna happen tonight, heh, you know what I mean? But let’s just prepare for a dogfight. Whether they cheer or not it’s gonna be a dogfight because not only the atmosphere, but this is a talented group and they got a lot of guys who’ve been playing really well. So you gotta go out there and give it our best shot.”

What did it mean to have your mom and sister here sitting courtside for this game?

They were there from the first one, the first game against the Nuggets, and to have them here — they’ve been through the whole ride with me, the highs and lows and my sister has sacrificed so much on a day-to-day in her childhood. She’s still a child, she just turned 21 so she might disagree but you know, she’s still a child. For me to just show my appreciation, to show my love for them and just making sure of that. This life has allowed me to do all of that and I’m very thankful, but to have them there, in this moment, it means the world to me.

When you were in the tunnel pregame, what were the emotions that you were going through? What was going through your head?

Everything. The last time I was in here, we lost. Just seeing that. Seeing you know Game 6 against OKC, seeing Game 5 against the Clippers where we lose. But also seeing the nights where I have 46 and career-highs, different things, big wins, we had set the record for, I think, against the Magic when we won by the highest margin, we had the record set here for 3s, like there’s so much good done in this building. You just kind of want to see it and just let it run through your mind and play before you go back into game mode because you gotta be appreciative of it. This is a long season and there’s different things you have to appreciate throughout the year and I think coming here and being able to feel that is huge.

Now that this game is out of the way, what do you hope your relationship is with the state of Utah going forward?

I hope it’s the same as it was tonight, the same as it’s always been. And I really want to harp on the fact that I don’t speak on everybody when I bring up what I bring up, and I think that’s something that gets lost in the shuffle. But it is what it is, and it’s understanding that I’ve done, and we’ve done, a lot of good here. Not just myself, but my teammates — Mike (Conley), Royce (O’Neale), JC, 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 and I think that’s something that we will forever keep and that’s my biggest thing. It’s easy to point out the negative, we live in a world where everything is funneled through it, but at the end of the day, we did a lot of good, man. That’s something that I want to make sure is always harped on. But I’m not gonna stop using my voice the way I feel like I should.

Can you share what you said to Walker Kessler after the game?

Oh, yeah. He calls out what coverage he’s going to be in before he is in it. So like, I knew what he was going to do before it happened. So, he called ‘drop,’ which means you’re going to be back so I’m like, cool, I gonna shoot a 3. The one time he didn’t call it out was when I missed at the end of the game, and he had to be up and then I rushed into a shot. So I told him, “Guys who shoot 3s off the dribble, they’re gonna go at you, but don’t tell them the answer to the exam before it comes.” He’s gonna be really good, man. He’s a really humble kid, he’s gonna be really solid. He’s working with a childhood friend of mine, Chris Jones, and he’s gonna be really good.

merlin_2957428.jpg

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) defends Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the teams play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Starting with Joe Ingles and then finishing with you and Rudy, this core group, this great group was broken up in the blink of an eye. How will you remember that group?

I don’t even know where to start. A lot of laughs. Honestly, I’m very thankful for that group because it helped groom me to be the person, the player that I am today. A lot of what you’re seeing now was because of them. Because they allowed me to be that guy at a young age. The same shots that I hit tonight are the same ones I was missing my rookie year and they were telling me to shoot them, telling me to pick it up on different ends, teaching me the ins and outs of the game, how to take care of my body, how to be a pro. I’m very appreciative, starting from Rodney Hood, you know, my first year, and I don’t think he gets enough credit because it was supposed to be his team when I first got here, and when you have a young guy come in, who plays your position, and then starts over you and he was nothing but a complete professional and if anything, boosted me up to play, and I don’t think a lot of people know that. And he was and telling me what coach means when he says different things and honestly just boosted me up. You don’t get that a lot in the NBA, that speaks to the group of people that we’ve had in this locker room and I’m very appreciative of those guys. We still talk to everybody, every time I see them. And I’m gonna keep saying, we did a lot of good things, man. I think we all get consumed with championship, championship and that’s not easy. There’s a reason why it’s only one team that does it every year. We fell short, but I can’t say that I would choose a different group to do this with because we were great. We did a lot of really good things.

merlin_837724.jpg

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), forward Joe Ingles (2) and guard Rodney Hood (5) celebrate in the final moments of their 104-101 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017. Mitchell appreciates the way Hood handled what could have been an awkward situation early in his career.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Mike Conley said this morning at shootaround that you have remained in constant contact this whole season and that you were, at one point, calling him after every Jazz win, very excited, joking that you knew you were the problem. Can you take us through the relationships that you’ve maintained with guys like Mike and JC?

Well, it’s easy because we play Xbox together, so that doesn’t change. Those guys not only were integral parts to myself, but this community and this organization, and you build friendships. You’re with these guys more than your family and you build relationships. The amount of love that I have for those guys, I don’t know if what you see on the court even shows. Like, there will never be another game where I’m constantly giving another guy a hug in the middle of the game and it’s a four-point game in the fourth quarter. That never happens. I would never, never do that. But JC is grabbing me and I’m grabbing him because at the end of the day we’re blessed to play this game together as a group, we’re blessed to be able to be in this position. There’s so many memories you have from just playing with each other for five years and or with those guys three years, four years. Those guys mean the world to me. A lot of my teammates, they really helped me become who I’m growing to be as a player, and I think that goes unseen these days.

There’s been a lot of negativity about some of the comments you made in the Andscape interview, but there’s also been people of color within this community who have really latched on to your comments and see themselves reflected in your words. What would your message be to them?

I think the biggest thing is, keep fighting. When I say that, I mean, keep trying to inspire change. Understand that this isn’t going to happen overnight. I said that when I first got here, I’m still saying it. This isn’t gonna happen overnight. Especially to the people that are here in Salt Lake, it’s not easy, it’s not, and I think we all know that in this room. I encourage everybody to use their voice to continue to speak out. It’s not an easy thing on a day-to-day and I’m upset that I can’t be here to continuously speak on it. Understand that we hear you. When I say we hear you, we hear you asking, calling for help in different scenarios, whether it’s social justice, racism, police brutality, we hear you. I think sometimes as a people we feel unheard and I think that was really a lot of my thing was to be able to show, whether it’s bringing people to games, being at games, being at events, that we hear you and you are heard and you have a voice. That’s something I really want to hammer home. There’s a voice and there’s a voice to be heard and continue to use that voice because we can’t change unless people are uncomfortable. That’s the biggest way to growth, getting uncomfortable, having those uncomfortable conversations, and doing things that are just uncomfortable. Trying to inspire that within our culture, within this world and I’m going to continue to do what I do to try and help facilitate that. We hear you.

You saw the tribute video when you first got to the arena, and then again when the crowd was here, which of those moments was more emotional for you?

The first one. I could laugh and smile and look at myself in a Denver Nuggets hat and talk about how I’m shaking and all that stuff, that was really when the emotions could kind of ride through and you could feel that. But once the game started the one thing my mind was just trying to get a win. Trying to be appreciative but also stay locked in. But that’s when I started seeing and visualizing everything we’ve done, that I’ve done in this arena.

Is there any sense of relief that this night is over for you? That it’s out of the way?

I wouldn’t say relief. I think it was highly anticipated by everybody. I think for me, this is gonna sound weird, going back home this summer and then playing in (Madison Square) Garden after that whole debacle happened, I think that was more like let’s just get this over with. Tonight was more like, you’ve been here, I see everybody, I know security guys, I know the announcers like it was just great to see everybody. I think that was more so what it was. I wouldn’t call it relief that it’s over, because (knocks on table) God willing, I’m here in a few more weeks. I just enjoyed it. I think that’s one of the things we forget to do is enjoy the moment, enjoy where you are and not rush through it to kind of be over. 

You said that your sister Jordan is a child at 21. Are you aware of the weight of things that you put on your shoulders here at 22, 23 years old?

At 22 and 23? No, I wasn’t. But now looking back on it, yes. And I understand that I took on a lot but it was because I felt like I was doing the right thing. I still feel that way. I felt like I was doing what I would want my idol to do, what I would want the person that I look up to to do. When I first got here my thing was I’m not even supposed to be here. I wasn’t expecting to be here. So, now that I am, I’m gonna do everything that I would want the person that I look up to to do. After a while it piles on and obviously you’re gonna receive pushback for different things you do and you’re gonna see praise for what you do. Then obviously as expectations grow on the court, you’re expected to do things on different nights that some nights I did, some nights I didn’t. I think that’s what, when you look in the tunnel and you sit and you watch everything, that’s what you feel. We and I did a lot, and my assistant coach tells me to give myself some grace. I think I’m really hard on myself and I have to understand that we did a lot, I’m appreciative of that, appreciative of God allowing me to carry that weight on my shoulders on a nightly basis. That’s not the same pressure as some real life pressures, but at the same time, it’s still a lot for a young kid. I would redo it and I wouldn’t do it any other way.

In the visiting locker room there is a photo of Raul Neto that says ‘Welcome Back.’ Was it humbling to have that up in the locker room instead of your photo?

Absolutely. Him and Ricky (Rubio), it’s great to have those guys around too because, like I said, the fraternity of people that have been in this organization that I’ve played with, it’s great to still be able to have those relationships and still talk. Speaking of which, shoutout to Derrick Favors for getting signed to the Hawks, back home, that was big, good to see him back. That’s what this is about. You want to win games you want to play at the highest level but you never forget the relationships you build throughout your career.

Given how close you are to JC, how do you plan on getting him back for spoiling your night?

I think this was just payback for him not shooting well in Cleveland. He had that look in his eye and I was just like, damn, it’s gonna be one of those back-and-forth nights. I don’t know, I’ll probably, I’ve got to figure it out. It’s a good question. ... You know, it sucks to lose, I’m not gonna lie. But when you see a guy like JC, who’s grown so much this year, out of all the years in his career, as a player, as a playmaker, as a guy who’s taken over, who’s typically been a guy who’s been on the bench comes in and scores and does his thing. But he’s done a lot on both ends on the floor, and to be a leader in that locker room. There’s a reason why people gravitate towards JC. It’s great to see him flourishing and doing his thing.

What did JC tell you after the game?

I can’t repeat it.

That was going to be the next question, what did they say and do? Do you have mixed emotions with Mike and JC getting the win since you were on the other side of it?

I mean, you always want to win. We’ve been trying to win on the road. That’s our thing as a team, trying to get better at that. So that part stings. But when I lose to my guys, and JC is the one that had seven points in like eight seconds — the growth you see in him. Sometimes you gotta just appreciate those moments in the season. It’s a long season, it can become monotonous. So, to have those moments, you can’t ask for anything else. And I’m appreciative of him. It sucks that he did what he did tonight, but on the flip side, I’m happy that he did what he did tonight. So it’s 50-50.

merlin_2957436.jpg

Cleveland guard Donovan Mitchell goes through shootaround prior to the Jazz-Cavaliers game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News