SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell knows that racism is not unique to Utah. He understands that there are Utah Jazz fans who support him and support the fact that he is championing the cause of raising awareness around racial injustice and inequality.
That doesn’t mean that he will be quiet.
A little over a year ago, the Utah Jazz organization was at the center of a national story about fan behavior when Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook said he was the target of “racial” and “inappropriate” language at Vivint Arena by a fan who was eventually banned for life. The reputation of the Jazz fanbase had become a national discussion. More recently, a Black Lives Matter post from the team and a Juneteenth Instagram message by Mitchell were met with mostly support, but also some anger and hostility in social media responses.
“There’s a certain stigma — there’s no secret about that in Utah — and obviously the comments didn’t help,” Mitchell said on Thursday. “But us as athletes want it to be known that we won’t stand for any of the racism and whatever else comes with that.”
It’s easier said than done to see all of the supportive comments and to gloss over the racially charged and insensitive responses. It was even more difficult for Mitchell to ignore the negative comments when he started to look through them and look at who was posting them. That’s the part that really got to Mitchell, the part that felt personal.
“You click on them to see and it’s not like they’re bots, as people call them, they’re people who live not only here but in different places,” Mitchell said. “The same people that were saying (racist) stuff were the same ones that were coming to celebrate and cheer (for the Jazz) and that’s really where I was, I’m not going to lie to you, pretty pissed off. For the past two to three years I gave it my all and then you see that. It’s tough to see it as an African American male.”
Even as recently as Tuesday night, both Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were using their voices in exactly the manner that Mitchell was talking about.
A tweet that has since been deleted, which was in response to reports that the NBA would have “Black Lives Matter” on the playing courts in Orlando, was sent to multiple members of the Utah Jazz on Tuesday.
“If you paint ‘BLM’ on the Court, you have LOST this Utah Jazz fan FOR LIFE,” the tweet read. “Never again. Won’t even watch on TV. Gone like Yesterday.”
Mitchell responded with a waving hand emoji and the word “Bye.” While Gobert elaborated a little more.
“If you don’t think that Black Lives Matter then maybe you shouldn’t watch us in the first place...,” Gobert said.
If you don’t think that Black Lives Matter then maybe you shouldn’t watch us in the first place... https://t.co/ZnsA6afuKI— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) July 1, 2020
On Thursday, Mitchell said he’s glad that Black Lives Matter will be on the NBA courts because people won’t be able to disregard it when it’s right there in big letters.
“That way it’s always on people’s minds — it’s going to be right there,” he said.
Mitchell sees himself not only as a representative of the Utah Jazz, but also of Utah. He is a Black man who lives and works in Utah. Although there are some who think his representation begins and ends with basketball, he said that his platform as a professional athlete is best used for not only what happens on the court but what happens off it as well.
“Whether it’s LeBron (James), Steph Curry, or the 15th man on the roster, it doesn’t matter who it is, guys have voices. And I think we’re going to do a good job of having guys one through 15 let their voices be heard.” — Donovan Mitchell
“I understand that it’s not just a Utah thing,” he said on Thursday. “I want people to understand that. It happens everywhere. I spoke out on it because I play here and I live here. And I want it to be known that I’m going to continue to use my platform and use my voice that I have because I feel like that’s what’s necessary.”
Mitchell’s hope is that the negative comments and the ongoing conversation around racial inequality, police brutality and the need for reform will help to wake people up to some of the injustices that are happening, even if it’s not something that they experience in their own lives.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand certain situations that I’ve been brought up in, that Royce (O’Neale) has been brought up in, Mike (Conley), J.C. (Jordan Clarkson), Emmanuel (Mudiay), Rudy, there’s so many different backgrounds,” Mitchell said. “And people, not only in Utah but everywhere, need to understand that the experiences that we have may be completely different and hopefully the conversation opens a lot of eyes.”
As the NBA readies to restart the season in Orlando, Mitchell is hoping that the conversation will continue and that every player, not just the star players, will use this opportunity to shine a light on things that are bigger than basketball.
“Whether it’s LeBron (James), Steph Curry, or the 15th man on the roster, it doesn’t matter who it is, guys have voices,” he said. “And I think we’re going to do a good job of having guys one through 15 let their voices be heard.”