Tuesday’s game between Donovan Mitchell, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Utah Jazz was a somewhat significant one for everything happening off the court. It was Mitchell’s first game back in Salt Lake City after spending the first several seasons of his NBA career with the Jazz organization.
During his time in Utah, Mitchell helped guide the Jazz to the playoffs every single season. Mitchell was a three-time All-Star with the Jazz and went from a late first-round pick to an MVP candidate. Sure, they never made it to the Western Conference Finals with Mitchell leading the way. But, the former Mitchell gave the organization and fans in Salt Lake City something they could’ve lost after seeing star forward Gordon Hayward leave in free agency: hope and, more importantly, someone for the fanbase to feel connected to.
“It’s always been tough being a Jazz fan in my lifetime, man,” said Kris, my Lyft driver who opened up to me the evening I arrived in Salt Lake City. “First, you had Deron Williams and his falling out with Jerry Sloan and him forcing his way out. It was kind of similar with Andre Kirilenko, too even if he was a bit older. When Gordon Hayward left it also sucked. It always felt like guys would always move on after spending some time with the Jazz.
“But, with Donovan, it felt different for someone like me that’s American Samoan. He gave us a way to connect with the city since let’s be honest, Salt Lake City is in a very white and very conservative area. But, when Donovan was here, he allowed people that weren’t white to feel like a part of something since he was a Black superstar leading the way. I’m glad he’s doing well with you all in Cleveland. But, I do miss that connection he gave us to this city.”
When looking around Salt Lake City or the state of Utah itself, it’s not hard to notice some of the white conservative tones. As of 2020, Salt Lake City is 65.4% caucasian and the state of Utah is 90.3% white. When looking at Salt Lake County’s voting history, it’s a tossup between conservative and liberal candidates. Sure, Salt Lake City is considered a more liberal island in a roaring red conservative sea, but there are still markers to remind everyone of how the majority feels.
In 2020, Donald Trump signed into law a bill that named the city’s Federal courthouse after Orrin G. Hatch. For those who don’t know, Hatch was one of America’s longest-serving senators that was strongly opposed to abortion, LGBTQ rights and also voted for 1,500 new law enforcement agents to patrol the United State’s borders to prevent illegal immigration. So, when Mitchell opened up about his frustrations with the predominantly white and conservative community he was a part of and the experiences of Black people in the same community to Andscape‘s Marc Spears, it’s more understandable where he was coming from.
In light of Mitchell’s comments, one Salt Lake City business owner, who asked to remain unnamed, was glad Mitchell said what he did and continued to be an advocate for in the community for people and children of color.
“I know a lot of people in Utah pushed back at it but there are also plenty of us who appreciate what he did,” the business owner said. “I hope he gets nothing but cheers tonight.”
For those who may not know, during his time in Salt Lake City Mitchell’s impact was immense. He was an advocate for racial equality. Mitchell would attend local high school football and basketball games. He gave out laptops to 25 students and rewarded them with scholarships to Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University, the University of Utah, Utah State, Utah Valley University as well as Weber State. Mitchell would also invite some students to Jazz games, as long as they kept their grades up. He did tons for the community in and around Salt Lake City and wants it to be part of his legacy here and as well as in Cleveland.
“All this stuff is bigger than basketball,” said head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid. “When you have the platform these guys have, it’s extremely important that you take advantage of it. We forget that this was something where we were always helped coming up and somebody gave us a shoulder to lean on. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re giving back since there are a lot of injustices that are still a part of our world. If you have a voice and have the education, to discuss them, you should and that’s part of the role that Donovan has decided to play and part of his leadership.
“Leadership doesn’t just stop in a locker room, right? These guys have an opportunity to be leaders outside the locker room be leaders outside and in the world. And he’s chosen to do that and he’s chosen to speak out and use his platform for things that he believes in, and it takes courage to do that. But, that makes Donovan who he is and he’s an extremely courageous person.”
Once Mitchell took the court during his pregame warmup, he was drowned in cheers from his long-time fans. When he stopped to sign autographs, the crowd surrounding him, along with the cheers, got even bigger and louder. It hit a head when Mitchell was introduced pre-game and the Jazz played a planned tribute video for him and the crowd in attendance at Vivint Arena erupted.
Mitchell shared postgame that the moment, along with the cheers, meant a lot to him and it was a culmination of a happy reunion for him. He was able to reconnect with the security guards and staff at Vivint Arena, various members of the Jazz organization and, most of all, the fans that were part of the beginnings of his NBA journey. But, more importantly to Mitchell, he used his platform again to reach out to the members of the Salt Lake City community that he connected with. Although he was gone, he wanted to stress that he wanted Salt Lakers to continue his work and his legacy within the community.
“The biggest thing is to keep fighting,” said Mitchell. “And 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 and I’m still saying this isn’t gonna happen overnight. Especially for people that are obviously here in Salt Lake, it’s not easy, it’s not. I think we all know that in this room. I encourage everybody to use their voice to continue to speak out and it’s not an easy thing, on a day-to-day basis and I’m upset that I can’t be here to continuously speak on it.
“But understanding that we hear you and when I say we hear you like we hear calling for help in different scenarios. Whether it’s social justice, racism or police brutality, we hear you and 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 bringing, being there
games and events, we hear you and know you were hurt and that you have a voice.
“And I think that’s something I really want to hammer home. A voice to be heard and continue to use for us because we can’t change unless people are uncomfortable. That’s the biggest thing about growth. You know, getting uncomfortable having those uncomfortable conversations and doing things that are just uncomfortable, trying to inspire that within our culture, within this world. Like I said, I’m gonna continue to do what I do to try and help facilitate that.”
Clearly, there are still plenty of fans of the Cleveland superstar in the city where his professional career began. Whether he’s with the Cavaliers or the Jazz or another NBA franchise down the line, Mitchell has laid a foundation and legacy that’s bigger than basketball. At the end of the day, for Mitchell, that’s what matters the most.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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