SALT LAKE CITY – Donovan Mitchell sat with a few of his Cavaliers teammates courtside in a high school gym in December, about 15 minutes from downtown Cleveland.
He’d invited All-Star Darius Garland, and 2020 fifth overall pick Isaac Okoro to a game between two local rivals — part of his process to assimilating in a new town, on a new team.
Mitchell did the same thing when he was living here, in Salt Lake City, and starring for the Utah Jazz.
“A lot of it was because I lived – I still do – I lived alone, so I was like, let me find something to get out of the house to start doing,” Mitchell told The Athletic. “Then I realized like as a kid, I always wanted to come to my games, and I always enjoyed that. So I was like, let me find some to go to. And then understanding what that does for kids on a day-to-day basis.”
While he lived in Salt Lake, Mitchell tried to not only move among the people but help them. He’s doing the same in Cleveland. That’s why he hopes his impact in Utah is defined by more than his three All-Star Games and 39 playoff appearances and all the highs and lows that lui came with those of him.
As Mitchell returns to Utah on Tuesday for the first time since the blockbuster trade in September that brought him to Cleveland, he is unsure what the response will be from Jazz fans. “I hope it’s cheers,” Mitchell said following the Cavs win over the Suns in Phoenix.
“He’s a guy that everybody everywhere he goes, people love him,” said Raul Neto, a teammate of Mitchell’s on both the Jazz and now Cavs. “You can see it in Cleveland, that was the same way in Utah. So every time we were with him, going to high school games, going to the Utah football games, it was always fun to see the love that the people had for him and how charismatic he was, and how he gave attention to everybody, especially to kids.”
Mitchell began attending high school games in his second year with the Jazz and said he made it to more than a dozen by the time he was traded.
He connected with the athletic directors of the different schools to say he was planning to come to a game. Then, he announced what game he was attending that night on social media.
Guess who just walked into our house! pic.twitter.com/lRFyJilvmZ
— kearnshs (@KearnsHS) December 8, 2018
“It was nuts just walking around, them seeing me get out of the car, screaming and losing their mind, it was a whole thing,” Mitchell said. “And I always appreciate it, but I think they will as well, and I think it goes a long way.
“Celebrities and people of status typically don’t enjoy that attention, but you understand what comes with that. For me, it wasn’t about me. It was about them getting to see me, getting to see us as a team, getting to see us getting to see a game, and to be able to tell their friends, this was something a moment in time that they’ll always remember. And, to give kids a spark of hope for that night or that day.”
One of the first schools Mitchell was involved with was Kearns High School (Kearns, Utah). Assistant principal Scott Wooldridge said one of the students reached out to Mitchell on social media about coming to a game at what he noted was a low-socioeconomic school.
“He was a great positive influence for our kids. When he was at the games, he didn’t turn the kids away. Kids came up and they wanted to get a picture and autograph,” Wooldridge told The Athletic. “He really was in sync with what was going on in Salt Lake and wanting to help kids, mainly just wanting to help kids.”
That was just the start. Wooldridge said Mitchell also gave out 25 Dell laptops to students who had to put together a PowerPoint presentation to show Mitchell. When one student was awarded a full college scholarship through the Utah Jazz Scholarship program at the University of Utah, Mitchell was the one to call and inform that student. Mitchell also donated some weight equipment that Wooldridge said is still in their weight room.
Mitchell’s mother, Nicole, was also heavily involved. She gave Kearns High School boxes of spiral notebooks and other school supplies they handed out to students. And as part of her work with her foundation, Mitchell gave Adidas backpacks to kids at the high school during an assembly.
Donovan Mitchell is here at Kearns HS surprising the top-performing students from last year on the second day of school this year. He’s also giving them all backpacks and T-shirts. pic.twitter.com/EViNusiQsh
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) August 21, 2018
“Being able to do that, kind of show my face there, especially in a state that doesn’t have as many people that look like myself, that was big,” Mitchell said. “Just like the look you see in kids’ eyes when you see the look of shock, that you’re actually at this place. And that’s what made me want to keep going. … The teachers were telling me, I’ve never seen our kids produce at a high level, like focus, attention, at a high level during the assembly and then post-assembly.”
Together, Mitchell and his mother provided free tickets to two different Jazz games to students awarded for good grades or for bringing their grades up. Wooldridge said they took around 50 kids and were treated to pregame activities. They watched the Jazz warm up, and Mitchell took pictures with them and signed autographs. All received a Mitchell Jazz jersey.
Mitchell’s reach expanded to other local schools as well. He attended other basketball games around the city and even hosted a basketball camp at Juan Diego Catholic High School. He even attended some local college games, as well.
His involvement in his local community stemmed from a line of thinking: Mitchell didn’t expect to be in the position he is in.
Mitchell grew up in Elmsford, New York. His mother was a teacher. His father works in the front office for the New York Mets. He spent time around the Mets clubhouse as a kid, and watched guys like Jose Reyes, David Wright and others and their presence in the community; it sets an example for Mitchell.
He attended Greenwich Country Day School, where his mother was a lower elementary school teacher from 2007 to 2019. These days, he’s giving other students that same opportunity through a scholarship he created through his foundation. He attended Canterbury School in New Milford for his first two years of high school, then attended Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
When Mitchell was at the University of Louisville, he started just five games his freshman year, and by the time he left he’d compiled middling statistics, such as an 11.7 points per game scoring average, with an average of 2.2 assists.
Yet, the Denver Nuggets selected Mitchell during the 2017 NBA Draft as the No. 13 pick, and then was promptly traded to the Utah Jazz.
“The one story that I’ve always told is that this wasn’t supposed to happen,” Mitchell said. “This wasn’t outside of six years ago, like if you told me I’d be in the NBA, I’d thought you were lying. I never thought Id get this opportunity. And I remember, when I was doing this I was a fan three years prior. So for me to come into this situation, I was like, OK, what did I always want as a fan? What did I want as a kid? And to be able to have the opportunity to have kids be like, I got to see Donovan. I got to see, I got to touch, he came to our game. Oh my god, he signed my jersey. That for me meant the world because I know that’s what I would want.”
Mitchell frequently keeps his position in perspective. Especially when he attends high school games.
“When I go to those games, it allows them to be like, wow, I am who I am, and I’m blessed to be able to have that,” Mitchell said. “Like I’m blessed to be able to call my childhood dream a reality, a thing that’s real. Like we get so consumed with practice and the weights and recovery, it becomes repetitive. But when you go to those games and you see the reaction, you see the love you get, it’s like wow, I accomplished this dream, but I have so much more to accomplish. And honestly it’s inspiring. It keeps you motivated to want to keep going.”
Cleveland Heights boys basketball coach JR Bremer had heard Mitchell and a few teammates were coming to one of their games through social media but didn’t spot them until around halftime. Bremer said the matchup between the rivals brought out a packed house for the first time since pre-pandemic times.
The presence of four Cavaliers players only further energized the fans and players.
“It was super cool,” Garland said of attending the game. “I never had an NBA player come to my high school games, so it was cool seeing the talent coming in Cleveland, trying to give them our support.
Mitchell also reached out to a couple of his players following the game via social media, “just gave them a little bit of hope and gave them some compliments, which goes further than anything that anybody else can do,” Bremer said.
“I know in my four years coaching high school, we haven’t had one professional player in the gym,” Bremer told The Athletic. “So it just gives them motivation and gives them hope and shows that those guys care about basketball and not just about themselves.
“It’s really big for the kids. They get something to look forward to, they see some guys that they can look up to and they want to play that much harder and that much better because those guys are sitting there. So I think it’s great for the city.”
It was one of the first of what Mitchell hopes is more in the Cleveland area.
“Like being able to have that impact continuously, and I always tell people you never know what kids are going through on a day-to-day basis,” Mitchell said. “And you never know what one moment can do for a kid in his entire life.
“I never forget to this day somebody that was in the NBA that didn’t sign an autograph for me. That’s the reason why I sign all the autographs. Like I’ll never forget that moment. So you never know what those moments do for kids on a day-to-day basis. And seeing that at Kearns High School made me want to keep doing it.”
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(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell: Jason Miller/Getty Images)