Inside Donovan Mitchell’s warm welcome in return to Utah with emotions running high

SALT LAKE CITY – Donovan Mitchell walked into Vivint Arena around 4:30 pm on Tuesday before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ matchup against the Utah Jazz. It was his first time back in the arena since the blockbuster trade in September that sent him to Cleveland.

Mitchell has been through a number of firsts following the trade to Cleveland. His first game in a Cavs jersey on opening night. The home opener. The Cavs’ first game against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden following all the speculation about him playing for New York. Utah’s visit to Cleveland in December. It’s already settled in that he’s a member of the Cavs, but one of the last firsts on that list was his return to Utah.

Mitchell stood in the tunnel that headed towards the court, but where no one could see him. From that vantage point, he took in the arena that he had called home for the first five years of his NBA career.

As he stood there, countless moments throughout his time in Utah ran through his mind. The last time he was on the floor in a Jazz uniform was in the loss to the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs in 2022. He thought about game six against OKC in 2018 or game five against the Clippers in 2021 when they lost. He also saw the career nights where he set career highs or the Jazz claimed big wins. He reflected on his rookie season when they beat the Magic by the highest margin or when he set a rookie record for most 3s in a season with 186 3-pointers.

“I just did that just to kind of calm myself down before, because I don’t go out to see the floor until I shoot, and that’s when everybody’s there,” Mitchell said. “So just spend some time out there just to look and just feel all the emotion and then get back to stretch and get ready for it.”


As the lights dimmed before the introductions began, a fan in Vivint Arena screamed, “I love you, Donovan!”

Then, a tribute video of Mitchell’s time in Utah, featuring moments of him on and off the court welcoming him back. The ovation from fans was loud and warm, and as the video ended, Mitchell – sitting on the Cavs’ bench – stood, touched his hand to heart, and then raised it in appreciation.

Mitchell had accidentally caught the video while he stood in the tunnel before the game, so he only saw parts of it as it ran as he tried to stay focused on the game. Seeing the video before the game started was emotional for Mitchell.

“I can laugh and smile and, like I said, look at myself in the Denver Nuggets hat and talk about how I’m shaking and all that stuff,” Mitchell said. “That was really like the emotions can kind of ride through, and you feel that, but you know, once the game started, that one thing on my mind was just trying to get a win. And trying to be appreciative but also stay locked in. But, that’s where the smiles and that’s where you start seeing, visualizing everything you’ve done, that I’ve done in this arena.”

That ovation continued with a loud round of applause as Mitchell’s name was introduced in the Cavs’ starting lineup, and he walked onto the court. Mitchell then walked to the baseline, where his mother Nicole and his sister Jordan sat, giving each of them a hug.

“They were there from the first one,” Mitchell said. “They were there from the first one and the first game against the Nuggets. And to be here, 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 she’s still a child. And for me to just show my appreciation, to show my love and just making sure that they can have whatever, and this life has allowed me to do that, and I’m very thankful. But to have them there in this moment, it means the world to me.”

But the positive welcome even began pregame. Fans scattered throughout the arena sported Mitchell’s Jazz jerseys. After Mitchell went through his pregame warmup, a group of fans called Mitchell’s name and cheered as he walked off the floor and towards the tunnel. Mitchell stopped and signed a number of jerseys.


(Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Heading into Tuesday, Mitchell admitted he wasn’t quite sure what the reception would be like. He tried to prepare himself for both reactions, whatever may come.

“We did a lot of good, but I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “But when I got it, like I said, it just felt like a regular Jazz game, like you’ve been here, and the support and love you get is unmatched. I was appreciative, but obviously, it could have gone one or two ways. We all know that in this room. It went the right way, I feel like, and I appreciate that.”

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There were a couple of reasons for the speculation around Mitchell’s return to Utah, but the two go hand-in-hand. The first is the offseason saga of the Jazz, eventually moving Mitchell, and him landing in Cleveland.

Secondly – ​​and more prominently – dealt with Mitchell’s use of his platform to speak out about racial inequality and show his support for movements that focused on racial equality. Over his five years in Salt Lake City, Mitchell continuously spoke up to varying degrees on a number of issues surrounding social justice, racism and equality.

“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,” Mitchell said. “It’s easy to point out the negative. We live in a world where everything’s funneled through it. But at the end of the day, we did a lot of good, man and I think that’s something that I want to make sure it’s always harped on. But I’m not gonna stop using my voice the way that I feel like I should.”

The use of his platform brought backlash from some on social media.

“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?” Mitchell said. “It’s not some trolls; it’s an actual person and an actual picture. You see that, and you feel that.”

Yet, it hasn’t deterred Mitchell.

“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,” Mitchell continued. “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, like I gave my idea, and I was good to go. 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 were given such a platform and a pedestal to speak on these things, and I try to do that as much as I can.”

In a recent interview with Marc Spears for Andscape, Mitchell spoke of how draining it had been as a Black man to receive pushback on attempts to progress conversations about racial inequality. And social media only worsened that feeling.

“It’s not every fan; it’s not everybody,” Mitchell reiterated. “But there are things that I see and here that I didn’t bring up in the interview, and I didn’t want to bring up because I knew how much it would get a reaction on social media.”

Coach JB Bickerstaff praised Mitchell for being courageous in using his platform. It’s part of the understanding that it is bigger than basketball. At some point, they were each helped coming up, and someone in their circle provided a shoulder to lean now.

Bickerstaff believes that it is important for them to use their platform in order to give back. And Mitchell is using his platform by lui.

“There’s a lot of injustices that are still a part of our world, and if you have a voice and have the education to discuss them, you should,” Bickerstaff said. “And that’s part of the role that Donovan has decided to play and part of his leadership, and leadership does n’t just stop in a locker room. Like these guys have an opportunity to be leaders outside the locker room and be leaders outside 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. But that makes Donovan who he is. He’s an extremely courageous person.”

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The reaction from the fanbase created a comfortable environment for Mitchell. He felt like he was playing at home, just like he had the last five seasons before the trade. It also provided a sense of relief.

Mitchell’s performance Tuesday night was nothing short of exceptional. He almost willed the Cavs to a win over the Jazz, finishing the night with 46 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals. He shot 14 of 27 from the field, 7 of 18 from 3 and 11 of 11 from the free throw line. It was his fifth game of him scoring 40+ points this season.

Mitchell went into takeover mode as the fourth quarter began, and the Cavs were down 88-84. He knocked down three 3s and scored 17 of his 46 points in the fourth quarter to try to get the win. However, a seven-point swing by the Jazz in one possession, along with some empty possessions for the Cavs down the stretch were too much to overcome. The Cavs lost to the Jazz 116-114.

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As the final buzzer sounded, and the rest of the Cavs walked off the floor, Mitchell headed over to the Jazz bench to dap up or give hugs to players, former teammates and coaching staff members. He shared a moment with Jordan Clarkson as they embraced one another again.

Then, as Mitchell walked across the floor towards the tunnel, the fans who were still in the Vivint Arena began to cheer. He gave his sister and mother another hug, and then stopped to sign some autographs. He then walked down the tunnel, closing the night of his return to Salt Lake City.

“I think it was highly anticipated by everybody,” Mitchell said. “I think for me, it’s gonna sound weird, but like, I think going back home after the summer, playing in the Garden after that whole debacle thing happened. I think that was more like, ‘alright, let’s just get this over with.’ This was more like, you’ve been here. I’ve seen everybody I know, the security guys. I know the announcers. Like, it was just great to see everybody.”

Mitchell walked the hallways before he left the arena. He talked with a number of people, from Jazz coach Will Hardy, to former coaches, teammates and others. He made his way down the hallway to the Jazz locker room, as well. He soaked in every last moment of his return to a place he called home for five seasons, where he started his NBA career and grew both as a player and a person.

“It was great to be back,” Mitchell said.


(Top Photo: Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

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