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Donovan Mitchell looks back at the memorable and forgettable from his time in Utah

The Cavaliers guard reflects on his five years with the Jazz, his relationship with Rudy Gobert, his connection to the Cleveland and Salt Lake City communities, and more

Only Adrian Dantley, Karl Malone and “Pistol” Pete Maravich averaged more points per game in a Utah Jazz uniform than Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell also ranks eighth all-time in scoring in Jazz history in just five seasons in Salt Lake City. Moreover, “Spida” made a charitable impact with his money and time that will long be remembered by Jazz fans and Utahans.

There are 12 numbers retired in Jazz history. But even with his impact on and off the court in Utah, the former Jazz star does not believe his No. 45 jersey deserves to be hanging in the rafters retired at Vivint Arena.

“I don’t think I did enough,” Mitchell told Andscape. “I hold myself to a high standard. Now, other people may feel that it should. I’d be happy and forever grateful, honored and blessed for sure for that to happen. But I don’t think I’ve done enough in five years to have my jersey up there with Karl, John [Stockton], Pistol Pete and Darrell Griffith. I got a long way in my career to go to continue to be better.”

Mitchell starred for the Jazz from his arrival as the 13th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft out of the University of Louisville through the 2021-22 season. The three-time NBA All-Star averaged 23.9 points, 2.8 made 3-pointers, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals in five seasons. The biggest challenges for Mitchell with the Jazz on the court included the spotlight being on his relationship with former Jazz center Rudy Gobert in recent years and winning in the regular season not translating to the postseason. Mitchell, an African American, also told Andscape that he grew weary of racial issues that took place Utah and the pushback he received for speaking out about racial equality.

The Jazz’s tune changed dramatically after the team lost in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks. Jazz coach Quin Snyder abruptly resigned, and Gobert was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Next up was Mitchell, who was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sept. 1 for forward Lauri Markkanen, rookie wing Ochai Agbaji, guard Collin Sexton, three unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps. Monday night in Cleveland, Mitchell plays the Jazz for the first time since the trade. The 6-foot-1 guard will return to play in Salt Lake City for the first time on Jan. 10.

The following is a Q&A with Mitchell in which he reflects on memorable and frustrating moments during his tenure with the Jazz, why “basketball didn’t work” with him and Gobert, the “draining” part of being an African American in Utah, adapting on and off the court in Cleveland and his dreams of bringing a second NBA championship to the Cavaliers.

When did you know the end was near in Utah?

Realistically when we lost [to Dallas]. You just felt it early. I didn’t think it would be this immediate. I didn’t think it would be everything. But I knew something was going to change this summer. I didn’t know what. And then with Quin leaving I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ And then Rudy getting traded, it’s like ‘All right, let’s go.’

What’s the reality of your relationship with Rudy and where is it now?

Honestly, basketball just didn’t work. We live in such a world where it has to be really negative. Basketball just didn’t work. We didn’t see eye to eye. We wanted to both win, but we wanted to do it two different ways. It didn’t work. But as far as him and I go as people, I don’t hate him, and he doesn’t hate me. I wouldn’t say we’re the best of friends, but we’re not at the point where it’s like, I can’t stand him.

[When I see him], I’m going to give him a hug and be happy to see him. And I wish him the best. There’s no hatred. There’s no ill will towards any of that. Basketball just didn’t work out. It happens. Our [relationship] just happened to be a little more out there than anybody else’s. But honestly, it really started with COVID. Everything we did up to that point was under microscope to the point where we were getting evaluated on how many times we threw the ball [to each other].

And that’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of it. And it just didn’t work. I wish it did. I wish we went farther. We had the opportunity, but we didn’t. And we’re both in different spots now. But I want to wish him the best and I know he feels the same way.

How do you look back at your time with the Jazz?

We did a lot of special things. We set records. Had the best record in the league. We did a lot of things. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t win, so we didn’t do anything.’ But we did a lot of special things. It taught me a lot of lessons that have honestly helped me get to where I’m at to this day. I met a lot of special people, special coaches, special players.

But other than that, at the end of the day we didn’t get the job done. But I’m forever grateful for my time there. I appreciate it, and appreciate my coaches, my teammates, and appreciate them all that ultimately helped me be a better player.

What do you miss most about Utah off the court?

The [Utah Jazz] scholarship piece [giving a full college scholarship to someone for every win from 2020 to 2022] is the thing that hits home the most for me. Being able to pay for full room and board … that’s one of the coolest things just because it’s not just basketball. You’re not just playing to win it. You’re playing for something deeper than life. It’s not just about yourself. That’s something that really resonates and hits home for not just me, but everybody. I feel like we were playing for that. We were able to impact lives for generations.

You never know [if] you’ll be able to send a kid to college who is able to learn something, create something and build a legacy in their family. And now you have two, three, four, five generations of children and people going to college because of that one person. That’s something to me that’s truly meaningful. To be able to play for that, I think, was one of the cool things I’ve ever done.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (right) is fouled by San Antonio Spurs guard Tre Jones (left) as he drives to the basket in the first half at AT&T Center on Dec. 12 in San Antonio.

Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

As far as Utah, it became a lot to have to deal with on a nightly basis. I got pulled over once. I got an attitude from a cop until I gave him my ID. And that forever made me wonder what happens to the young Black kid in Utah that doesn’t have that power to just be like, ‘This is who I am.’ And that was one of the things for me that I took to heart.

How has the adjustment been to Cleveland?

It’s been good. Just as a group, we just really want to win. We have guys that are hungry. Guys that want to prove themselves as well as myself. Just want to always continue to improve. And if you have guys that believe in you as a leader, that makes my job easier. You come into this situation and feel that. I’m fortunate to get into a situation where it feels seamless from the beginning. There’s always an adjustment period. But it’s been good. They allow me to be who I am. They ask me to be who I am. They don’t ask me to do anything different.

We all have a chip on our shoulder and something to prove. They [Cleveland] lost in the play-in. [Utah] lost in the first round poorly. We come into this season with something to prove, and I’m excited to do it.

Respectfully to Salt Lake City, for you what was it like leaving a city that had a predominantly white population to one that is predominantly Black? Does it remind you more of being back home in New York?

It’s a little comforting for me, 100%. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s no secret there’s a lot of stuff that I dealt with being in Utah off the floor. If I’m being honest with you, I never really said this, but it was draining. It was just draining on my energy just because you can’t sit in your room and cheer for me and then do all these different things. I’m not saying specifically every fan, but I just feel like it was a lot of things. A [Utah] state senator [Stuart Adams] saying I need to get educated on my own Black history. Seeing Black kids getting bullied because of their skin color. Seeing a little girl [Isabella Tichenor] hang herself because she’s being bullied.

Man, it was just one thing after another. And I will say, it’s not the only place it happens. But for me, I’m continuing to be an advocate for [racial equality] and to receive the amount of pushback I got over the years, it was a lot.

What hurt the most?

It first started, when I posted a photo for Juneteenth, and it said ‘Free-ish’ before the [NBA] bubble. And really in the bubble, too, people just started nonstop going at me like, ‘Man, you don’t know what you’re talking about. There is injustice everywhere. It’s not just Black people.’ I’m just like, ‘Y’all have no idea.’ I took on a lot because I felt like I could do it. But at some point, it became a lot to have to deal with.

And then to be able to not see many of us in the crowd, I tried my best to make sure I invite young Black and brown kids to games, to be around the community. But just to not see us there, it was definitely tough. And being in Cleveland now, you see us courtside. It’s just refreshing. It’s a blessing to be back around people that look like me.

But as far as Utah, it became a lot to have to deal with on a nightly basis. I got pulled over once. I got an attitude from a cop until I gave him my ID. And that forever made me wonder what happens to the young Black kid in Utah that doesn’t have that power to just be like, ‘This is who I am.’ And that was one of the things for me that I took to heart.

What are you proud of being a part of in the Utah community that you hope to bring to Cleveland?

The biggest thing I’m proud of right now is just being able to be in the community. Literally, I’d be at [high school] basketball games. I would go there because I know I would’ve done anything for an NBA athlete to be at my high school games. I understood who I was in the community and what that did for kids. You never know what a kid is going through on a daily basis. You never know what one moment will do for a child in their life, let alone that day.

For me, there’s still moments where I can remember being forever blessed to be able to be around certain people who I had on a pedestal. And so, for me, just being in the community, whether it’s going to games, going to barbecues, being stopped at the mall by people, I continuously want to do that. I’m never going to change, no matter what happens in life. That’s just who I am. I’m forever grateful I’m able to do that and to get that reaction. It makes you feel good to be able to make somebody else’s day. I’ll continue to do that throughout my career and my life, even when I’m done playing.

How special can this Cavaliers team be?

Very special. I said it in my first press conference that, ‘On paper we’re scary.’ But at the end of the day, we haven’t done s—. I haven’t been far in the playoffs. Evan [Mobley], Darius [Garland], JA [Jarrett Allen] and Caris [LeVert] have been to the playoffs. We as a collective, other than Kevin Love, have not won a championship. We have stuff we have to prove. But if we will all work together like we have been to continue building, we’re a pretty scary group. And it’s not going to be easy. We have to continue to get better on a daily basis.

What do you think when you see the 2016 NBA championship banner in the Cavaliers’ arena? Do you ever think about the aura that LeBron James left?

Being to the Finals four times in a row is greatness. Kevin’s been a part of that and he’s the last one left of that group. For us, we’re not LeBron James. But as a collective we can ultimately get there if we do it as a group. And we want to bring back another championship for this city.

Our fans are passionate. We have the skill. We have the ability to do that. But we have a way to go. We have to do the work, but we play with that intention set. We don’t play to say, ‘Oh, let’s make it to the playoffs or the second round.’ Our goal is to win the championship and play to the best of our ability. The city has seen it once and they’ll hopefully see it again.

Donovan Mitchell (left) and Rudy Gobert (right) of the Utah Jazz look on during the game against the LA Clippers on March 29 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

What can you take from days in Utah that will help you with bonding with your teammates and coaches in Cleveland?

The biggest thing I learned is, one, you can’t talk to everybody the same. I learned that from [coach] Rick Pitino, to be honest with you. I came from Rick Pitino [at Louisville] where if you did something wrong, ‘I’m just going to yell at you and you’re going to do it [expletive] right.’ But that is not how this league is or works. You have to be able to have conversations. You’ve got to be able to listen. You’ve got to be able to find a way to connect like a great leader.

And a lot of the times, [Cavaliers head coach] J.B. [Bickerstaff] will just say whatever I’m thinking. So sometimes I don’t have to say nothing. So, when your voice is the same voice, it gets repetitive. So, for me, I have to pick my spots and don’t say too much. And also, be able to say, ‘Look, I don’t know everything. I don’t know where Ev likes the ball. I’m used to going over there and helping [defensively]. And Ev was like, ‘No, no, you don’t have to go up. I got it.’ Like, ‘OK, cool, now where do I go? You remember the list?’ Being able to say, ‘All right, Ev, you can help here, but if you start from here, you have a better angle coming off.’ Or just telling DG [Darius Garland] on the paper, ‘Well, you have someone coming here.’ DG is like, ‘I’m one, two up on the [player] touch game [defensively] a little more because it will bring you here.’

Being able to have those conversations has been phenomenal. I think that’s what’s helped us get to this point really fast, because we all have the same intention. We’re all willing to have that conversation and talk to each other. And J.B.’s been a big proponent of that. We had a meeting where we all sat in the room and we talked about our roles, what he expects out of every single player and from every single player. That does a lot for guys when everybody knows what our role is. And then he also says what we want to work through for each individual out of the group.

He asked us, ‘What do you want?’ J.B.’s going to coach us according to what we want. If we all say we want to win the championship, that’s fine, but we’re going to be coached as such. So, if we go to Sacramento and we lose, well, you’re on our a– because you want to win the championship. You can’t come out flat. So, you’ve got to understand, and I respect that. I think we all respect that. We appreciate that. It makes you want to fight. It makes you want to compete for yourself.

Have you gotten to know Cleveland a little more now since arriving?

I have. As far as this is a team, we’re playing well. We’re doing a lot of good things and you know, but I think for us we have some work to do to ultimately get to the team we want to be. To see guys like Evan, Darius, Lamar Stevens, Jarrett Allen guys going into these roles and, and doing well and playing well. Darius is coming along, Ricky [Rubio] is coming back. We have a lot of pieces that are really starting to click, but we have things that we can definitely improve on. So, it’s been looking good. And I always say it’s great to learn lessons and success through wins as opposed to losses. But we’re continuously trying to find ways to win at the highest level as a group. And we’re finding ways to do that in situations where guys haven’t as a group. Collectively, we haven’t won at a high level. So, we got to find ways to continue to build and, you know, and get better.

Have you been to a Cleveland Browns or Cleveland Guardians game or Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Have you done anything out there?

I’ve been to two Browns games, a G League game, and a Guardians game. I’ve been to a high school game. So, I’m trying to make my rounds and start seeing the city a little bit more. And it’s been great, man. The reception I’ve received as a new guy has been fantastic. A lot of us go together. That is the coolest thing. We go as a group. We travel in packs and that is really special about our connection as a team and speaks to the guys we have on this roster.

It’s been really good. I’ve really grown fond of the city of Cleveland. Everybody is great. And just trying to find ways to impact the community myself. We got some things coming up in the near future. I can’t give you all of them yet because it’s still in the works. But I definitely got some things going on in the community and I’m excited.

I’m just getting used to where I’m at and figuring out where things can be really needed as [far as] me being there. I like to be hands-on with a lot of my community service. Obviously, for the holidays I want to definitely get to doing that. But the biggest thing for me is I wanted to wait and get my hands on things and start seeing things. Me and my mother, who is the head of my foundation, we want to start building upon it. And the Cavs have been great as far as letting me know what they’ve done in the past and as far as where they’re typically reaching to. So, we have some things coming up in the works, but I want to do this community service and I want to continuously be hands-on. You can give monetary donations and all that is well, but giving someone your time is equally, if not more, important. Being able to be there and be seen in the community, whether it’s at a food drive, it’s at a grocery store, it’s at a basketball game, is equally important.

Will playing against the Jazz going to be weird for you?

It’ll be weird because I’m playing against like my former teammates in Mike [Conley] and JC [Jordan Clarkson]. My coaching staff there is the only coaching staff I’ve known in the NBA … some of the guys there, Alex Jensen, Irv Roland, Chris Jones, Lamar Skeeter. So that’ll be fun. I think it’ll be more fun than weird. I’m really excited to go against those guys just because we have all these battles in practice for so many years and now to really be out there will be cool and dope.

Are you looking forward to that game in Salt Lake City on Jan. 10? And also, you could be an Eastern Conference All-Star playing his Salt Lake City in the 2023 NBA All-Star Game.

It will be interesting. I don’t know necessarily what the reception will be positive or negative, but I’m excited, obviously, to go back and play. You’re there for five years. You lay roots there as far as relationships you build in the organization and with different people in the community. To come back again and play in front of the crowd will be dope.

I don’t know what the reception is going to be. But at the end of the day, you got to go in there and try to get a win. It’s always been a tough place to play and that will be weird going into the visitors’ locker room. But once you get out there, it’s 5-on-5.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.