When Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell passed, his historic greatness on the court — winning 11 championships in just 13 seasons — was the only thing that overshadowed his heroism off the court.
He was one of the leading figures in the civil rights movement nationally, but more importantly in Boston, a city that frankly needed to hear his voice. It’s for similar reasons that I have always felt that Donovan Mitchell’s short time in Utah was so important.
Obviously, he didn’t achieve Russell’s on-court success — nobody ever will — but he was, hands down, the most electrifying, dynamic and entertaining player I’ve seen in a Jazz uniform.
Every bit as vital, as I’ve written here before, was his role as a moral compass in a state that is often in need of a racial reality check.
He was the kind of superstar we’d rarely seen in Utah, where we were more accustomed to Karl Malone opining about fishing or John Stockton not saying much about anything (until he went off about vaccines, that is).
Mitchell spoke his mind on the issues that mattered. He has steadfastly demanded justice for Breonna Taylor, shot down by police in Louisville, where Mitchell attended college. He voiced his outrage when officers shot Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
Closer to home, he spoke out against proposed legislation banning curriculum in school that would center race as an integral perspective on American history — prompting Senate President Stuart Adams to say that they needed to “educate” Mitchell on what they’re doing “because I don’t really think he understands what happened.”
Mitchell, along with recently traded Jazz star Rudy Gobert, brought a young Black student to a Jazz game and gave him a pair of sneakers after the 17-year-old’s car was covered in horse manure.
And he spoke of his sorrow and disappointment after Izzy Tichenor, a 10-year-old Black girl with autism, was allegedly bullied so relentlessly that she took her own life. Her suicide came just months after the U.S. Department of Justice released an investigation documenting a litany of racist incidents spanning years and an ineffective response from the district.
“You were told. You were told,” Mitchell said, according to The Athletic. “You go to school to learn. You go to school to become something you want to dream of. Now a child who had hopes and dreams is no longer with us because of that.”
Kenny Akers, who has been outspoken about issues of race in Utah for years, said Mitchell filled a massive vacuum in the state.
“For me, being a Black man, he’s been a breath of fresh air in Utah,” Akers said. “[For me] being born and raised here and having the lack of representation in the state, he has been such a big deal.”
Akers said that Mitchell has, with little fanfare, helped kids confronted with racism and been active in the city’s small network of Black professionals. “Outside of the Jazz,” Akers said, “he’s become part of the brotherhood.”
Mitchell said he had no intention of letting up.
“As a Black male in the state, a prominent Black male in this state, I feel like it’s my job to speak for people who don’t necessarily have a voice,” Mitchell said at one point. “I just want to continue to shed light on things like this, because this happens far too much.”
It alienated the “shut up and dribble” faction of so-called fans, some of whom canceled season tickets or boycotted the team. One business nixed its suite in the arena over the team’s activism.
Good. We can do without them. The question now becomes what can Utah do without Mitchell?
Because the work is far from over, and we need don’t need to look far for proof of that fact. Less than two weeks ago at a Brigham Young University volleyball match, a Duke volleyball player said she was called vile slurs by a BYU fan. And just days ago, the University of Utah reported two separate acts of racism on campus.
At BYU, a lot of the discussion now is focused on who shouted what, but that’s really the least important issue at hand. The real focus should be on how we prevent similar issues in the future. How do we empower people to speak up when they see hate against anyone? And how do we educate kids so the next generation is more aware?
These issues of race in Utah are not going away just because Mitchell is moving to Cleveland. And as hard as it will be for Jazz fans to lose his talent on the court, the harder role to fill will be that of the conscience of our community.
“For sure Donovan is going to be missed,” Akers told me. “He could play ball all day, and I’ll be a Jazz fan the rest of my life, but for me, for the community, what we’re losing is a strong Black voice.”