The credit card didn’t go through on the first attempt. The man kept swiping, though, hoping. Nothing. Next came the frustration, then the embarrassment. Again and again he tried, to no avail. It just so happened that in line behind him was someone who not only took notice, but again took it upon himself to do what he’s been known to do. Donovan Mitchell paid for this stranger’s groceries.
He stepped in. He offered. Donovan Mitchell took care of it. It soon dawned on him that another one of these good deeds could soon be spattered across social media sites and breaking news platforms, just like all the others during and after his historic rookie year that revitalized basketball in Utah. Just like him showing up at a Fourth of July barbecue because, as he’s said, “Why not?” Just like being courtside at a college basketball game in Provo or roaming the sidelines in Rice-Eccles Stadium or in Logan.
Mitchell has become the talk of NBA Twitter and ended up on “SportsCenter” for these things. This time, he just told his mom.
“He knew he had to leave the store right away,” Nicole Mitchell said.
This is how you learn to adjust to fame: on the fly, awash in limelight, cameras always fixated, ridiculously high expectations, sneaker geeks geeking over your kicks, making people smile, making people go, well, a little nuts.
So when Mitchell scanned his own card, paid for whatever the man at the store walked into the cashier’s line with, what came next was finding a way to escape. Not because he wanted to but because he had to.
Because at 22, when in a matter of six months you become a worldwide star, when you see people wearing your college jersey in China or Spain or Serbia, it’s awesome. It’s amazing. It’s what you envisioned as a kid in the gym, playing out scenarios in your head that you never, ever, ever thought were a guarantee but prayed and prayed could be.
It can all hit you on occasion, and it can happen by just offering to pay for a stranger’s stuff at the store. As fun as he is on the court, he’s as fun off it, but he is not seeking attention. This is not fabricated. These are not P.R. stunts.
So it’s not that he isn’t appreciative of all the people who gravitate toward him because of his accessibility. Mitchell wants to make headlines. He wants people to know No. 45 and know the Utah Jazz are going to be a force once more. Last year was just the start, he says. He wants to fill his Twitter timeline with zings at friends and teammates and emojis galore. But there are times when he’d love if the only person who knew about this latest gesture was that person in the checkout line.
Donovan Mitchell is waiting for me. He’s in a plush chair on the far side of the Zions Bank Basketball Center after a preseason practice. He knows what I’ve come to ask him, and he has no issue with it, because he doesn’t take issue with much.
Why, I ask, does Donovan Mitchell say yes to basically everything?
He said yes to this interview. He’s said yes to holiday barbecues at random houses, to Real Salt Lake tickets, to BYU games, to Utah games, to Utah State games. That’s just the stuff we see because he’s willing to let us see it. This summer he stepped in and paid to fix a stranger’s iPhone at the Apple store. Even in the slow summer months, he found a way to dominate the local news cycle. There are more stories yet to be unearthed, certainly, but he’d be happy if they simply remained out of sight.
His response to the question is precisely why the city, state and fan base has fallen so incredibly hard, so intoxicatingly fast for the 6-foot-3 guard from Louisville who can soar and score, who has demolished that invisible wall between spectator and star.
Like all of us, he remembers waiting to just be recognized by a hero. In high school, it was LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. He never got to meet them or even hold out a shirt to be signed or wait, maybe fortuitously, for a pair of free shoes to be tossed into the crowd.
“I understood that it’s all happened so fast, and I wanted everybody else to experience what I wanted,” Mitchell said. “So, for me, I got no problems saying yes. The biggest thing for me is starting to say no.”
Then he shakes his head. You can see how frustrating it is for him. He has relived having to walk away when he can’t get to every kid or every fan, because he puts himself back there to those games and events he’d hoped someone would notice him in the crowd.
His connection with community members is reinforced by the instant-replay dunks and faraway 3-pointers, but none more so than his willingness to be theirs. His arrival the same summer the organization was shunned by Gordon Hayward in free agency has made Utahns more appreciative of this ascending talent, who, like all newcomers to the state, marvels at the seasons and the mountains. He lets the outside in.
“Donovan plays with joyfulness. He brings joyfulness to the gym, and he brings a lot of joy off the court and people love that because they feel a connection with the team at a deeper level,” said Jazz President Steve Starks. “That’s just him. You want the best players you can get, and when it happens to be that the best players also have that type of personality, it just makes our jobs much easier. We like to joke that he’s our chief ticket salesman and he’s our chief marketing officer, just because of who he is.”
In August, a young Jazz fan battling cancer noticed Mitchell at The Cheesecake Factory. She asked for a picture, and, afterward, he remembered he happened to have an extra pair of shoes in his car. Mitchell ran to his car, signed the shoes and gave them to her. When he has extra video games, he sends them to fans who ask.
“I just want to do good,” he said. “I just want to be different, in my own way.”
Steve Smith, the vice president of team security for the Jazz, is assigned to every Mitchell detail when he’s going somewhere that will draw a crowd. And there’s been no shortage of assignments in the past year.
“Usually people want to hide and not deal with fans,” Smith said. “Donovan is unique and completely opposite in that way.”
Smith learned so during the NBA Summer League at the Huntsman Center last year when Mitchell had a crowd of fans lined up waiting to greet him outside. Smith asked Mitchell how many autographs he wanted to sign before Smith would embrace the villain role, and cut him off. Instead, he got an awkward glance in response.
“No,” Mitchell told him, “I’m going to sign for all of them.”
The next day, Smith said, Mitchell came prepared. He brought a bundle of shoes to sign and hand out to the awaiting swarm when he left the Huntsman Center.
‘Doing too much’
Before Twitter and Instagram accounts started campaigning for him to show up to parties and games, coach Quin Snyder knew what the Jazz had, and more importantly who they had. They had scouted Mitchell heavily, leading up to the workout story that will always be part of his timeline in Utah, as Jazz brass essentially told the entire organization to zip lips until draft night after he had dazzled them in the gym. From the outset, Snyder characterized the future of the franchise as a high-character human being.
But the Jazz coach also said you never know how a personality will manifest itself when immersed in a new team, new culture, new everything.
Of course, the kid went on to blow the top off the NBA in the spring and into the playoffs. Snyder now acknowledges, though, that Mitchell’s “selfless spirit” gave him a bout of worries when he saw his young star showing up basically everywhere.
“I started worrying that he’s doing too much,” Snyder said, “and I wanted to make sure he was balancing what’s a really good impulse with his commitment to himself and the group.”
Added Starks: “He’s so authentic and genuine that it’s alleviated a lot of the concerns. If there are any concerns from an organizational standpoint, it’s just of him getting burnt out.”
So Mitchell is determined to balance the selflessness and the impulse. Now that his sophomore season in the NBA is about to commence, the league won’t be caught napping as much on his signature-penetrating drives or his daring 3-point attempts from long distance. The no’s are more common now. They’ll continue to be during the season, too. He took advantage of the summer, no doubt. He made it look good. It helps, too, being in Utah and now part of the fabric of the state. He’s set unreasonably high expectations for himself by being such an outgoing presence.
There hasn’t been blowback — yet. He’s even prepared for some, although it’s hard to see Jazz fans having a gripe with Mitchell over anything at this point. There will be days he can’t make the difference he’d like. He’ll have to miss signing autographs at times. He’ll have to be whisked away from fans asking for selfies. He can’t make everyone happy. He knows that now. And with that comes an intensified focus on what got him to this point in the first place: rising up and up above the pack and becoming a singular basketball sensation.
When he feels like it, though, the protocol is that he texts Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey to tell him where he’s going and what event he’ll be attending. The support from the organization has helped him feel more secure in venturing out and about. He isn’t second-guessing himself. Instead, he’s beaming brighter knowing he’s the guy.
“They understand I’m a kid just being a kid,” Mitchell said. “There are some teams who just wouldn’t allow you to do this, so for this team to do it, is awesome.”
‘Just on the fly’
Last fall, Donovan Mitchell, the rookie guard who had yet to crack Snyder’s starting lineup, was wandering around the tailgate lots before a Utah football game. He stopped into some areas, mingled, had some food. Some fans didn’t know his name. He was “the young guy” the Jazz just drafted to many. It was easier back then.
All of it.
Not that he’d trade anything he’s accomplished or what the Jazz have accomplished in the past year, because he wouldn’t. Not for anything. That was then. This summer, when he went home to New York, a mob of fans chased his car block after block. Like everyone, they wanted their piece of Donovan. Nicole Mitchell was there in the van, too.
“I found it to be quite scary,” she said. “That was when the light switch really went off. Things are … different.”
Earlier this month, he walked around Fashion Place mall with his family and a few people approached him, but no one pushed the boundaries and invaded their space. No one freaked them out. They gawked because that’s what you do now when you see Donovan Mitchell.
“It makes me happy when I see the 45 jerseys,” Nicole Mitchell said. “Last year, it was a different type of joy. This year, it makes me feel, ‘OK, he’s OK.’ He’s liked. People like him. But I don’t get caught up in the hoopla of stardom. For me, it’s about being a good person.”
His personal motto, which he got from his mom, is be humble. It’s in his bios on his social media pages. Before Utah’s preseason game against Portland last week, the soles of his shoes had the message all over. Nicole says her son hasn’t changed a bit, but his ideas have. He’s learning day to day who he is, how far his reach can go, that, yes, fans in China wear his shoes now, and, yes, people are obsessed with his stardom and can’t wait to see what he does in this sequel season.
“When you give to people, you’re not just helping that person, you’re also helping yourself,” Nicole said. "People don’t realize that though, as much.”
Before our time is up, I ask him what’s next on his list. He wants to go to a BYU football game. That’s the one thing he hasn’t done yet. He’s looking forward to college basketball season because hitting a half of one of those games is more realistic during the year. Other things will arise, and he’ll decipher if it’s doable, or not.
“A lot of it is just on the fly,” he said. “If I feel like it, I’m going to do it.”
One story he failed to share was one Starks later happily volunteered.
When Utah State students invited him to a football game during Jazz training camp, Mitchell agreed. But when he heard his destination was Logan, he initially confused it for Lagoon — Utah’s amusement park just north of Salt Lake City. Google Maps told him it was about 30 minutes from downtown. An easy drive. When he asked Smith what time he needed to leave to get up there in time, Smith had to quickly correct Mitchell. He’d be driving an extra hour — each way.
So up to USU’s Maverik Stadium he went, wearing a No. 45 Aggie jersey, smiling wide for pictures, signing autographs and managing to do it again. Instead of saying no, Donovan Mitchell said yes.