Los Angeles • As Donovan Mitchell left the press room of the Staples Center, trophy in hand, his heels dragged against the carpet. He hadn’t eaten all day.
How could he? As he faced the realization of a childhood ambition for hours leading up to Saturday night, all other thoughts fell by the wayside.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “I’ve been preparing for this since I was a kid.”
Mitchell, 21, has been honing his routine since he first dunked in seventh grade, in a park in Harlem. As a middle schooler, he lowered the rims, trying to emulate the dunks he saw in contests. Soon, he didn’t have to lower the rims anymore. And the crowds kept growing.
So for All-Star Weekend — the biggest stage of big stages for dunking — he didn’t pull a punch. He did four dunks, all of which he’s practiced in various forms for years, earned two perfect scores, and won the dunk contest of his dreams. And after a night of twisting through the air, he didn’t have enough left in the tank to pick up his feet as he walked.
A reporter asked if he had another dunk prepared if his contest with Larry Nance Jr. had gone to overtime: “No. That was it.”
Mitchell sealed his victory over the Cleveland Cavalier forward in the finals with a stunning tribute: Wearing a throwback Toronto Raptors jersey, Mitchell channeled 2000 contest champion Vince Carter with an against-the-grain 360-degree slam, then imitating Carter’s famous declaration: “It’s over!”
The judges, as it happened, agreed: They awarded him 48 points (perfect scores from celebrity judges DJ Khaled, Mark Wahlberg and Julius Erving) to win by two. Nance, himself the son of the slam dunk champion by the same name, had made things close with a double bounce off the backboard to make the most of his 6-foot-9 height — finishing with a perfect score.
But if Mitchell appeared confident at the finish, he was nowhere near sure for the day leading up to the contest. He said afterward that he hadn’t landed his contest-clinching dunk in years before his big night.
“I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it,” he said. “Tried it last night, didn’t make it. … But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”
It was one of two tribute dunks that Mitchell made on the evening. The other, which came on his second dunk, had much more personal meaning.
Mitchell unveiled a vintage purple Jazz jersey bearing No. 35: The number of Darrell Griffith, a fellow Louisville Cardinal, a former NBA rookie of the year, and known to Jazz fans as Dr. Dunkenstein.
But after Mitchell scratched on a first attempt, he scrambled one of his later dunks together: He pulled his sister, Jordan Mitchell onto the court, then invited Kevin Hart (one of his favorite comedians) and his son up as well. The three crouched down as Mitchell got an alley-oop off the side of the backboard, and then soared over the group for a slam which earned a perfect score.
Jordan, he said, was nervous. It was her idea to crouch, not trusting his 40-inch vertical to rise above her. But it was Donovan’s idea to include his sister, who has been a fixture at his side during the most important moments of his career, including this All-Star Weekend.
“It’s tough sometimes being a popular athlete’s sibling — lot of people don’t know that,” he said. “She’s sat in the car for hours while I’ve had games. She’s done a lot, and I’m getting kind of emotional just saying all this. But, yeah — she’s a trooper. She’s been there.”
His other pieces were classics: He earned a perfect score for his third dunk, which was an alley-oop off the glass that showcased every inch of his 6-foot-10 wingspan as he reached back to cram it in. Mitchell said he looked for ways to showcase his power, which he feels is uncommon for his size.
Mitchell’s first dunk came from his high school catalogue, but with a twist: He brought in a second basket, bounced an alley-oop off of it, and finished with a windmill. He got three 10s for his effort, finishing with a score of 48.
But it wasn’t assured that Mitchell would make the final. After a low-scoring first-round dunk, Dennis Smith Jr. pulled off a reverse between-the-legs dunk that awed the crowd and wooed the judges to a score of 50 — possibly the most technically challenging jam of the night. Nance, who paid tribute by rocking the baby in his father’s jersey, advanced with a baseline dunk before Mitchell took off over his three-person crowd.
Mitchell said he wished for a finals match-up with Smith, who beat him in contest after contest when they were growing up. But that didn’t stop him from leaving it all on the table for the rest of the night.
“In the dunk contest you get to a certain point where the adrenaline’s there, so you’re not worried about your legs,” he said. “It’s more so the concentration. And if you look at my face, I kind of bite my lip and I either look really happy or really angry. It’s just me trying to dunk the ball as hard as I can.”
At the end of Saturday evening, the legs were gone. But the dream was fulfilled at last.
Road to a win<br>First dunk • Mitchell bounced the ball off a second backboard to himself then windmilled it home. 48 points.<rb>Second dunk • Wearing a Darrell Griffith Jazz jersey, Mitchell leapt over his sister Jordan Mitchell, comedian Kevin Hart and his son Hendrix and finished an alley-oop off the side of the backboard. 50 points.<br>Third dunk • Mitchell threw the ball off the backboard to himself, had a full extension to catch the ball and slammed it. 50 points.<br>Fourth dunk • Wearing a Vince Carter Raptors jersey, Mitchell spun 360 degrees while dunking against the direction his body was spinning. 48 points.