Utah Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell hasn’t exactly been keeping a low profile these past few months since the NBA season went on hiatus back on March 11, when teammate Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 brought both basketball to a halt and the coronavirus pandemic front and center in the world of sports.
Since then, Mitchell has made an appearance on “Good Morning America” to address his own COVID-19 diagnosis, and has emerged on social media as one of the league’s preeminent young voices on issues regarding the ongoing racial, social justice and police reform movements taking place in this country.
Still, it was not until a Zoom videoconference call with local and national media on Thursday afternoon that many of the issues swirling around the young shooting guard were definitively addressed.
And right out of the gate came the question that Jazz fans have wanted answered since reports emerged that Mitchell was infamously unhappy with Gobert in the wake of their shared coronavirus situation: How is their relationship now?
His response did not do much to quell concerns for those reading between the lines.
“Right now, we’re good. We’re going out there ready to hoop,” Mitchell said. “I think the biggest thing that kind of sucked was that it took away from the guys on the team, took away from what the guys on the team were trying to do.”
Mitchell later elaborated that he had declined to publicly clear up any lingering misgivings — with a simple tweet, Instagram post, et cetera — because he didn’t wish to give the media any additional fuel to add to the fire, and because “we know what [the situation] is internally as a team, and that should be it.”
Furthermore, he conceded that there had been “tension and frustration” between him and Gobert on the court, but argued it was an inevitable byproduct of the Jazz having two young stars with unique viewpoints, even suggesting “that happens on every team” in a similar situation. He also denied that their basketball issues bled into their coronavirus-related spat.
“I consider that two separate things: one is basketball, a working relationship, and the other one is life. I consider that separate,” he said. “So, yeah, I don’t think that really carried over.”
He made it clear that he hopes the topic will disappear, and that people can turn their basketball focus to the Jazz as a collective entity.
“I really wish that, going forward, that will be the primary focus — us jelling as a team,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, Rudy and I had COVID, and whatever happened, happened. But now we’re ready to hoop and focus on the team as a whole.”
He acknowledged, of course, that simply focusing on basketball now is not that simple, given everything that’s transpiring in the country at the moment.
And actually, when asked later about how those going to Orlando for the NBA’s July 30 restart can continue to keep widespread attention on the societal issues that players have sought to highlight these past few months, Mitchell made it clear that he believes those subjects ought to take precedence.
“To be honest with you, I do wish that we were able to be there on the front lines as opposed to being in that bubble,” Mitchell said. “That’s my personal opinion, because I think that’s just something that really needs attention, as opposed to people talking about who scored 30 or 40 or who won this game. It should be about Breonna Taylor.”
The subject of equal treatment for Black people has become an increasingly urgent one for Mitchell, not merely because Taylor was shot in her own home by white police officers in Louisville, where he played his college basketball. And not merely because, like millions of others, he was distraught by the video of George Floyd dying while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Mitchell discussed at length his own recent experience with racist treatment after a social media post he made about the Juneteenth holiday elicited vitriolic backlash.
While he lamented the ugly responses he got, he hopes that they served to wake up those who might otherwise be oblivious to why he is championing the causes he is.
“It opened a lot of eyes, to be honest with you,” Mitchell said. “When that post came out, and the comments — it’s easy for people to say, ‘Don’t read them.’ It’s tough when they’re outrageous and crazy, and then you click on them and see and it’s not like they’re bots — they’re people who live not only here but in different places.
“I was pretty pissed off,” he added. “… It’s tough to see that as an African American male.”
Mitchell made it clear that he knows racism is hardly limited to Utah. That said, after former league MVP Russell Westbrook had a pair of run-ins with racist fans here the past couple of seasons, he wants Utahns to realize that the state very much has a negative reputation now among certain athletes, and to use that knowledge to effect change.
“Hopefully, this conversation opens a lot of eyes, especially here in Utah, because, you know, there’s a certain stigma — there’s no secret about that, about Utah,” Mitchell said. “And obviously, the comments didn’t help. For us as athletes, we want it to be known that we won’t stand for any of the racism and whatever else comes with that.”
Despite Mitchell’s preference for keeping the focus on racial justice instead of basketball, the guard noted that “work calls and duty calls, and we have to go.” Still, he made clear he’s not altogether comfortable with the situation for myriad reasons.
Along those lines, he took the opportunity to elaborate on previous reports that he had raised the specter of potential injury as a factor worth considering before players agreed to the league’s restart proposal.
He made it clear that the injury considerations haven’t gone anywhere in his estimation, that being limited to doing sprints in his mother’s basement while quarantined, and having a garage with dumbbells, a treadmill, and an exercise bike instead of the workout facilities he’s accustomed to didn’t really lend themselves to optimal training for an elite-level athlete now being primed to return.
“I didn’t really have the resources during this time off. This isn’t a typical time off, where it’s like the offseason. It wasn’t a vacation,” Mitchell said. “Not having played for like 120 days or something like that, just being at a complete halt and then kind of going right into games that matter? It’s not like these eight games are like the preseason where you can sit out — these games matter. And that’s my biggest concern.
“Obviously, it’s no secret, it’s been out there that I said that I was really nervous about getting injured,” he added. “It’s still the same case. It hasn’t changed, you know?”