Donovan Mitchell stayed at home and missed Wednesday night’s game at the Memphis Grizzlies for the best of reasons.
He didn’t want to die.
Neither did any of his teammates or coaches, but they somehow gathered themselves enough to get back on a chartered flight for Memphis to play the Grizzlies for the third time in six days. The challenge of beating the same opponent three consecutive times was steep enough. Doing it the night after an engine blew on the team plane flying out of Salt Lake International made that challenge seem like climbing the west face of Mount Thor.
The fact that the Jazz went ahead and won that game without their leading scorer a mere 30 hours after they had stared their collective mortality straight in its snarling mug made the victory all the more impressive. In a season of wins stacked upon wins, this one was the biggest gut-check of all.
It’s one thing to do battle with LeBron or Durant or Curry, it’s another to swat away the Reaper in the unfriendly skies, to fly into a flock of seagulls or geese or pterodactyls, whatever they were, hear an engine blow, then circle back around, dump fuel, make an emergency landing, and then climb back on another flight to go thump Ja Morant on his home floor, too.
Anybody who thinks the Jazz are a cute little team capable of winning bunches of regular-season games but not tough-minded enough to win a few playoff series might want to rethink that just a bit.
Joe Ingles told Patrick Kinahan during his show on 97.5/1280 The Zone on Thursday morning essentially that the whole team freaked out when the engine blew — who wouldn’t? — and later considered for a minute or two forfeiting the game against the Grizzlies, wanting at least initially to follow the lead of not just Mitchell, but good common sense.
Instead, they boarded that second flight — and jacked their win-loss record to a league-best 36-11.
That Mitchell, who’s always been terrified of flying, wanted to take some time to put his thoughts and spirits back together is completely understandable. Anyone who has flown much has either thought about how horrifying an emergency situation would be or has experienced some offshoot of it. Maybe nothing quite like that, but, either way, frightening enough. Some fliers are panicked by little more than a bit of a bumpy ride.
If you suffer from some form of aviophobia, you’ve got plenty of company.
About 40 percent of the general population has some fear of flying.
The closest I’ve come to that situation was on a flight from Denver back to Salt Lake City during the NBA playoffs in 1994. It seemed like half the Utah sports media was on that plane. But after takeoff, a burning smell floated through the cabin and when the plane turned around to head back to the airport, it got a little tense. Turned out, it was a ventilation problem of some sort, and everyone got back to Salt Lake safely.
It was no fun.
Most frequent fliers have a story to tell.
It’s never fun.
There are many athletes who while spending so much time in the air do so with trepidation, perhaps the most famous among them being the Great One himself. Wayne Gretzy feared flying to the point where describing his knuckles as white would be a drastic understatement. It is said he used the services of a hypnotist to help him better handle the air travel.
In a strange twist of fate, his teammate Ace Bailey, who used to calm Gretzky down on team flights when the young star was a rookie, later was killed in one of the planes involved on 9/11.
“It’s so sad and ironic that Ace died in an airplane because he helped me more than anyone else when I had that fear of flying,” Gretzky told Sports Illustrated. “About the only thing that soothed me is that I sat next to Ace on every flight. He was so strong and calm, and when he told me that everything would be OK, I believed him.”
There is the famous story of the Lakers plane, not long before the team moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, that crash-landed during a winter storm onto a cornfield in Iowa back in 1960. Everybody came through OK, but before the plane safely landed in that field, when that safe outcome was very much in doubt, a group of Lakers players, notable for playing high-stakes card games inflight, started in on a prayer. The prayer included some version of the following:
“Dear God, if you get us down OK, we’ll never gamble again.”
When the team survived and reassembled at a nearby establishment in a small Iowa town, it took about two minutes before the cards came out again.
Ingles didn’t say he made any deals with God on Tuesday, instead he was texting his wife, or attempting to, anyway. He added that after the Jazz plane landed safely, he went straightaway to be with Renae and the kids for a short time before heading back to take the team’s next flight, and that allowed him to find some calming peace.
With good fortune, Mitchell will also find his calming peace.
Orville and Wilbur Wright gave the world a great boost when they did their business back in the day at Kitty Hawk. Amid a whole lot of more important things, they made it possible for games to be played on a night-to-night basis from coast to coast. But alongside the convenience came moments of terror, and, like what happened to the Jazz on Tuesday, moments to be grateful just to be back on the ground.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.