Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
When Donovan Mitchell suffered and battled through the now-infamous anxiety he felt after the Jazz’s recent airplane trauma, their blown engine after takeoff en route to Memphis, he said the incident — which, in his rather understandable words, scared the s—- out of him — “put everything in perspective.”
It put what’s most important in perspective, and bolted it in place in his brain and in his being.
Every deep and dear aspect to and of it.
Whether in the air or on the ground, on the court or off it, Mitchell is an athlete who can be much more than just that. He can be a leader of a movement, of movements.
He already is.
His voice regarding significant issues of the day has been as loud as his dunks have been thunderous, as on-target as his 3-point shooting.
Anybody who tells him to keep his mouth shut has the right to do so but not much acumen to go alongside that right. Mitchell, conversely, has an abundance on both sides of that equation.
His ascent on the court is happening straight in front of the open eyes of teammates, opponents and fans. The man can flat ball and the more he does it, the more he commits himself to the pursuit of elevating his abilities in that craft, the higher he’ll take himself and his team.
The Jazz are blossoming with every step he takes, every shot and pass he makes, upward and onward.
It’s a gas to watch. We can only guess at how far his talent and his tenacity will take him in his chosen profession. He’s still only 24.
But here’s the thing: He could have chosen any profession.
He’s smart enough. Driven enough. Conscientious enough. He cares enough.
The bright lights that attend NBA basketball illuminate his prowess in that particular realm. He’s on display night after night and has been since he first arrived in Utah. Although the need for growth — better judgment, better court vision, better efficiency — was apparent, the player himself was well aware of the need, eager to address it. Mitchell has the good sense to know that the better he gets, the better his team gets, and the better his team gets, the better he gets.
He gets it.
It’s remarkable how many gifted athletes in team sports don’t.
Already he has made millions — via his initial contract with the Jazz and by way of his shoe deal with Adidas and his endorsements of other companies. His most recent extension with the Jazz, the one that pays him just shy of $200 million over the next fistful of seasons here, will give him stacks of money deep enough to grant the kinds of financial opportunities few humans ever experience. And that only covers the first half of his playing career. What might come thereafter blows the mind.
That remuneration and the glory that arrives with it is a privilege and a great blessing to Mitchell. He knows that. He’s not perfect, and he never said he was, growing accustomed at such a young age to the lifestyle the NBA provides. But he’s unlikely to let much of it mess over his existence, as is sometimes the case for those who have no clue what to do with or how to handle so much excess.
One of my personal favorite moments in talking with Mitchell came during his rookie season, when the spotlight had so quickly come to him, and I asked if that attention would go to his head. His response: “No. No way. My mom would kill me.”
Mitchell was fortunate to be raised by that kind of guiding hand.
And that parental influence, apparently, guides him still.
On account of that, his intelligence mixed with his willingness to listen and learn and the perspective that it’s brought him, the accumulated worldview, he has a chance to become not just a voice, but a force far beyond basketball and sports, gigantic though that last part can be.
He has a chance, a shot at a position he’s already welcomed and embraced, to be a leader of a generation, and not just his generation, but others, too. That’s what happens when a fresh-faced NBA star shines on the court, bolstering the Jazz to the best record in the league, but also shies not one iota away from speaking out on racial and social issues that are as important to address now as they’ve ever been.
He’s taking on issues that should have been sorted out and solved hundreds of years ago. If only he lived in a better world.
Mitchell has taken it as a charge in the very real world he lives in to help push along justice for all, especially for the under-represented. Black lives matter to him, as they should. But he’s also donated large amounts of money to important educational causes, from meals for lower-income school kids to facilities and scholarships for those who could use a boost, stressing the value of education among children of all demographic groups.
Some observers could find room for criticism of and hints of hypocrisy in Mitchell for signing that lucrative deal with Adidas, a deal that features his signature shoe and rewards him with millions of dollars for wearing them while workers in that company’s supply chain labor for low wages under difficult conditions in faraway foreign lands. Adidas has claimed it’s improved its sorry past in that regard.
Believe what you will on that front.
On the home front, Mitchell has raised his profile as a star athlete calling for increased emphasis on important matters that have nothing to do with basketball. He, along with CJ McCollum and Tobias Harris, discussed those matters with and interviewed now-vice president Kamala Harris in October when she was the VP candidate.
“No voice is too little,” he said.
He added and asked: “… If we want to get to the ultimate goal of equality, whether it’s through education or systemic racism or voter suppression, whatever it is, the best thing we can do is inform. There’s no way a kid in the Bronx shouldn’t receive the same education because of where he goes to school as a kid in Connecticut. What is the Biden-Harris plan to help that?”
Mitchell has questions that beg for answers. He wants answers. He has ideas, too.
And now, the University of Utah has invited Mitchell to speak at its virtual commencement ceremony in May, which will come in the middle of the stretch run of the Jazz’s regular season.
It’s an invitation he accepted for a good reason: He has something to say.
There are many notable individuals worthy of that kind of invite, but Mitchell is a fantastic choice, a powerful prolocutor for college grads who need to hear and be fortified by what the man offers.
Mitchell With a Message.
Here’s a prediction, more like a guess, but a good one.
Donovan Mitchell will, in fact, blaze past being a guard and become a vanguard, with a reach far beyond the lines on a basketball court. He’s got a full plate already, loaded up with the challenges he and the Jazz face against the Lakers, Clippers, Suns, Nuggets, among others. It’s a whole lot.
Not saying after his playing days end that he’ll go into politics, but maybe he should. Everyone won’t agree with everything he believes or says, but that devalues it not at all.
Either way, he will not shut up. He will not fade away. Instead, he’ll take on the issues of these times, speaking his mind, carrying on vital causes, pushing them from his vantage point, gathering life experience as he goes. Which is to say, he’ll gain more wisdom, and greater vision, and greater influence.
Pretty cool, an informed, courageous, young Utah voice willing and able to sound off into a sometimes-broken world, a voice that needs to be heard by that desperate world as it cries out for a way to heal.
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.