New York • It’s spring break for the schools in Westchester County.
For the kids who idolize Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, an NBA All-Star who grew up in their neighborhood, this was the perfect time to take the one-hour trip to the city to watch him play the Knicks or the Nets — or both — on what would normally be school nights. Family friends or coworkers of his mother, Nicole Mitchell (a teacher at Greenwich Country Day School, a private school also on spring break) could saunter down to the court’s edge at the end of the game, hoping to have a photo, a chat, and a smile from their budding star.
It’s not the first time Mitchell’s played in New York, but it is the first time since 2020 that he’s done so with fans in the building and COVID protocols mostly out of the picture. And so he took on the back-to-back with glee, excited for the chance to return home and see so many he hadn’t seen in so long.
“It’s always a blessing to play here in front of my friends and family — people who’ve seen me play since I was three. Like, (they were) literally watching me shoot on mini hoops,” Mitchell said inside Madison Square Garden.
So yes, when the Knicks’ public address announcer said the names of the Jazz’s players one by one, all got booed. Mitchell, though, drew cheers from the crowd, a definite rarity in New York. And some of those cheers came from Knicks fans who simply hope that the team will be able to claim him one day, see his baskets go in and count towards the Knicks’ side of the famed scoreboard, not the visitors’.
Those who run the Knicks also covet Mitchell, an item Newsday’s Steve Popper called an “open secret.”
There are certainly connections in the organization, beyond Mitchell’s hometown. The biggest, in practice, are the Knicks’ ties with Creative Artists Agency, the celebrity agent behemoth that has expanded its reach into the basketball world in recent years. Knicks team president Leon Rose co-founded CAA’s basketball division, and officially gave famed basketball connector William “World Wide” Wesley a job with the front office of the organization as well.
Rose, in his first offseason, hired a head coach represented by CAA (Tom Thibodeau) and hired 3 CAA assistant coaches. They drafted Obi Toppin, also represented by CAA. They signed Julius Randle, and gave him a $117 million contract extension. He, you guessed it, is represented by CAA.
Mitchell is also a CAA client. As such, the thinking of many goes, CAA may steer him back home into their fold, into the big market location they control. In a Knicks uniform, he could work with CAA client Johnnie Bryant, the assistant coach that worked most closely with Mitchell in his early days with the Jazz. Mitchell’s endorsement and shoe revenue would likely rise significantly in New York, and that money can sometimes exceed the valuation of the player’s contract with the team in the right circumstances.
Mitchell, though, holds the final say.
He doesn’t work for CAA, CAA works for him.
Mitchell is still under contract with the Jazz for three more seasons after this one, and only then can he exercise his player option to opt-out. Mitchell could, theoretically, demand a trade like other stars before him — Ben Simmons, James Harden, Anthony Davis — but is he that kind of personality? Would he be willing to make the Jazz truly uncomfortable?
Besides Mitchell’s family and friends, there were three other interested parties at the Jazz’s game against the Knicks. Jazz CEO Danny Ainge, general manager Justin Zanik, and team owner Ryan Smith all attended the game.
That’s more uncommon than you might think. Sometimes, the Jazz’s general manager will attend road games, but during this time of year, you’d normally expect to see the team’s lead basketball decision makers at NCAA tournament games, getting their last chance to scout prospects in the upcoming draft. Even though the Jazz don’t currently hold a pick in the 2022 draft, they’d still usually be at these collegiate contests, accumulating information in case they did acquire a pick or were interested in a player moving forward.
Instead, they were in New York to watch their current star, Mitchell, play from highly-visible courtside seats. You can interpret it in different ways, but clearly, the presence of the team’s biggest front office names was intended to be a show of support.
Mitchell, meanwhile, played off all of the attention, while scoring 36 points against the Knicks, then 30 points against the Nets.
“It’s fun, like, you know, seeing friends and family, you know, being able to do that, but also understanding you got a job to do,” he said. “I think that’s that’s where my focus was all day, understanding that we can put ourselves in the right position for the playoffs — keeping the main thing the main thing regardless of what’s around.”
The little criticism Mitchell got in New York came from one boisterous duo: his mother and aunt.
“She was telling me the whole game that my tights were ripped and I had to change. That’s what she was telling me every time I sat down,” Mitchell said.
Among the crowd, among thousands of people who wanted to show their love to Mitchell, so eager to be a part of his future — the only hecklers were those who loved him most.
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