Donovan Mitchell makes an emotional and defiant return to Salt Lake City

The former Utah Jazz star played his first game in Utah as an opponent and put on a show, then spoke afterward about the significance of the moment, while vowing to continue his off-court activism.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) pre-game as the Utah Jazz host the Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

As Donovan Mitchell stood in a tunnel going from the visitors’ locker room to the Vivint Arena court around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, taking in the scene of his former home ahead of the game to come, he suddenly and unexpectedly got a sneak preview of the video tribute the Utah Jazz had planned for him.

His overall takeaway? Besides a Jazz content staffer chewing him out for spoiling their surprise for him, that is?

“I spent a lot of time here, and there were a lot of good things you saw throughout the video,” he replied. “… I could laugh and smile, looking at myself in the Denver Nuggets hat [on draft night] and talking about how I’m shaking.”

Actually, his only complaint was that he could have done without seeing “the nasty hairstyle I had when I first got to the league.”

Beyond that, the mystery du jour of whether Jazz fans would lovingly welcome back or angrily spurn the former star in his return to Salt Lake City was revealed just as quickly and definitively.

The video tribute, shown pregame, was enthusiastically received. And when PA voice Dan Roberts began to intone, “At guard, No. 45 …” the ovation was thunderous. Small pockets of boos could be heard, but were pretty thoroughly overwhelmed.

The sideshow drama answered, everyone could finally, at last, get down to the actual basketball.

It did not take Mitchell long to give the Vivint Arena faithful a taste of what they have been missing following the September trade which sent him to Cleveland for a trio of players and a haul of future draft picks. He dropped a dozen points in the opening quarter. He was up to 25 by halftime. He finished with 46 on 14-for-27 shooting, to go along with six assists, five rebounds, and three steals.

Still, with the Jazz pulling off a few miracles late for a 116-114 victory, everyone was able to get a piece of the good vibes. Though Mitchell was disappointed that his team lost, he couldn’t really bring himself to be upset given who it was to and how well everything else went.

“I was really comfortable — I’m not gonna lie to you. It wasn’t weird. It was just like I’m playing at home like I have been for the past five years,” he said. “You know, the reception was phenomenal, I’m appreciative of it. … But it felt like a just a typical Jazz night — back and forth, screaming, yelling. It was awesome. It was good to be back.”

There was a bit of controversy in the lead-up, after Mitchell conceded his defense wasn’t up to par last year, acknowledged that he figured the team was destined to be dismantled following its listless playoff loss to Dallas, then angered some of the fanbase with a national interview in which he said he’d found pushback to his off-court endeavors “draining” at times, while adding how it was “comforting” and “refreshing” to play in front of more Black fans in Cleveland than he got to in Utah.

It made for great talk-radio content and fed what proved to be something of a social-media echo chamber, but that was it.

Jazz coach Will Hardy, asked pregame about what he anticipated regarding the coming atmosphere, noted that “there’s always emotions” in such situations, then correctly predicted it ultimately would be a hard-fought game wherein all the relevant passions in play found their proper equilibrium.

“To be honest, I feel like there’s always a lot of noise and talk from the exterior, and when the game comes, the second the ball goes up, it’s another NBA game,” he said. “You try not to overly focus on it, because two and a half hours after tip-off, it’s going to be over and you’re moving on.”

Mitchell is also moving on, but before he took aim at critics he said have either twisted his words or outright made things up — “There are things I see and hear [attributed to me on social media] that I didn’t bring up.” He also, however, made it a point to repeat multiple times that his critical comments were not aimed at all or even most fans.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) signs autographs as the Utah Jazz host the Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Then he defiantly promised to keep doing what he’s been doing, regardless of who it angers.

“I’m gonna continue to speak for people that you guys don’t put a camera in front of because they don’t have that voice, they’re not able to speak on it. That’s always been my intention and that’s always going to be my intention,” Mitchell said. “… I’m not gonna stop using my voice the way I feel like I should.”

Meanwhile, whatever animus there was never extended to the on-court participants, anyway.

Following the Jazz’s pregame shootaround, veteran point guard Mike Conley — one of the few remaining holdovers to play alongside Mitchell in a Jazz jersey — noted that they remain close, calling him “a special person and one of my good friends,” and said that they’re frequently texting or calling one another … whenever they’re not messing up remembering the other’s game schedule, anyway.

He added that Mitchell offered genuine enthusiasm about Utah’s fantastic start to the season, even faux-contrite that he’d apparently proven to be addition by subtraction.

“He’s calling me after every win and joking about stuff. You should have heard him after the first few weeks: ‘I knew I was the problem! I knew I was the problem!’” Conley said, laughing. “That’s his sense of humor. It’s just cool to have that kind of connection with people.”

As a result, he expected a fun night.

“I’m sure we’re gonna be laughing and joking pregame, and fighting in the middle of the game,” Conley said.

That’s pretty much how it went.

Mitchell was putting everything on display, but the Jazz surged ahead, and in the end, the only thing missing from making it an absolutely epic night for him was the final result.

Alternately dejected and feisty, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff — when not ripping the refereeing for the flagrant-foul call that effectively handed Jordan Clarkson a seven-point play and completely changed the momentum of the game — praised his new star for doing all he could to enable Cleveland to win.

“He was Donovan. He was trying to will us through it,” Bickerstaff said of the All-Star guard’s performance, particularly his 17-point final period.

As Mitchell lingered on the court afterward, he exchanged enthusiastic embraces and pleasantries with both Conley and Clarkson. He would later concede that while he doesn’t like to lose, there’s a bit less of a sting knowing it came from his friends.

He added that it’s actually not difficult at all to maintain a relationship with those two, that they all play Xbox online together all the time.

The bigger point was, you don’t maintain those bonds with people you don’t care about.

“You build friendships — you’re with these guys more than your family — you build relationships, and the amount of love that I have for those guys, I don’t know if what you see on the court even shows it,” Mitchell said. “I mean, there will never be another game where I’m constantly giving another guy a hug in the middle of the game, or when it’s a four-point game in the fourth quarter. That never happens.”

And as he headed toward the locker room, he tapped his chest a few times, acknowledging one more roar from the crowd. Then, on his way to the postgame interview room, he was delayed over and over again, as one well-wisher after another stopped by to greet him once more.

“I know the security guys, I know the announcers — it was just great to see everybody,” Mitchell said. “I wouldn’t call it relief that it’s over. God willing, I’m here again in a few more weeks.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) embraces Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (11) and Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) after the game, as the Utah Jazz host the Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.