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SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell was already feeling a bit nostalgic when he walked into the visitors’ tunnel nearly three hours before tipoff. He wanted to take a quiet moment to reflect on all the memories of playing at Vivint Arena and allow the emotions to wash over him before locking back in.
He got some help doing that. On the video boards hanging over the court, Mitchell got a sneak preview of the video tribute the Jazz were going to play for him.
There he was with his “nasty” hair on draft night as he shook in excitement about coming to Utah. There was the Game 6 win over Oklahoma City in his rookie season. There was his dunk contest win, his historic bubble run, his pregame shoe giveaway, and so many other things that helped encapsulate his five-year run with the Jazz.
The memories started to flow.
“There was so much good done in this building,” Mitchell said. “You just kind of want to see it and just let it run through your mind, and let it play before you go back into game mode because you’ve got to be appreciative of it.”
In the lead up of the game, there was a mystery about how he’d be received by the Jazz faithful.
On one hand, Mitchell had pulled the Jazz out of one of the franchise’s lowest states and brought it into contender status. On the other hand, some fans were angered by Mitchell saying he had been “draining” at times to be a Black man in Utah; they felt it painted Utah, unfairly, with a broad brush.
Once the arena filled in, though, it was quite clear he wasn’t the only one who appreciated his time in Utah. The tribute video was received by thunderous applause, and when Mitchell was announced in Cleveland’s starting lineup, he received a standing ovation. Sure, there were a small number of boos scattered throughout the crowd, but those were easily drowned out by the enthusiasm of everyone else.
For Mitchell, it was almost like nothing had changed: He was back in Vivint Arena with fans wearing his jersey and screaming his name; he was just on the other side of the court this time.
“When I got (the ovation), it was like a regular Jazz game — like you’ve been here and the support and the love you get is unmatched,” he said. “I was appreciative. It, obviously, could have gone one or two ways, and it went the right way, I feel like, and I appreciate that.”
Mitchell sure felt comfortable in his old home as he scored 46 points against his former team. But even as he did that, the crowd was in his corner. There were polite cheers and astonished gasps as he showed the Utah home crowd exactly what it had been missing out on since the Jazz sent him to Cleveland in exchange for Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji and future picks.
Mitchell went 14-for-27 from the field and finished with six assists, five rebounds, and three steals. He hit seven 3-pointers, and made numerous highlight-reel drives. But it was a missed shot that highlighted the connection between Mitchell and the Vivint Arena crowd.
In the third quarter, Mitchell air-balled a shot, and the fans playfully mocked him just like they would an old friend. Mitchell cracked a smile at the light-hearted ribbing and even egged it on by raising his hand and gesturing to the crowd.
Once the game was over – and after Mitchell had embraced his former teammates, coaches and other members of the organization – he left the court to a final loud cheer from those who were still in the arena.
The whole night was like a collective thank you to Mitchell; and Mitchell is hopeful that the positive energy will be what defines his relationship with Jazz fans and the state moving forward.
“I hope it’s the same as it was tonight, the same as it always has been,” Mitchell said. “I really want to harp on the fact that I don’t speak against everybody when I bring up what I bring up. I think that’s something that gets lost in the shuffle, but it is what it is.”
That’s not to say Mitchell will stop speaking up for the things he believes in. He’s proud of the conversations he’s started in the Utah community, and is committed to speaking for those who don’t have such a high-profile platform. Although, he said some have twisted his words, or worse, made things up. “There are things I see and hear (attributed to me) that I did not bring up.”
“I’m not gonna stop using my voice the way I feel like I should,” he said.
While there were doubts about the reception from those in the stands, there was no question it was going to be all love on the court.
“I’m sure we’re gonna be laughing and joking pregame, and fighting in the middle of the game,” Mike Conley said after Tuesday morning’s shortaround.
That was pretty accurate. Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson went toe-to-toe and exchanged big shots in the fourth quarter (Mitchell finished with 17 in the final quarter, Clarkson with 15), but Conley missed something, too — lots and lots of hugs.
“There will never be another game where I’m constantly giving another guy a hug in the middle of the game,” Mitchell said. “It’s a 4-point game in the fourth quarter; like, that never happens. I will never, never do that, but like JC grabbed me and I’m grabbing him because, at the end of the day, we’re blessed to play this game together as a group; we’re blessed to be able to be in this position. And, you know, there’s so many memories you have from just playing with each other.”
They’ve created some memories since the trade, too. Like when Mitchell would call Conley after each of Utah’s early wins to joke that “I knew I was the problem.” They can add Tuesday’s reunion to the list.
Mitchell stayed on the court after the final buzzer to exchange enthusiastic pleasantries with his former teammates and bask in the moment. As he finally made his way to the same tunnel he stood in hours earlier, he tapped his chest and signaled to the cheering crowd.
He now has another Vivint Arena moment to get nostalgic about.
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