Donovan Mitchell’s community impact closes in from Utah to Cleveland: ‘I’ve got so much to do’

SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell sat courtside with some of his Cavaliers teammates in a high school gym about 15 minutes from downtown Cleveland in December.

He had invited All-Star Darius Garland and 2020 fifth overall winner Isaac Okoro to a match between two local rivals — part of his process of integrating into a new city on a new team.

Mitchell did the same while living here in Salt Lake City and playing for the Utah Jazz.

“A lot of that was because I lived — I still do — I lived by myself, so I thought let me find something to get out of the house to start with,” Mitchell said the athlete. “Then I realized, like when I was a kid, I always wanted professionals to come to my games and I’ve always enjoyed that. So I figured let me find some to go to. And then to understand what that means for children in everyday life.”

While living in Salt Lake, Mitchell tried not only to move among the people, but to help them. He does the same in Cleveland. That’s why he hopes his impact in Utah will be defined by more than his three All-Star games and 39 playoff appearances and all the ups and downs that come with them.

As Mitchell returns to Utah on Tuesday for the first time since September’s Blockbuster trade that brought him to Cleveland, he’s not sure what the response from jazz fans will be. “I hope it’s cheering,” Mitchell said after the Cavs’ win over the Suns in Phoenix.

“He’s a guy that everyone loves everywhere he goes,” said Raul Neto, a teammate of Mitchell at both Jazz and now Cavs. “You see that in Cleveland, it was the same in Utah. Every time we were with him, going to high school games, to the football games in Utah, it was always funny to see how much people loved him and how charismatic he was and how he cared for everyone especially for children .”

Mitchell began attending jazz in his sophomore year, attending high school games and says he made it to more than a dozen by the time of his trade.

He contacted the athletic directors at the various schools to say he was planning to come to a game. He then announced on social media which game he was attending that night.

“It was crazy just walking around, they saw me get out of the car screaming and going insane, it was a whole thing,” Mitchell said. “And I always appreciate it, but I think they will too, and I think it’s a long road.

“Celebrities and people of status don’t usually enjoy that kind of attention, but you understand what that entails. For me it wasn’t about me. It was about them being able to see me, see us as a team, see us, see a game and tell their friends that this was a moment they will always remember. And to give the children a glimmer of hope for that night or that day.”

One of the first schools Mitchell was involved with was Kearns High School (Kearns, Utah). Assistant Principal Scott Wooldridge said one of the students reached out to Mitchell on social media to come to a game at a low socioeconomic status school.

“He was a huge positive influence on our children. When he was at the games, he didn’t turn children away. Kids would come and ask for a photo and an autograph,” Wooldridge said the athlete. “He was really in tune with what was going on in Salt Lake and he wanted to help kids, mostly he just wanted to help kids.”

That was just the beginning. According to Wooldridge, Mitchell also gave out 25 Dell laptop computers to students who had to put together a PowerPoint presentation to show Mitchell. When a student received a full college scholarship through the Utah Jazz Scholarship program at the University of Utah, Mitchell was the one who called and informed that student. Mitchell also donated some weight equipment, which Wooldridge said is still in her weight room.

Mitchell’s mother, Nicole, was also heavily involved. She gave boxes of spiral notebooks and other school supplies to Kearns High School to distribute to the students. And as part of his foundation’s work, Mitchell gave high school kids Adidas backpacks during a gathering.

“To be able to show my face there, especially in a state where there aren’t that many people who look like me, that was amazing,” Mitchell said. “Just like the look in a child’s eyes when you see the shocked expression that you’re actually in this place. And that’s what made me want to keep going. … The teachers told me I’ve never seen our children produce at a high level during the montage and then after the montage, like focus, attention, at a high level.”

Together, Mitchell and his mother provided free tickets to two different jazz games for students who were awarded for good grades or better. Wooldridge said they took about 50 children and were treated to pre-game activities. They watched the jazz warm up and Mitchell took photos with them and signed autographs. All received a Mitchell Jazz jersey.

Mitchell’s reach also expanded to other local schools. He attended other basketball games around town and even hosted a basketball camp at Juan Diego Catholic High School. He even attended some local college games.

His involvement in his local community sprang from a mindset: Mitchell didn’t expect to be in the position he is in.

Mitchell grew up in Elmsford, New York. His mother was a teacher. His father works in the front office of the New York Mets. As a kid, he would spend time in the Mets clubhouse observing guys like Jose Reyes, David Wright, and others and their presence in the community; it was an example of Mitchell.

He attended Greenwich Country Day School, where his mother was a primary school teacher from 2007 to 2019. Nowadays he gives other students the same chance through a scholarship he created through his foundation. He attended Canterbury School in New Milford for his first two years of high school and then attended Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

When Mitchell was at the University of Louisville, he only started five games his freshman year, and by the time he left he had compiled mediocre stats such as an 11.7 point-per-game average and 2.2 assist average.

But the Denver Nuggets picked Mitchell as the No. 13 pick during the 2017 NBA draft and were promptly traded to the Utah Jazz.

“The only story I’ve ever told is that this shouldn’t have happened,” Mitchell said. “That was not even six years ago, if you told me I would play in the NBA, I would have thought you were lying. I never thought I would get this opportunity. And I remember when I was doing that, I was a fan three years ago. When I got into that situation, I was like, OK, what have I always wanted to be a fan? What did I want as a child? And in order to have the opportunity to have children, I had to see Donovan. I have to see, I have to touch, he came to our game. Oh my god, he signed my jersey. That meant the world to me because I know I would want that.”

Mitchell keeps a close eye on his position. Especially when he attends high school games.

“When I go to these games, they can say, ‘Wow, I am who I am and I’m blessed to be able to have that,'” Mitchell said. “As if I’ve been blessed to make my childhood dream a reality, something that’s real. Since we’re so consumed by the exercise and the weights and the recovery, it’s going to be repetitive. But when you go to these games and you see the reaction you see the love you get it’s like wow I made this dream come true but I have so much more to achieve. And frankly, it’s inspiring. It keeps you motivated to want to keep going.”

Cleveland Heights boys’ basketball coach JR Bremer had heard that Mitchell and some teammates were coming to one of their games via social media, but didn’t spot them until about halftime. Bremer said the matchup between the rivals brought out a full house for the first time since pre-pandemic times.

The presence of four Cavaliers players only energized fans and players alike.

“It was super cool,” Garland said of attending the game. “I’ve never had an NBA player come to my high school games, so it was cool to see the talent coming to Cleveland and trying to support them.

Mitchell also reached out to some of his players who were following the game on social media, “just gave them a little bit of hope and gave them a few compliments, which goes beyond anything anyone else can do,” Bremer said.

“I know that in my four years as a high school coach, we haven’t had a single professional player in the gym,” Bremer said the athlete. “So it just gives them motivation and hope and shows that these guys care about basketball and not just about themselves.

“It’s really big for the kids. They get something to look forward to, they see some guys to look up to and they want to play so much harder and so much better because those guys are sitting there. I think it’s great for the city.”

It was one of the first that Mitchell hopes will be more in the Cleveland area.

“Like being able to have that impact on an ongoing basis, and I always tell people you never know what kids go through every day,” Mitchell said. “And you never know what a single moment in their entire life can do for a child.

“To this day I’ll never forget anyone who was in the NBA and didn’t give me an autograph. That’s why I sign all autographs. As if I will never forget this moment. So you never know what these moments mean for children in everyday life. And when I saw that at Kearns High School, I wanted to move on.”

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(Top Photo by Donovan Mitchell: Jason Miller/Getty Images) Donovan Mitchell’s community impact closes in from Utah to Cleveland: ‘I’ve got so much to do’

Russell Falcon

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