Donovan Mitchell’s season didn’t end how he hoped, with the Utah Jazz losing a 3-1 first-round lead over the Denver Nuggets more than a month ago. But during his time inside the bubble, Mitchell established himself as one of the NBA’s preeminent bucket-getters, a boundless, prancing, this-court-is-my-personal-trampoline offensive virtuoso who cleared 50 points twice in the same playoff series—while only needing 25 shots to drop 44 in a 12-point Game 6 loss.
On the court he became a superlative. But more important things were happening off it. Inside the bubble, and since he’s left, Mitchell has grown to become one of the NBA’s leading voices on racial inequality, prejudice, and discrimination—issues he’s personally endured and continues to speak out against. Mitchell recently joined the player’s association’s new Social Justice Coalition, and, along with the NBPA, partnered with Dove Men+Care to support the Commit to C.A.R.E. Now initiative.
Yesterday, GQ called Mitchell to discuss the various forms of systemic injustice that plague the Black community, his experience in the bubble and testing positive for coronavirus, why the Jazz can do more than “contend,” and more.
GQ: Take me back to how you found out about Jacob Blake getting shot in the back seven times?
Donovan Mitchell: I found out just scrolling through my phone and watching it over and over again. It was just like, this couldn’t be real, especially after the work that we were doing in the bubble. I felt like we were making progress, but to see that happen I think was really gut wrenching, just to see how it went down.
Where does your mind immediately go? Do you call anyone or walk into someone else’s room? Do you want to be around other people?
Usually...it’s sad to say “usually.” That’s a sad thing in itself, that it’s a thing you do when that happens. It’s one thing that, honestly before you said it I didn’t even realize, that there's just something people do [after instances of police brutality] happen. There’s just a, not a protocol, but out of habit. And I think that’s a problem right there, that there’s a habit that people have when these kinds of things happen.
But to answer your question, I was going to the training room anyway, and we just talked. We talked about how it’s messed up and this can’t keep happening. It’s sad because it gets repetitive after a while, and you get sick and tired of it. And I think that’s why we stopped playing for those 3 or 4 days in the bubble. Because I think the world needed to just understand that we’re tired of seeing this everyday.
Like you said, you asked me what I do, there’s something I do do everytime this happens—that’s telling in itself. And I think for us, the way Black men are treated in this world, and depicted in the media, is something that really needs to be addressed. Seeing that happen to Jacob Blake, it sparked conversation not just among Black people but whites, Hispanics, Asians, guys who were international who don’t really know much about the country. I think just being able to have that conversation is huge.
Two days before the Bucks chose not to play against the Magic, you tweeted:
How close were you, even before the Bucks chose not to play, from not playing yourself? Utah had a game that Tuesday night. Did the thought cross your mind not to participate?
It definitely did. It was a thought of mine, where can our voice be best used, and there was a point in time where I didn’t know before I got to the bubble. Once I got there I realized that we had a tremendous platform.
But who would know? This is a tough situation. We have COVID. We have George Floyd. We still are demanding justice for Breonna Taylor. Then you have the Jacob Blake shooting as well. So I was like, who cares about basketball at this point? Obviously it hadn’t gotten to the point where I brought it to my teammates, but it was definitely a thought that it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We had the discussion eventually when the Bucks decided not to play. Are we using our voice? Are we being heard? What are we doing that’s enough? Understanding that we can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can at least make the world more vigilant and see what needs to be seen. And I think that 4-day break was a part of that.
How did your feelings about games being a distraction vs. you having this platform to create awareness evolve from the day you first heard the season was coming back until right now, over a month out of the bubble?
I think the bubble was a success. We came in with a plan, trying to find ways to get people to vote. Trying to find ways to bring awareness to social injustices and systemic racism that’s been going on in our country. Bringing awareness to how Black people are treated in this country. And I think what we’re doing with Dove Men+Care is huge. I think being able to change the way we’re being depicted in the media, not having to take my hood off because I feel like I’m a threat. I think that’s something white people don’t even think about, being afraid when you’re getting pulled over. Whether you said anything right or wrong, having that fear. I don’t think that’s a fear that anyone but Black people or minorities really have. And I feel like that’s just something that we addressed and will continue to let people know that this is real.
Too many times we hear, I can’t wait for things to get back to normal. Or I can’t wait until this is all over. At the end of the day this is neverending for us. As a 24-year-old Black man who went to a predominantly white private school, there were times where I had to change the way I dressed just to not seem like a threat, or wear a letterman’s jacket or some sweats—that way I’m deemed as the safe Black guy in the area. That shouldn’t be a way Black people feel. And I feel like the bubble was a success in allowing us to at least make people see this is a thing. I’m glad that we were able to not just do that but also bring awareness to voter suppression and voting rights and what you can and cannot do as a voter in this country.
One of the pledge items for the Commit to C.A.R.E. Now initiative is “Educate myself and start courageous conversations about racial injustices, particularly with Black men.” Have you had any difficult conversations recently about inequality and discrimination with people in your life?
Yeah. I definitely have. I lived in New York and went to school in Connecticut so I have white friends, I have Black friends, I have white teammates, Black teammates, owners, coaches. I think the only way to move forward is having these uncomfortable conversations. I equate it to basketball. When I’m working out, in order for me to go past my limits and reach the heights I want to reach I have to be uncomfortable. I’m doing suicides, running sprints, running hills and tiring myself out to be the best player I can be. So I equate that to real life. In order for us to be the country and be the people that we want to be, and have eternal equality, everybody has to understand where everybody’s coming from. And I feel like we haven’t had that.
I drive really nice cars, at my age, with a hood on. And I shouldn’t feel like, man I gotta lower my music, roll my window down and take my hood off for me to feel safe in this country. I’ve had conversations with people and they really had no idea, people I’ve known for a while that had no idea that’s how I felt. People I’ve gone to school with, people that are in the NBA today. There’s certain people that just don’t know. And I feel like this has been a great opportunity for us to continue to preach and push forward.
The acronym we use is C.A.R.E.: Care About Racial Equity. Being able to be equal. Being able to have the same schooling. Being able to feel safe. Being able to understand that you may not want to vote but understand why your vote counts. And it’s not just voting for the President. You’re voting for your local leaders. For me, the big thing is police brutality. Vote locally so you can ban chokeholds. Understand that it’s not just a national election that you’re voting for. And I think that’s where we need to educate ourselves: you have to vote for everything in your community.
What attracted you to the Commit to C.A.R.E. Now initiative and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
Every voice, every vote, every person counts in this long journey to equality. It’s not gonna happen overnight, but if we can keep plugging away and finding ways to help each other and to educate each other, we can all reach the end goal. In working with Dove, we realized this was something we had mutual interest in, finding ways to make sure people understand that we're not threats. We’re not something to be afraid of. We are people who are amazing and inspiring.
I did an interview earlier with Dove Men+Care and they asked me to describe Black people in one word. And I said inspiring. I look at Muhammad Ali as someone who was willing to give it all up. Colin Kaepernick is the same way. He didn’t know it would cost him his job, but at the end of the day he’s been very vocal that it doesn’t matter. Ending systemic racism and fighting for equality is way more important and I have the utmost respect for guys like that because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.
What was your personal high point on the court inside the bubble?
You can definitely say the -point game in the win was huge. The 57-point game was great but we lost. That’s a great stat. It’s an honor. But we lost the game. Ultimately it was just being able to become who I thought I can become as a player, as a vocal person that’s speaking out. And quite frankly, being able to give back to Jacob Blake’s children, to help with their education, with myself and Adidas. That was a big high point for me because I’m a big advocate for education reform and I think we should have equal education as kids continue to go through school. To be able to donate the proceeds from the first day of my new shoe towards their education, that was something I was really happy about.
You’ve been a dynamic scorer since you entered the league. But to average 36, 5, and 5 against the same team, even if it’s just over a 7 game series, is remarkable. Did it feel like a leap for you?
I think the biggest leap I took was as a leader. Of course there’s another leap and level I can take it to and will take it to once I continue to put the work in. But I think that’s really what the leap was, just continuing to find ways to attack. And not just as a scorer. Everybody sees the 36 points, whatever, but there’s games where I’m getting 8 assists, 9 assists. My goal is to get 10. My goal was to become a better playmaker. I feel like I got to that point. Leading my teammates in every aspect on and off the floor and becoming a guy that they look to. I feel like they look to me at the end of games but now it’s setting the tone early. Setting the tone in the weight room. Setting the tone in the locker room.
The Jazz didn’t have Bojan Bogdanovic in the bubble and that obviously hurt, but what do you need to make a deeper playoff run? It’s probable that the roster is mostly the same next season. Is it just on you to improve?
I think you have a good point there about the pieces we have. I think we’re really confident we can contend...I shouldn’t even say that word. Not even just contend. We can actually just go out there and win. I think the biggest thing is having Bojan back. I think that opens up a lot of lanes. When you lose a 20-points-per-game scorer...Bojan is a tremendous player. He’s a seasoned vet, knows how to get to his spots and he’s just a threat the defense has to respect. We have myself, Mike, Rudy, Joe, Royce, Georges, Jordan Clarkson. I think one thing the bubble did was allow guys to see what our potential can be. But I think the biggest thing now is, alright we’ve gotta raise our level to be who we want to be.
Did you have any trepidation after testing positive for coronavirus about stepping into the bubble and playing?
Quite frankly I thought the season was over, to be honest with you. I had mentally checked out because at that point we didn’t know much about the virus. I didn’t know what the hell was gonna happen. Even when they started having talks about the season coming back, I still didn’t think it was gonna happen. The biggest thing was trusting the [player’s association] that they wouldn’t put all these guys in a bad situation. There was definitely speculation with a lot of unknown. There was a lot of unknown while we were down there. But at the end of the day, I think our league has done it the best out of anybody. Not one positive case is, quite frankly, amazing.
Originally Appeared on GQ