Jones: Donovan Mitchell deserves flowers in Utah return, even if it wasn’t rosy at the end

A little over a month ago, Rudy Gobert made his return to Salt Lake City for a matchup with the Jazz for the first time since he traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The sellout crowd gave him a thunderous ovation, which is what he deserved. The fans gave him another one when the Jazz played a lengthy video tribute. Then, they cheered like heck for the Jazz to come out with the win.

It was a clean return to Utah for Gobert. It was one filled with love and a Utah community giving him the flowers he had well earned. Gobert gave the Jazz almost a decade. He won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Had he not been traded, Gobert probably would have retired as a member of the Jazz.

Tuesday night, Donovan Mitchell returns to Salt Lake City as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It will be his first trip to Utah since he was traded before the season. Mitchell’s return is cloudier than Gobert’s. Feelings are more frayed. There is, or there should be, mutual appreciation between Mitchell and Jazz fans. I’m not sure there is mutual love.

Had the Jazz not traded Mitchell and allowed him to play out his current contract, it was pretty clear that he would have left the Jazz in unrestricted free agency. It’s the chief reason the Jazz traded him this offseason. The front office saw the proverbial writing on the wall and traded him for a terrifying return that included current Jazz star Lauri Markkanen and three future first-round picks.

Mitchell clearly was not as happy during the end of his time in Utah as he is in Cleveland. He had issues with some of the politics in the state. He had issues with consistent examples of racism, both subtle and overt. And by last season, it was clear that there was no way Mitchell was going to willingly stay in Utah once he hit unrestricted free agency.

As an African American, I understand part of where Mitchell came from. The multiple issues that made him uncomfortable, the tragic story of Izzy Tichenor being an example, along with the Jazz having to ban a fan for directing racially charged comments toward now-Los Angeles Lakers star Russell Westbrook, along with Utah Sen. Stuart Adams chiding Mitchell for his stance on critical race theory They also made me uncomfortable. As someone who is raising two daughters, as someone who is proud of my Blackness, some of the same things that got under Mitchell’s skin, they got under my skin, as well.

And that’s why I don’t blame Mitchell for that part of him wanting to get out of Utah.

That being said, I’ve had a mostly wonderful experience living in Utah for 15 years. My oldest is now a freshman in college. My youngest will enter high school next year. My youngest has spent all of her life in Utah, she is well adjusted, has great friends. My oldest moved here when she was 4, so she has essentially spent all of her life here, although at the first opportunity, she chose to go to school clear across the country.

The elephant in the room is this: As wonderful an experience as I’ve had here, as much as I love my job and the state as a whole, Utah has a racism issue. The sooner we can admit it’s an issue, the sooner we can tackle the issues like human beings and exact real and meaningful change. Mitchell is a unique case among Jazz players past and future because he sought to make real and meaningful change, and that just wasn’t a battle he was going to win on his own. My saying this is not meant to diss Utah or Utahns. Because I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life, have seen a lot of racism in my life, and have seen it up close and personal.

The bigger issue isn’t just that Utah has racism issues to deal with. In 2023, that can be said for virtually anywhere in the country. And in 2023, knowing some of the struggles my grandparents went through and some of the real elders in my family, that saddens me more than anything.

I’ve learned to deal with things at face value. When I was a child, I and my mother moved to Detroit for a few years. I told her that I heard there was a lot of crime and bad people there. Her response: There are good and bad people everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go. I was about 8 at the time, and those words always stuck with me. And they did me a ton of good because it always helped me look at any situation with objectivity.

Mitchell became uncomfortable in Utah. That’s through no fault of the Jazz themselves, who did everything they could and then some to make sure he was happy. I don’t think either side deserves a ton of blame that the partnership ultimately didn’t work out.

But here’s what should happen on Tuesday night. A standing ovation for Mitchell. And then another one when Utah honors him with a tribute video. And then, Jazz fans, root like heck for your team to win.

Mitchell deserves it.

He deserves it for coming to Utah at arguably its lowest basketball moment ever — when Gordon Hayward unceremoniously left in free agency — and leading the Jazz shockingly to the second round of the playoffs in his rookie season. He deserves it for his willingness to integrate himself into the community from the jump, from showing up at high school games, BYU football games, Utah football games, Utah State football games and being willing and gracious with the fan base.

He deserves it for his performance in the bubble, one of the great performances ever by a guard in a playoff series. He deserves it for representing the Jazz well on a national level. He deserves it for his professionalism once it became clear that he and the Jazz were going to part ways.

Getting Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji and Collin Sexton, three firsts and two pick swaps? That doesn’t happen if Mitchell publicly demands a trade. He stayed silent through that entire long, arduous and tedious process. He never said a word. And because of that, the Jazz were able to get fair value for him.

There shouldn’t be any ill feelings in Vivint on Tuesday night because both sides won. Markkanen is probably going to make the All-Star Game. Agbaji, after almost a half season out of head coach Will Hardy’s rotation, is showing signs of becoming a nice piece. We already know Sexton is a good player. And the Jazz control Cleveland’s draft from the year 2025 to the year 2029. That’s a long time to control a franchise’s draft.

In return, Mitchell is happy. And he’s comfortable. He’s enjoying playing basketball and he’s playing it at an MVP level. Will Jazz fans inevitably miss Mitchell? Of course. That’s natural. Is there some angst about Utah’s ability to keep a star? Yes. Mitchell is the third star to leave the Jazz in the last 12 years. And it’s something the franchise definitely wants to change.

But here’s what I can say about the Jazz. They have been committed to diversity. They have been committed to inclusion. They have been committed to fostering an environment that they hope will keep their players happy. They were that way under Gail Miller. They are that way under Ryan Smith.

Mitchell had to be traded. But that shouldn’t preclude Jazz fans from giving him his flowers for his many contributions to Utah and the franchise and the community during his time here. Mitchell made people think. Mitchell challenged people. And we all need that. We need the dialogue. As humans, that’s how we advance as a people.

He should be recognized for that. And that recognition should reflect the way he is received on Tuesday night.

Mitchell deserves it.

(Photo of Donovan Mitchell: David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images)


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