The baseball looped in the sky. From shortstop, Donovan Mitchell tracked it, giving chase. He didn't sense his catcher, who was narrowed in on the same pursuit. They violently collided. Mitchell broke his wrist. His catcher broke his jaw.
Nicole Mitchell had called her son a few days earlier. She had started noticing little things piling up. Donovan hadn't been overtly rebelling. He just hadn't been himself. He essentially acted like the 16-year-old teenager that he was. Attention from basketball and baseball coaches distracted him from school. He'd occasionally fake a migraine to exchange attending class for extra rest before practice.
He came by his love of sports naturally. His father, Donovan Sr., had played minor league baseball before becoming the director of player relations and community engagement for the New York Mets. But as a teen away from home at a New Hampshire boarding school, "everything was about me," Donovan said. Nicole warned him to be careful, that he would be humbled in some capacity. OK, Mom, whatever, Donovan thought.
"I felt so bad, because as a parent, you know something's going to happen," Nicole said of her call with Donovan before the collision. "You don't know what, but you know this is not going to be a good situation at some point."
The injury prevented Mitchell from playing baseball and AAU basketball. Sidelined, he watched while others leapfrogged him in recruiting rankings.
In that moment, Donovan discovered he was someone who learned best through firsthand experience.
Lesson learned. Mitchell decided that he would become more than an athlete.
"The jock or the athlete is just the typical thing that you hear," he said. "It's weird. Why can't you be both? Why can't I be on the basketball team but also be the student president?"
So, while he went on to win two prep national championships, he also played in the band and sang in the choir at his school, Brewster Academy. He campaigned to become class prefect—or president—as a senior.
"I had to give a speech," Mitchell said. "I didn't want to do it, to be honest. At first, I was little nervous, way more nervous than playing basketball."
That conversation with Nicole is one of the few times Donovan would be accused of acting his age.
Mitchell turned 23 last month and is beginning his third NBA season after an eventful first two. But this season promises something different for the 6'1" Jazz guard. No longer will he be judged on what he can be, but on what he is.
After a summer spent with Team USA and surrounded by a refitted roster built to make his life easier, Mitchell carries with him expectations he's rarely had as he quietly built his resume by listening to and learning from those around him. And if he is to lead the Utah Jazz to their first Finals in more than 20 years, and perhaps their first title ever, he'll need to keep doing so.
"I try and carry myself in such a way, especially in this game," Mitchell said. "This isn't college, where the oldest player could be 22, 21, whatever. I picked Thabo's [Sefolosha] brain when he was here. I picked Ricky's [Rubio] brain. I'm picking Mike's [Conley] brain. I'm picking Joe's [Ingles] brain, picking Rudy's [Gobert] brain, just so I can find ways to be better at my age than they were. Not necessarily them specifically, but if I can learn from Mike Conley, at 32, everything he knows, and Jeff Green, who played [for] years in the league ... [and] can learn all that now, I'll be light-years ahead of people that I'm around. It's an advantage."
As a rookie, he shined in the Slam Dunk Contest and filled a Gordon Hayward-sized void to lift Utah to an unexpected first-round playoff win over Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Though the Jazz drafted him 13th overall, Mitchell finished second to Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons in the Rookie of the Year vote.
Mitchell's second season tested him on multiple levels. A foot injury prevented him from training for much of the offseason. Early in the year, he struggled with his shooting efficiency, punctuated by his scoring 31 points on 35 shots with no assists in a November game against Philadelphia.
If can learn from Mike Conley, at 32 everything he knows, and Jeff Green, who played 13 years in the league, ... [and] can learn all that now, I'll be light years ahead of people that I'm around.
— Donovan Mitchell
"It was different," Mitchell said. "Especially on offense, the opponent's top defender, having to guard you. So now it's Klay Thompson. It's Paul George, It's Kawhi [Leonard], it's Patty Bev. ... Now you're the priority. That's not like they're guarding you when you have a little hot streak. Now you're the target. It was a little different. I got to take a step back and figure it out. The stuff that works on the other guys, it's not going to work on those first-tier defenders. I had to get back and just slow down and just figure stuff out."
His coaches told him that this would be his new NBA.
"They can tell you, 'Look, this is how they're going to do it," Mitchell said. "But I'm a person that you just have to go out there and experience it and do it. Because that's how I am. I got to go through it and physically go through it, so it was unsettling at first. That was the fastest my life has ever moved. ... And I'm glad I did, because it just enabled me to learn, coming into this [past] summer, how to manage my time, how to even slow down in life."
Now that the season is here, Mitchell's life is speeding up again.
"We're chasing the Raptors, chasing Giannis [Antetokounmpo], chasing James [Harden], chasing those guys. Because in my career, I want to be an All-Star. I want to be MVP. I want to be a champion. There's always something that you want."
Nicole Mitchell rode in the car with her two children—her son, Donovan, and her daughter, Jordan—a few weekends ago. They made small talk before Nicole found a way to evolve the subject into a teachable moment.
"I have to give it to you, Mom," Donovan said. "You could pull a lesson from anything."
Her children call her a light switch because of how quickly she can pivot from confidant to disciplinarian with them. Joking and smiling one second, she'll turn strict if she catches one of them tiptoeing out of line.
One bad choice, she tells them, just one, and you're on a whole different path in life.
Everything is a lesson, a belief she picked up as a first-generation American from Panama. She grew up in Brooklyn amid a tapestry of immigrants with neighbors from Panama, Jamaica and Trinidad. After getting divorced, her mother moved to Dobbs Ferry, a predominantly white village in Westchester County, New York, where she hoped to reset her life and get her children access to the socioeconomic advantages of their new home.
While her mother went about gaining her bachelor's and master's degrees as a single parent, Nicole studied and watched people in her neighborhood. She was conscious both of the world she had just left, that of a community just trying to get by, and the life of privilege she was entering, where people could pick which car they wanted to drive each day. Their wealth, she found, materialized over generations, and education provided the foundation.
"Even if you lose all your money, you could start over again if you have that foundation, if you know how to problem-solve and how to work with people, speak well and write," Nicole said. "All of that is from education, and that's the gap that's missing lots of times."
She watched her mom earn two degrees while raising three children. Here it is, I have a little more, she thought. Each generation must get better. So she set about providing that path for her children through education and providing opportunities that she didn’t have.
She worried about the risks they would face, hammering home the statistics to Donovan that as a black youth, he’d be more likely to wind up in jail than in college.
She wanted her kids to make the right choices in life. If they didn't, it would be because they chose not to, not because they didn't know right from wrong.
Nicole enrolled Donovan and Jordan at Greenwich Country Day School in Connecticut before they went to Brewster. Both schools carry substantial tuitions, part of which the family was able to cover with scholarships.
"They basically lived double lives," Nicole said.
Sometimes, friends offered to pay for Donovan's food when he went out. He'd insist that they didn't at other times and not eat.
"I was always the kid without," he said.
Like his mother, he learned to watch and observe.
"When you grow up around the 1 percent, it shows you a lot as a child," Donovan said. "I got lost in my friend's house my first time ever going to it, because it was so big. I'd never seen anything like that before in my life. And it always kind of drove me to be like, I want a house like this one. It's not saying that's why you play sports, but I was like, I want to be like that. Whether it's basketball, being a lawyer, whether it's being a doctor, whatever it may be, I want to be like that."
Nicole wanted them to strive for better lives, but she also wanted them to understand the disparities between their lives and others didn't need to define their happiness.
"Grandma came from Panama," she would say. "We [were] starting from scratch. ... Now we figured out a big chunk. Now you're going to have to figure out some more. You respect yourself and you love yourself and your joy's in your heart. Not in some country club that you belong to."
Joy wasn't in abundance this summer. Only two years into his NBA career, Donovan was thrust into a leadership role with Team USA during the FIBA Basketball World Cup. With stars bowing out because of injury or other commitments, Mitchell was entrusted with maintaining a legacy that had seen the U.S. men's national team pile up 78 consecutive wins in international competition coming into the summer.
Mitchell played well, averaging 13.1 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds in eight games. However, Team USA did not, tumbling to its worst international finish ever. But much as his mother had done, Mitchell absorbed his surroundings, processing what he saw and heard and how he could incorporate those things into his outlook.
"Obviously, we didn't win, but [it was valuable] to get guys from different organizations where they teach different things, whether it's sending middle or sending baseline or, you know, catching into iso versus catching and moving without the ball," Mitchell said. "You've got the guys from the Celtics and Milwaukee, where it's iso, basically, but then you'd have somebody like Derrick White or Harrison Barnes, even Mason Plumlee, guys who move. So you have those two and you try to put them all together.
"We can't do it all with just a coach. You got to have the continuity from the players, so being able to merge those together in such a short amount of time, really helped me become a better leader as a whole and understand that people learn differently, how to explain things differently to Brook [Lopez] than how I explain it to Jaylen Brown or how I listen to Kemba [Walker] or how I listen to Marcus Smart.
"It's not always you saying, 'This, this, this, this, this.' There may be times where you are in the wrong and you need to find out why. And you may need to pick brains from a guy like a Khris Middleton or a Kemba, even some guys' minds my age, like Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen."
Mitchell spoke while sitting in a dining hall adjacent to Utah's practice court. Around him, teammates grabbed lunch after finishing practice.
"We're going through the same process right now," Mitchell said.
He recalled watching a commemorative DVD of the 2008 Olympic team.
"The biggest thing that stood out to me was they talked about LeBron [James] and how he was always the defensive anchor—talking, figuring stuff out," he said. "I always wanted to be able to do that. ... So, knowing Mike's coming down, maybe in Memphis, they are two steps away from where you need to be. 'Mike, two steps to the right. We need to be right here on the elbow as opposed to two steps off.' Or maybe it's, 'Bojan [Bogdanovic], instead of turning your back this way, we turn this way. We sprint back.'
"That's been one of the biggest things I took from Team USA ... being the one that never stops talking. Because there'll be times you get tired, but if you do it now and do it during practice when you're dead tired, when we get to Game 81, you get to Game 7, you're always ready to talk."
The Jazz hope that attention to detail translates to Mitchell's defensive approach, too.
"In Donovan's case, [with] his strength and explosiveness, how can he use that in a different way?" Utah head coach Quin Snyder said. "How can he use his physical talents to be a better defender? I think he's become much harder to screen; he's more elusive. It's just seeing film of yourself: 'Gosh, I thought I was pressuring the ball, but I wasn't. I thought I got through the screen, but I got cracked.''"
This offseason, Utah replaced Rubio, Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors with Conley, Bogdanovic and Green.
"We added a little more perimeter skill, and hopefully the structure will allow him to be more efficient," said Dennis Lindsey, Utah's executive vice president of basketball operations. "Donovan's got to be more efficient with discipline in a few areas. There's times where he wants to win so much, he's just going to athletically take on all comers."
Conley, in particular, is expected to alleviate some of Mitchell's duties while also trying to help him continue to develop his voice.
"He's so far in advance [from] I was at his age as far as being a leader," Conley said.
Mitchell is the one who organizes team dinners and ensures everyone arrives to events on time.
"He's the humblest star in this league, and there's something to say about that," Conley said. "He really cares about the team aspect and the game. Sometimes you can get lost in that as one of the better players, but you need to be aggressive. You need to be the guy going for it. He's still trying to make plays and do the right thing and stay within the system, and that's impressive to me, that we have a guy like that [welcoming] an outsider like me. He is exactly what I thought he would be."
For Lindsey, the players he interviews with documented histories are easy reads. They either tell the truth or they don't. He can normally sift through the bluffs.
Mitchell smiled throughout his predraft interview and patiently answered Lindsey's questions.
"I'm trying anything to get him riled up or see if you would react," Lindsey recalled.
He brought up a game he had witnessed in November 2016, when his son's Baylor team pulled off a dramatic 20-point comeback against Mitchell's Louisville Cardinals. Nothing.
"It was like he was two steps ahead of me."
Around Utah, stories of Mitchell's genuineness are widely known.
"It's not like the guy's touching people to run for office," Lindsey said. "There's authenticity to it."
"People say, 'Don't change,'" Mitchell said. "And it sucks that that's the model, that's the M.O. for guys who make money: They change into an asshole or a jerk. And that's one thing I really tried to steer away from, because it's not who I am, and it never has been. And I'm not going to let millions of followers, my fans, change my perception of people and life."
His life is moving—always. Stability is found internally, in trying to be the same person he was before he became a star. As Nicole told him, your joy's is in your heart.
"Change around me has always been natural for me," Mitchell said. "We've moved a lot, so I'm used to change. The only thing that I'm not used to is making the amount of money that I do. That's the only thing that's different for me. But that in itself allows me to continue being a good person."
"People say, 'Don't change. And it sucks that that's the model, that's the M.O. for guys who make money: they change into a ... jerk. And that's one thing I really tried to steer away from, because it's not who I am, and it never has been.
— Donovan Mitchell
One thing hasn't changed, though: the chase. But where it once was to get noticed, now it is to use his unique abilities to find basketball joy within, to experience the type of happiness he watched as Kawhi Leonard brought Toronto its first NBA title last season.
"I think the feeling that he had doing it there, I would love to have that here," Mitchell said. "I would love to bring the state of Utah their first championship. I think that's one thing I've always wanted."
But as those around him know, learning the steps in how to do something is far different than actually doing it, and for Mitchell, that might be exactly what he needs.
"You're all of a sudden being confronted with opportunities that you didn't necessarily see coming, and you kind of have to stop," Snyder said. "There’s just certain things that you can only learn through experience. There's no amount of planning, preparation and thought that can take the place of just living."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.