Spida Man

above: Photograph by Sam Robles, The Players’ Tribune

His max vertical leap is sky-high. His wingspan differential is mind-blowing. But NBA ALL-STAR DONOVAN MITCHELL’S greatest superpower is something you just can’t measure

On a mild Wednesday evening in early March, one week before Donovan Mitchell would be diagnosed with COVID-19 and our world would seemingly change overnight, it is all systems go at Madison Square Garden. The arena buzzes with Future’s smooth rhymes as a half-dozen balls fire into opposing nets. The Jazz face the Knicks in a matter of minutes. Chin up, popping and snapping his beloved Dubble Bubble gum, Don works the floor like the host of a party. Bro-slapping his teammates and graciously vibing with Knicks small forward Moe Harkless, newly retired Yankee CC Sabathia and pink track-suited, bejeweled rapper Cam’ron, this twenty-three-year-old Jazz shooting guard is mayor of the NBA tonight.

Behind the baseline sits a cheering squad of students and faculty from Donovan’s alma mater, the Greenwich Country Day School. In the front row, his mom Nicole, a GCDS Pre-K teacher, is busy making sure family and friends are comfortable. When Don comes by for a quick hello hug, you feel their sacred bond. “Especially in games where I’m back home, or closest to where I grew up, it means the world to have her here,” he says, looking at Nicole. “It takes me back to the times where it wasn’t courtside seats at a Knicks game; it was outdoors at a random A.A.U. tournament in the Bronx. Just watching her relive those moments when I was playing basketball in the city is huge. It was such a big part of my life for so long, and I think it’s good not to forget.”

Donovan cruises over to sit in an empty team chair and, with arms in metronome rhythm, whips through twenty under-the-leg crossover dribbles in the time it would take a person to turn on their phone. Then he quiets the ball and closes his eyes. “It’s a meditation, my own thing,” he explains a few moments later. “I started it during playoffs my rookie year, just kind of sitting here and listening to everything around me, giving me the opportunity to be in shock and to be like, ‘Wow, I’m really here, I’m in the NBA.’ It lets me be that nervous or excited kid before I have to go out there and take on that role of the player that I am,” he says, re-tying his electric orange D.O.N. Issue #1 kicks before getting back on his feet for practice shots.

Like stones skipping along water, Don’s sneaks are dancer-light across the paint, his dunk tidal wave-explosive. As if gravity itself took a time-out, midair, so he could pool the ball’s full potential in his palm before tomahawk slamming it with all 215 pounds of his being. Spectators scream, “Donovan!” from the stands. Others exhale “ohhh” each time he flies to the net. When he makes a three and gives himself a little head tap, a father-son combo, in matching #45 Jazz jerseys, tap their own heads in response. The love continues on the clock. After Donovan’s heart-stopping alley-oop that seals the Jazz’s first quarter lead—which the Jazz carry all the way to a 112-104 win—even two Knicks die-hards, head-to-toe in orange and blue, can’t help grunting, “Okay Spida! Okay Spida!”

left: High school junior Donovan, seventeen, flexes with his trophy after Brewster’s 2014 National Championship win. right: Donovan, seven, and Jordan, two, enjoy a sibling snuggle.

Long before he could spell J-A-Z-Z, Donovan was aiming high. “As a toddler he’d knock the top off of his plastic toy hoop, over and over,” recalls Nicole. “Looking back, those were definitely his first dunks.” As early as six, she remembers her son leaping up to tap the highest point of the archway between the dining and living rooms of their Elmsford, N.Y. house. “There were so many years of fingerprints, it got to the point where I had him wipe his own,” she laughs.

Nicknamed Spida at age nine by a friend’s father who noticed him “spinning his web,” making rebounds and steals on his A.A.U. basketball team, Donovan quickly felt a ground shift from just-for-fun to beast mode. “At ten years old you become competitive with your friends, talking trash, all those things you begin to develop at an early age by playing tournaments in the city,” he says.

Still, the first poster young Don ever put up in his bedroom was of Mets third baseman David Wright. His father, Donovan Mitchell Sr., a former minor leaguer who is Director of Player Relations for the Mets, often brought his son to hang with the team. “They taught me how to be a pro, how to approach my day-to-day stuff as a young guy in the league,” Donovan says. “The difference between guys in baseball and basketball is baseball guys have a lot of superstitions and routines. That’s where I got mine from, like being the first one in the gym or taking a quiet moment before a game.”

At GCDS, where Donovan attended third through ninth grade, he didn’t have to choose between loves. “I played the drums; I played chess; I did so many things that it allowed me, when I was having a bad day in basketball, a bad day in soccer, a bad day in baseball, to access those other things,” he says. Cultivating versatility had a defining effect. “I didn’t grow up in Greenwich, so going to private school was different than how it was with most of my friends back home,” he says. “I think that’s a theme of my whole life, just being different, my own person. Going out there and being well rounded, being someone who, when I have a bad day in one area, am able to fall on another area to kind of soothe and relax me. I do that to this day. I’ve had bad stretches this season, and I have a drum set at my house.” What makes him pick up his sticks? “‘Dani California’ from the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” he says. “I memorized it when I was younger, and it’s the song I know the best.”

“One of the things I try to do with my family is bring them wherever I go so they understand how much I appreciate them,” says Don, here with Nicole and Jordan in 2018. – Photograph by Joe Murphy/NBAE

As a tenth grader at Canterbury School in Connecticut, Donovan’s confidence was shaken when he shattered his wrist playing shortstop. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve had a little success, but you’re not as invincible as you think you are,’” he remembers. “My mom told me beforehand, ‘Look, you need to humble yourself or God will find a way to humble you if you don’t.’ As a teenager, it’s like, ‘whatever, Mom,’ and then you go out there and break your wrist a week later, and it opens your eyes.”

The injury took Donovan out of baseball season but gave him the summer to heal before transferring to Brewster, a New Hampshire prep school known for turning out top basketball recruits. There, he was humbled again. “You go from somewhere where you don’t have to try as hard, you just show up and score twenty-five points, to a place where you are nowhere near the best. Being there allowed me to be like, ‘You know, I’m okay with being a role player. I’ll have to be that in college.’ And it allows you to kind of grow up. Not just on the court but in life.”

As Don relaxed into his new reality, his star shone brighter. “That’s when my grades began to pick up tremendously,” he says. “I started to find ways to seek extra help, do different things, that’s why I became senior class prefect. I wanted to be more than a basketball player.” He still had high expectations from his team, but being multifaceted helped his mojo. He won two prep-school championships, an MVP award at the Jordan Brand Classic and a TV spot on ESPN for his alley-oop at the UnderArmour Elite 24. Victory suddenly felt sweeter, he says. “You understand that there can be humility in success.”

But in the fall of 2015, the University of Louisville freshman basketball recruit floundered. “The biggest thing is, I like to eat. A lot,” he laughs. He’d been blowing through pizza and gummy bears, and was told by his college coach to lose twenty-two pounds. “Not only that,” he says, “but I had to prove I was worth being in the starting spot. It was a type of pressure I’d never experienced. Getting yelled at on the treadmill, getting up at 6 a.m., all those things you think you’re prepared for until you actually get there.”

Back in his dorm room after a practice where he’d made mistake after mistake, Donovan seriously considered quitting. “It’s so different than high school, where you play and you succeed and win a championship. This, at the end of the day, is a multimillion to billion dollar business,” he says plainly. “It became a question of how bad do you want it? Do you want to be a quitter? Because you’ve worked so hard to be in this position and you’re just gonna let one semester, like, be the end of it? I decided I wasn’t gonna let that happen.”

“Some people are like, ‘Know what? I tried it,’ and quit basketball. I didn’t want to be one of those kids. I knew I’d always have that ‘What if?’ And I hate that feeling. I hate the what-ifs.” – Photograph by Sam Robles, The Players’ Tribune

Not only was Donovan not going to quit basketball, he declared for the 2017 NBA draft the summer after his sophomore year. A heart-to-heart with pros Paul George and Chris Paul convinced him he was ready. “They were like, ‘What are you waitin’ for?’” Donovan remembers. “Once I heard that, I was like, ‘Okay, this is real.’”

Despite his fear of flying—“If I don’t have a window seat, I ask the person next to me if they’ll trade…I’m bad,” he laughs—Donovan put in seven grueling weeks of nonstop zigzagging across the US for daily workouts with teams. Emerging as the thirteenth overall lottery pick, Donovan was drafted by the Nuggets, only to be traded to the Jazz the
same night. “The Jazz was my first workout, one of my best. I remember it vividly,” he says. “I was just happy to be drafted, to go to a place where I was wanted and where I wanted to go.”

It proved a perfect pairing, and put him in league with his idols. Sitting inside Cleveland’s 19,000-seat arena before a December game against the Cavaliers, his mind was flooded with LeBron James footage he’d seen in multiple documentaries. It was as if he was thirteen again, eagerly waiting for James to emerge from the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich after filming his live ESPN special, “The Decision” in 2010. “Not only was it my first time playing LeBron, but I was also playing Dwyane Wade, so you kind of get the two that you grew up watching and wanting to be like, in one game,” says Donovan. Fortunately, his jitters faded at tip-off. “Once the game gets going, it becomes pretty normal after that,” he says. “He’s just another guy, and you gotta go out there and compete.”

Keeping a cool head paid off in buckets, all season long. Donovan, whose #45 was inspired by the late-career number of another idol, Michael Jordan, beat MJ’s rookie point record in his first two playoff games. The lead rookie scorer also rose to the challenge when he was tapped to replace Aaron Gordon just a week and a half before the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He won by, among other aeronautical feats, clearing his sister Jordan, eighteen, his favorite comedian Kevin Hart, and Hart’s son. “We thought, ‘Why not?’ We never practiced it with three people. A lot of it was just improvised on the fly,” he says. “The big thing was sharing the moment with my sister and mom, after all they’ve sacrificed for me.” That summer, he brought them as his dates to the ESPYs, where he won the Best Breakthrough Athlete award.

The trio had more cause to celebrate in 2019, when the Donovan Mitchell Bridge was unveiled in downtown Salt Lake, featuring a giant mural in his likeness. “You go from the person looking up to being that idol in a matter of, like, a year and a half, and then seeing that bridge was just the top of it all,” Donovan says. “All your wishes and dreams as a kid, and even in college, came true all at once.”

Just when he thought it couldn’t get any more extra, Donovan was selected for the NBA All-Star Game in February 2020. “It’s something you can’t really put into words,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m sitting in the locker room with twelve of the best players in the NBA, and I’m part of it.’ To also be able to do commentating, which I want to do after sports, you could say I was really enjoying my first All-Stars weekend. ’Cause God willing, I’m gonna do what I need to do and be here for many more years.”

Donovan says cheese with campers last June at the second annual Donovan Mitchell Basketball Camp, held at GCDS. – Photograph by Whit Hawkins Photography

On March 11, less than a month after the All-Star Game and seven days after the Jazz took the Knicks at MSG, COVID-19 brought the NBA to a shocking halt. The next day, after a test that drew tears, Donovan found out he was positive. “The worst day I’ve ever had in my life,” he says from his family’s Greenwich home, where he has been shooting hoops in the driveway and on NBA 2K post quarantine.

“I hadn’t slept the whole night before, because the whole team was waiting for our test results. I was up for twenty-four hours. We all knew about the virus, and then for it to happen to me was just like, ‘What?’ That’s kind of what it was, just shock. Seeing your name everywhere on TV, CNN tickers, it’s a bit normal for me being in the NBA, but this was different. It was unknown territory for not just the NBA, but literally the entire world. And here I am as one of the faces of it. I think it goes back to my journey to the NBA. Boom, you’re on this platform. In the NBA it was a matter of months, and with this it was two days,” he says. “The scariest thing about this virus is you could be asymptomatic like me. Everyone really needs to take this seriously by practicing social distancing to flatten the curve. It’s important that we stick together in spirit, show love to one another, stay positive and stay at home during these crazy times.”

As one of the first public figures hit with a diagnosis, Donovan did what he does best: spring into action. “It can go one of two ways,” he says. “You can sit there and just, you know, do whatever; but I think it was important for me to step up and be that spokesman in that moment,” he says. During his quarantine, Donovan swiftly donated hot meals for students via his foundation, spidacares.org, when Salt Lake City schools shut down. “I was blessed at Country Day to not have to worry about lunch, even breakfast; but before that in public school, there were kids who didn’t have a dollar and twenty five cents for a simple ham and cheese sandwich and milk. I remember those days,” he says. “That’s one thing that played a factor and also having a teacher for a mom, understanding that there are parents and teachers who rely on their kids getting fed at school.”

More recently, Donovan has turned his efforts closer to home. He honored Greenwich Hospital’s Dr. Cassandra Tribble through the Real Heroes Project, an initiative led by athletes from fourteen pro leagues thanking their healthcare hero on social media. With partner Adidas, he donated face shields and sneakers to frontline responders at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers. After Adidas Legacy school Brooklyn Democracy Academy lost its principal Dez-Ann Romain, the first known NYC public school staffer to die from the virus, Don made a spirit-lifting Zoom call to its basketball teams. He also video-chatted with all Connecticut Boys & Girls Club chapters via ESPN about basketball, bullying and staying focused on school during these anxious and confusing days.

A bridge between worlds, Donovan’s open arms stretch as far as they do because he knows the view from both sides. “Everyone sees the last three years I’ve had with the All-Stars, the dunk contest, all that stuff, they think that’s just me,” he says. “They don’t understand that it was a process to get here. It was a struggle at times.”

In happier times that are hopefully on the horizon, Don will continue to nurture young people in his summer basketball camps—held in Salt Lake City and Greenwich—with his personal message of determination over negativity.

“People like to put limits on what kids can do. Some kids believe it and don’t think they’re good enough,” he says. “I want them to understand that I didn’t think I was good enough, even when I was twenty-one years old. In the end, it’s about the hard work you put in, and trusting the work.”

The more you listen, the more you realize that 4,790 points into his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell is still that humble, big-hearted Renaissance man from middle school, only with appreciably more feathers in his ball cap. And somewhere along the way, that man became a bigger man by opening a window wide enough for a new generation of Spidas to climb through.

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