The faces and stories behind Donovan Mitchell's pregame sneaker giveaway
The routine was the same.
About an hour before tipoff. Headphones on. One last made 3-pointer from the corner to finish his warmup. Then Donovan Mitchell would take a seat on the bench and slip off his adidas sneakers. He would ask for a marker and then look into the stands.
The 22-year-old Mitchell is still young enough to remember what it’s like to be on that side, in the seats, arm outstretched, hoping for some chance to just slap hands with one the players he loved. This season, Mitchell wanted to give that to his fans. And then he wanted to give more.
“You never know what they’re going through,” Mitchell says. “Maybe they failed a test. Maybe they’re going through a state of depression. Kids go through so much. Just to give back and make that person’s day is special.”
Mitchell made so many days this season, giving away his sneakers to fans before nearly every game.
“I had too many pairs of shoes,” Mitchell says. “I knew I was going to be wearing my own signature sneaker during the playoffs. I didn’t need the other ones. I knew they’d probably just get tossed into my basement.
“There are kids who would die to have them. So why not?” I made it a point to give my shoes away every game. It’s just one of those things, using your platform just to make someone’s day.”
These are a few of the people—some kids and some just kids at heart—who Mitchell touched with that pregame gesture.
The first time, he found hope in cranes.
Brigham Israelsen was in the fourth grade when he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Utah boy read “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” and hoped the famous Japanese story would help in his own battle with cancer.
The cancer left his body. Then one day, it returned.
This winter, 12-year-old Brigham celebrated another victory over the disease, this time with the Spida as a symbol of hope.
Mitchell gave Brigham the orange-and-yellow adidas he wore during warmups on Feb. 9. Then the two sat and talked for a while. Mitchell asked the boy if he played basketball. Brigham said he was just starting.
“He told me to play defense,” Brigham said. “And everything else would take care of itself.”
The boy beamed.
“My heart is racing,” he said.
FROM TOP LEFT, CLOCKWISE: Evan, 8: “My brother caught it but he gave it to me because it’s my birthday. He’s a good brother.”; Boone, Mailaka and Shay: “We love him.”; Macy 11: “I like the way he plays. I play guard like him.”; Demi, 3; Daryl, 9: “He threw it in the air and I told my dad, ‘Please catch it! Please catch it!”; Brooklyn, 15: “I’m obsessed with Donovan.”
Nicole Mitchell is a teacher, and she instilled in her son a love of learning and respect for the importance of education. So Donovan Mitchell had to do something when he learned that an old friend, the daughter of his fourth-grade teacher, needed help.
Naja Brooks, 21, had been studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia but had been struggling to come up with the tuition she needed to finish school.
When Mitchell and the Jazz played the Hawks in Atlanta on March 21, the star guard made sure Brooks was the one who got his sneakers during warmups. After the game, Mitchell surprised Brooks with a $25,000 scholarship.
Roberta Morgan never misses a Jazz game. If her friends from church stop by her Cache Valley home after tipoff, the 102-year-old kindly asks them to come back some other time.
“They become like family, those boys,” Roberta said. “They’re so great. They’re all special, but Donovan is extra special to me.”
This season, Morgan attended her first game at Vivint Smart Home Arena. She left after Mitchell, her favorite player, had given her a hug and one of his sneakers.
“Everyone that comes over wants to see it,” Roberta says. “Whenever we shop for groceries or go out to eat, people come up and say, ‘We saw you on TV and we want to shake your hand!’ This has been the highlight of my life.”
FROM TOP LEFT, CLOCKWISE: Tayden, 9: “This is so cool. I wanted them so bad.”; Roberta, 102: “This has been the highlight of my life.”; Sammi, 16: “It means a lot. It’s amazing that he’s kind enough to do this.”; Kailah, 10: “I feel like this is a dream right now.”; Maxton, 13: “Donovan is a great player, on and off the court. This is a really big deal for me.”
Master Sergeant Stephen Thomas was missing his family.
The Air Force veteran had been stationed on the other side of the world, in South Korea, for about 13 months. During that time, Thomas’ family tried to do little things to feel closer to him. That’s what they were doing at Vivint Smart Home Arena on April 1.
“We try to come to the games for him,” said Julian, his 10-year-old son.
MSgt. Thomas’ father was stationed at Hill Air Force Base. He grew up rooting for Stockton and Malone. So as his own military service moved him and his family around the country and the world, the Jazz provided an anchor.
“I kind of do it because of my dad,” Julian said. “He’s a big fan.”
After warmups on April 1, Mitchell pointed to Julian in the stands and tossed him a white-and-red sneaker. His mother took a photo and immediately sent it to Julian’s father in Korea.
“I couldn’t believe my son got so lucky,” he said. “It felt like I was there.”
That night Julian clutched his shoe.
He couldn’t wait to show it to his father in person.
FROM TOP LEFT, CLOCKWISE: Kiki, 8: “I’m from Brazil. Donovan is my favorite player.”; Deon and Elijah, 10 and 7: “He’s my best favorite player. I like him and I try to be like him sometimes.”; Kwinlee, 9: “My brothers are going to be jealous.”; Deng, 6: “My nickname at school is Spida. He shoots good 3-pointers like me. … Maybe when I’m 16 I can wear this shoe.”
Nixon Price is inquisitive and talkative, and he had no problem striking up a conversation—even with the star athletes he admired so much. And as Nixon and his father, Ryan, waited in a hallway at Vivint Smart Home Arena after one game this season, they had plenty of opportunities for conversation.
“The players would come down the hall and every single one stopped,” Ryan said. “No one was flagged down. They all stopped and talked to Nixon. For me, this was the most incredible part. There are no cameras, no crowds, no reason to do this other than they’re good guys. They know what they can do for people just by saying hello.”
Mitchell was one of the last players to leave that night. He, too, stopped and chatted with Nixon, the 10-year-old who uses a wheelchair because of his cerebral palsy. Nixon immediately invited Mitchell to ride horses with him sometime.
The star guard had to decline. But he wanted to make sure Price got something special. So after his warmup before a game against the Thunder on March 11, Mitchell autographed a bright orange pair of shoes, wrote “Happy Birthday” on the toes, and walked across the court to hand them to his new friend.
Photos via UtahJazz.com and NBAE/Getty