A 'monumental' opportunity: Donovan Mitchell won't let basketball distract from the fight for racial equality
'The world needs to hear our voices now more than ever'
Donovan Mitchell’s game day is steeped in routine. Before each game, the Utah Jazz All-Star picks up his phone, opens the Twitter app, and types the same thing: “Let’s go!”
Mitchell did all of that prior to playing a scrimmage this week in Orlando, only this time he broke from tradition.
“Let’s go,” he wrote, “… and ARREST BREONNA TAYLOR’S MURDERERS!
If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now. Doing things the way they’ve always been done won’t be enough for Mitchell anymore.
As they prepare to tip off the NBA’s restart on Thursday evening, there will be plenty to play for. Redemption. A chance for a championship. Fans who have missed the game and teams they love. But in all of that, Mitchell wants to make sure their most important message is not lost.
“Sports are sports and we love them,” he said. “We use sports to escape. There are certain things as African-American men and women that we cannot escape. It’s our life. For us to be African-Americans with this platform that we have—to be able to speak for people who don’t have voices—I think it’s truly going to be monumental.”
The Utah Jazz won’t have their names on the backs of their jerseys when they take the court Thursday evening. Instead, each player has picked a message of social justice that is important to him. Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson’s uniform will say “PEACE”. Rudy Gobert’s will read “EQUALITY”. Point guard Mike Conley will wear “I AM A MAN”, the rallying cry of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
“SAY HER NAME” will be on the back of Mitchell’s jersey.
Mitchell played college basketball in Louisville, where police shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, a black EMT, inside her home back in May. Months later, Mitchell is among a growing number of NBA players who have publicly called for the arrest and prosecution of those officers.
“First off, I’d like to start and say we need justice for Breonna Taylor,” Mitchell said when asked a basketball question after one practice last week. “She was killed in her own home. If there’s a point where you can’t feel safe in your own home, that’s not right. [Kentucky Attorney General] Daniel Cameron needs to do his job and arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.”
Mitchell had concerns about coming to Orlando. The daily marches and protests that have taken over cities since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, had brought much-needed attention to the racism and police brutality black Americans have endured for so long—and Mitchell was concerned basketball would be a distraction. Ultimately, he decided to play.
“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to get paid for what I do,” Mitchell said. “We’ll go out there and do what we have to do as professionals. But part of being a professional is going out there and saying what needs to be said.”
But Mitchell and the Jazz have vowed not to let the fight for racial equality and an end to police brutality in America get sidelined.
“We have to continue to spread the message,” Mitchell said. “I think the world needs to hear our voices now more than ever. We need to go out there and continue to show them this won’t die down. This isn’t something that’s going to go away in a month or two.”
Mitchell’s All-Star teammate echoed that.
“For me it’s important to keep having a positive impact, not just for a few months but for my whole life,” Gobert said. “There are things I’ve been doing with my charity, things we can do as a team, making sure we educate the younger generations and set a good example with all the resources we have. We have to make sure we impact our communities in a positive way.”
Mitchell has dealt with disappointment and frustration in recent weeks. On Juneteenth, the anniversary of America’s enslaved people finally being emancipated, Mitchell posted on Instagram a message on Instagram: “Free-ish, Since 1865”, a reminder of the injustices black Americans still endure to this day. His message was met with far too many ugly and racist comments from people around the country—including many from Utah.
“I was trying to get a point across that a lot of people don’t understand,” Mitchell said. “The reaction that came from it, there’s no secret, I was pretty pissed off about it. ... But I’ve made more of a point to continue to lead and use my voice. Hopefully, after a while, people start to get it.”
To that end, Mitchell has called on white teammates, coaches, and fans to speak out against racism and injustice.
“We’ve protested for years,” he said. “We’ve cried for help for years. … At the end of the day, it’s going to be on our white counterparts to go out there and make change.”
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder has started each practice and team meeting in Orlando not with Xs and Os, but rather with a short history lesson about the plight of black people in America.
• July 7, 1964 — Five days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, white men beat nine black boys for trying to order at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Bessemer, Alabama.
• July 22, 1899 — Moments before his trial is to begin, a white mob whips Frank Embree, a black man, over 100 times and hangs him in front of more than 1,000 on-lookers in Fayette, Missouri.
• July 30, 1866 — A white mob attacks black voters and kills 40 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“One of the first things we talked about when we got here was the social justice issues that are going on in our country,” said Snyder, who is a member of an NBA coaches association committee on racial injustice. “The perspective that we have coming here is to keep that dialogue alive and improving and progressing.”
This will make some uncomfortable, but Mitchell believes that’s the only way America will start to see real change.
“You can’t get anywhere without being uncomfortable,” he said. “Whether it’s sports or life. When I work out and want to become better, I have to go to points where I’m not comfortable. That’s the only way I’m going to get better. That’s the only way we’re going to make change here.”
As the season resumes, Mitchell still cares about winning and losing, about fighting for the ultimate goal.
There will be plenty of time for basketball, too.
“When I’m old and retire, I want my kids and grandkids and everybody in my family to know this is what I stood for,” he said. “I stand for something that’s bigger than basketball and making money.”