Donovan Mitchell led the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday to a 122-99 win over the Utah Jazz team that traded him this offseason.
Prior to the game, he opened up to Andscape's Marc J. Spears about his time in Salt Lake City and his relationship with former teammate Rudy Gobert. He told Spears in an interview published Monday that "we did a lot of special things" while acknowledging that a Jazz team led by himself and Gobert that never advanced to the Western Conference finals fell short of expectations.
"Basketball just didn’t work out," Mitchell said of his relationship with Gobert.
Mitchell, who played five seasons in Utah, also spoke about the challenges of being a Black athlete in a predominantly white city, an experience that he says has shifted for him in Cleveland. He described his experience in Utah as "draining."
"If I'm being honest with you, I never really said this, but it was draining," Mitchell told Spears. "It was just draining on my energy just because you can't sit in your room and cheer for me and then do all these different things."
Mitchell cited an incident that saw 10-year-old Isabella Tichenor take her own life amid bullying allegations. He also referenced Utah state senator Stuart Adams, who suggested that Mitchell needed to be educated after Mitchell spoke out against a critical race theory resolution in the state legislature.
"I'm not saying specifically every fan, but I just feel like it was a lot of things. A state senator saying I need to get educated on my own Black history. Seeing Black kids getting bullied because of their skin color. Seeing a little girl hang herself because she's being bullied."
Mitchell called pushback against his advocacy for racial equality "a lot" and said that it was tough to not see many Black people in the stands at Jazz home games.
"And then to be able to not see many of us in the crowd, I tried my best to make sure I invite young Black and brown kids to games, to be around the community," Mitchell continued. "But just to not see us there, it was definitely tough.
"And being in Cleveland now, you see us courtside. It's just refreshing. It's a blessing to be back around people that look like me."
The change of scenery has suited Mitchell. He led the Cavs with 23 points in just 23 minutes on Monday and rested on the bench during the fourth quarter of the blowout win. He hit 4 of 5 3-pointers while shooting 8 of 12 from the field. The effort has become the norm since the trade with Mitchell averaging a career-best 29.5 points per game while shooting 50.3% from the field and 42.4% from 3-point distance. His performance is drawing MVP buzz.
Monday's victory improved the Cavs to 21-11, including an NBA-best 15-2 at home. After the game, Mitchell kept the conversation about basketball while acknowledging that "it's different when you're playing against your friends, the guys you've been in a locker room with, battled with."
Monday's game was in Cleveland. He expects the Jan. 10 rematch in his return to Utah to hit differently.
"Always good to play against your guys," Mitchell told reporters. "I think the bigger game will probably be when we go back out there."
Also worth circling on the calendar: Jan. 14 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It will be Mitchell's first chance to face off against Gobert, whom the Jazz also traded in the offseason. Mitchell missed a Nov. 13 matchup in Cleveland with an ankle sprain.
"I’m going to give him a hug and be happy to see him," Mitchell told Spears of Gobert. "And I wish him the best. There’s no hatred. There’s no ill will towards any of that."