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The Dream

Jun 26 2019
Photo by
Rick Bowmer/AP Images
Photo by
Rick Bowmer/AP Images
Jun 26 2019

(Featuring special guest editor Nicole Mitchell)

I

already know the first question you’re going to ask.

“Donovan, why is your mom the guest editor for this story?”

I’m asking myself the same thing right now.

Of all the people in the world with incriminating evidence on me, my mom probably tops the list. She’s got all the embarrassing stories. The thing is: She doesn’t trust me, you guys. My mother does not trust me with my homework assignments. This goes way back.

Guest editor Nicole Mitchell: This goes way back.

The only way I can possibly do our story justice is with her by my side. This is the way it’s always been. See, when I was a kid I guess I was a little bit extra.

Editor’s note: Donovan was very extra. He had a lot of energy. He was … let’s call it exuberant.

I was running around everywhere. But like, to no fixed destination. For no real purpose. Just running, man. There’s no photographic evidence of this, thank God, and I don’t even know if this is legal anymore, but when I was three or four years old, I swear to you that my mother used to put me on one of those kiddie leashes whenever we’d go anywhere.

I swear to you that my mother used to put me on one of those kiddie leashes whenever we’d go anywhere.

Editor’s note: It was not a leash! It was a harness.

A harness. O.K. a harness. Anyway, we would be going to Marshalls department store, and I know that anybody reading this who ever had to go to Marshalls as a kid knows what I’m talking about. That toy section was nonexistent, man. There was nothing fun in there. Your mom would be comparing 12-packs of socks or whatever, and those aisles were so long and shiny. What were you gonna do? Take off. Run wild.

So after losing me a couple of times in Marshalls, she put me on the leash.

Editor’s note: Harness! It was for safety purposes. I had to keep him in check! If he saw a nice open space, he was gone. Don got calmer with age, and he graduated to the little wrist leash. I’m sure the world loved me for it.

I was so young that I barely remember it, but I think that really says it all, right? Even now, when I’m on the bench in Utah, I can barely sit still. I think I was just born like this.

Editor’s note: Donovan will deny this, but I came to pick him up from day care one day, and the lady said, “You know, Donovan is always jumping up on the tables and dancing. He just hops right up there and all the kids watch him.” And I guess I should’ve been embarrassed, but I thought it was so funny. Because whenever we used to go over to his grandma’s house for dinner, we’d clear off the coffee table and he’d hop up there and dance to her old records. That was our ritual. We’d have a nice little dance party. And I know Don is going to be so embarrassed that I’m saying this, but you know who we loved to listen to? Kenny Rogers. Imagine that. This little boy dancing on a coffee table to Kenny Rogers.

No evidence.

Lies.

Courtesy of Donovan Mitchell

The real story is that I was obsessed with sports. Basketball and baseball were the main ones. When my friends weren’t around, I used to play imaginary five-on-five in my head. We had this archway between our living room and dining room, and I’d jump up and slap it. That was my hoop. That’s how I dunked. Everything was in my head the pick-and-rolls, the inbounds passes, the crowd. I’d be talking imaginary trash and everything.

Editor’s note: Oh my gosh, I used to hear him slapping the arch all day. When I’d be cleaning the house, I was too short to reach up there with the rag. So when we moved out, the handprints were still up there.

The thing is, my mom was skeptical about sports. Incredibly skeptical. She was all about education. We were living in White Plains, New York, at the time, and I didn’t really understand the struggle that she was going through. But she had a vision for me and my little sister, Jordan. When I was in third grade, I got the chance to go to Greenwich Country Day in Connecticut, which is one of the best private schools in the country. I mean, at the time I had no idea what any of it meant. I just knew that I had to leave all my friends, and I was heated.

Courtesy of Donovan Mitchell

I’ll never forget going to stay with my host family on the first weekend in Greenwich, and I couldn’t get over how big the houses were. It was kind of mind-blowing, honestly. I remember saying to the family, “You actually live here?”

It was a little bit of a culture shock. I was one of the only black kids at the whole school, and it was the first time I realized that there’s money and then there’s money. Remember that first time you realized how different people’s lives can be? Greenwich was a 30-minute drive from our house, but it was a totally different world.

Maybe some kids reading right now can relate to this feeling — like the first time you go out to get something to eat with your new friends, and you have to do the whole, “I’m not hungry, I’m good,” thing. But then when you do it the third or fourth time, and you’re the only one not eating, everybody kind of knows the deal. When you’re young, that can be a really harsh reality.

But the thing is, my friends there were all amazing. We really bonded through sports, and there is absolutely no way that I would be the man I am today if I hadn’t made that change. It was good for me to see a different world, because it gave me a real fire to do something big. I used to dream that one day I’d have enough money to buy my own house right next to all my friends’ houses in Greenwich.

In my head, that path was the NBA. In my mom’s head, it was definitely, definitely — definitely — not the NBA.

Editor’s note: I never believed he’d make it. I mean, what are the odds? I know that’s bad for a mother to say, but I was all about education. When he started playing AAU basketball, I told him, “Well, sweetheart, I will support you 100%, but you need to take care of business in the classroom.” I thought a basketball scholarship would be really nice. But the NBA? No, no, no.

My mom used to drive me all over New York City and New Jersey on the weekends to play in AAU tournaments. Her and my sister really sacrificed everything, and I feel so bad now because 75% of the time I’d be asleep in the backseat, and then I’d wake up in the parking lot of a gym in the Bronx or in Brooklyn or somewhere, ready to play. My mom probably put like 500,000 miles on that old Toyota Camry. The crazy part is that she couldn’t have cared less about basketball. And if you think I’m exaggerating, then I have a story for you.

The first time I dunked was probably the greatest day of my life. It was the summer before eighth grade. I was over in Harlem at the Crack Is Wack Playground. We were in the layup line before the game, and it just happened. Me and my friends were going crazy. So I ran out to the parking lot after the game, and my mom was riding bikes or something with my sister, and I said, “Mom! You’re not going to believe it. I dunked.”

Of course, she was like, “Wow, that’s amazing, sweetheart. That’s amazing. I’m so happy for you.”  

Then we start driving back home, and we’re on the highway and she says, “Can I ask a dumb question? What exactly makes it a dunk, sweetheart?”

I had to explain it to her. Seriously. This was six years into me playing basketball, driving me all around the East Coast for games. That’s how you know she really did it for me, you know? She was not one of these crazy AAU parents.

Greenwich Country Day School

Editor’s note: Those parents … Oh, my goodness. They used to be screaming their heads off at the games, watching these little kids! I couldn’t believe it. I just stayed off by myself, with Jordan. The dads would come up to me saying, “Can you believe this? Don’t you think that was outrageous? Don’t you think this and that?!” And I’d just nod and say, “Mmmhmm.”

I didn’t understand how much she was sacrificing for us. I’ll never forget the time I came back out to the car one day to grab something that I forgot, and I saw her sitting there in tears, all by herself. She never wanted us to see her stressed. I guess when things got overwhelming, she’d go out to the car to cry … just to get it all out. Then she’d come back inside like nothing was wrong.

We had no idea, but at the time she was always worried about how she was going to pay the rent that month, how she was going to buy us clothes, how she was going to pay for gas. She shielded us from all that. Her whole vision was to do whatever it took just to get us to graduate from Country Day. Because that’s something they could never take away from us. And, man, I have to admit, I made it hard for her sometimes.

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

The Martin Luther King Jr. speech is something that she’s never going to let me live down. We had to give this big speech for our public speaking class at the end of eighth grade, so I chose MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But then I started playing Xbox and …

Editor’s note: Don tried to bluff his way through one of the most important speeches of the 21st century. I was not a happy mom.

The weekend before I was supposed to give the speech, she tested me. She called me out right in the living room. “Let’s hear it, sweetheart.”

And the thing is, I had the first part down. And I had the last part down. The middle was a problem. See, everybody just remembers the “I have a dream” part, but the whole speech is actually like five minutes long. So I tried to bluff it. I was freestyling about freedom and equality and so on. It did not go over well.

Editor’s note: There was no basketball that weekend. He thought I was lying. I was not lying. There was no basketball. By Monday, he knew every word of Dr. King’s speech.

I was not acting right. During that period of my life, I kind of lost myself a little bit. I graduated from Country Day, which was a huge accomplishment for our family. But when I went away to boarding school in the ninth grade, I was away from my mom for the first time, and I couldn’t handle the freedom.

Any kids reading this who are dreaming about playing college ball: You think those freshman and sophomore grades don’t matter? They matter. I almost messed up my whole future because I didn’t take those years seriously. I was so bad. I used to go to the nurse and tell her that I had a migraine, and then I’d go back to my dorm room and take a nap before practice.

“Can I ask a dumb question? What exactly makes it a dunk, sweetheart?”

Don’t do this.

I was being reckless.

My mom could sense it. I don’t know what kind of next-level ESP she has, but she called me up one day out of the blue, and she told me, “You’re acting out of character. You’re not that same humble kid you used to be.”

Honestly, I just blew her off. I’m 15 years old. I know everything, right?

But I’ll never forget her exact words before she hung up. She said,“Let me tell you something, sweetheart. God is going to make you recognize that you have to be that same kid you’ve always been.”

A week later, I broke my wrist.

I missed an entire summer of AAU, and that’s right when everybody is getting ranked and hyped up and getting offers from colleges. I was beyond devastated. But I got the message. I was trying to take shortcuts through life. Just sitting around, watching everyone else get ranked, the fire inside me started to build and build, and when I got my cast off at the end of the summer, I went crazy every time I got on the court. I went bananas. I showed up to this elite camp in Providence and was killing everyone.

Pretty soon after that, I got my first scholarship offer, from the University of Florida. And then all of a sudden I was getting offers from Kansas, Florida State, Georgetown. Actually, I think the most surreal moment was waking up one morning to a missed call and then a text from a random number that said, “Hello, this is John Thompson. Hope all is well.”

Editor’s note: That was an amazing moment for me, as a mother. That was all I ever wanted. I used to tell Donovan, “Sweetheart, you are a little boy of color. You need papers behind you. You need every tool you can have in your toolbox to get through life successfully. You need a college education.”

When I got an offer from Louisville, I knew that’s where I was going. When you go to Louisville, you know you have a chance to change your family’s life. You know the NBA is a possibility.

Editor’s note: I was not thinking that.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I came to Louisville with a chip on my shoulder, because I was a little bit under the radar. I didn’t get invited to the national McDonald’s All-American Game. I was in the regional game. I didn’t have the hype. And don’t get me wrong, I wanted the hype. I wanted my Ballislife mixtape and all that. But for whatever reason, whether it was me going to private school, or because our family didn’t play all the politics, I was under the radar.

I’m probably not supposed to say this, but the truth is, there were so many times when I thought about quitting basketball, even when I was at Louisville. My freshman year, I shot 18 for 72 from three. I’ll never forget that number. That’s 25%. It was such an intense environment, plus you gotta go to class, you have to handle your business. It was a lot to handle. There were nights when I used to go back to my dorm and lock the door and just break down. Literally, sitting there, like, “Is this really what I want to do? Am I good enough?”

There were so many times when I thought about quitting basketball, even when I was at Louisville.

Editor’s note: I would be texting him, saying, “You know you can come back home, right? There’s plenty of colleges here. But he said, “No, Mom, I want this.”

An empty gym was my sanctuary. I used to go and shoot by myself at like one, two o’clock in the morning. On Friday nights when everybody was going to parties, I’d be in my little zone, headphones on, shooting from the rack. I remember one night, it was like three o’clock in the morning, and I was walking back from the gym. That Drake and Future mixtape had just come out, and I was listening to “30 for 30.” I guess I was going through something heavy at the time and, for whatever reason, that song just hit me a certain way.

I texted my mom on the way home, and I said, “Don’t worry. Pretty soon, you’ll never have to work again.”

I mean, I was coming off a freshman season where I averaged seven points. The NBA wasn’t even on the radar. I had no right to send a text like that. But for whatever reason, it was this really intense moment for me. I was going to make it happen, somehow.

A couple of weeks after that, I showed up to the gym at 1:30 in the morning. and I saw four of the nicest cars I’ve ever seen in my life in the parking lot. All blacked-out, parked side by side. It was weird. So I poked my head in the door, and I saw all these guys running a full-court pickup. But they had actual referees and everything. I’m looking … looking … then I’m like … is that … Rondo?

It was like a dream or something. Rajon Rondo was bringing the ball down the court in the Louisville practice gym at one in the morning. And then I saw Josh Smith and all these other guys who looked familiar.

And they were going hard. I didn’t even know what to say, so I just went back to my dorm. Then the next day, I ran into Larry O’ Bannon, one of the former Louisville guys I saw playing, and I said, “Did I just see Rondo here last night? What was that all about?”

Turns out Rondo would come and have these secret, invitation-only runs in the summertime, just on random nights. I was telling Larry every day, “Listen, you need to get me on that group text.”

Larry worked his magic and he got me in, and then one random night someone texted, “Who’s in tonight?”

And, man, I was so quick with the HANDUP EMOJI.

Let’s go.

Rajon didn’t even really know who I was. He just knew I played for Louisville, so he was cool with it. But then, for whatever reason, he was always picking me to be on his team. Getting to run with him that summer was so valuable for me. More than anything, I realized how insanely competitive these NBA guys were. You realize it’s a mental thing for them. Like, it’s four a.m., and my opponent is sleeping right now, and I’m in a college gym running six, seven games straight.

At the start of that sophomore season, I was so mentally and physically ready to make the leap.

And then I didn’t. For some reason, I just didn’t.

Sometimes, life is like that. I don’t know why, but I got off to a rough start. It was probably the hardest two months of my life. I’ll never forget the lowest moment. I can tell you the exact date.

Editor’s note: December 31, 2016. Indiana. I remember it.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

December 31, 2016. We had just gotten killed against Virginia, and I played terrible. We were playing Indiana at the Pacers’ arena, so all the NBA scouts were going to be there.

The night before the game, Coach told me that I wasn’t starting. It was super, super tough. I was in a really bad headspace.

But then I got a text message that I wasn’t expecting. It was from my sister. It was one of those texts that you have to scroll up to read — that’s how long it was. And we don’t typically talk this way. We usually keep it super fun. I mean, she was 13 years old at the time. But this message was just super heartfelt and honest, expressing how much she believed in me, and how she’d witnessed how hard I worked over the years, and how she knew everything was going to work out.

She was bringing up all these little moments from the past, and it just did something to me.

Man, I’m serious, that text probably changed my whole life.

I don’t even think I’ve ever told her that before. When I got called off the bench that day, I came out flying. I was hitting shots that I’ve never hit in my life — falling out of bounds and everything.

Editor’s note: This is so bad to say, but whenever people would tell me that they thought Donovan could maybe play in the NBA, I would have on my poker face, but deep down I was thinking, “My son? You’re talking about Donovan?” That day in Indiana, it clicked for me. The way he was carrying himself, the way his teammates were looking to him. For me, it all goes back to that little kid dancing on top of the coffee table. He had this confidence that rubbed off on people.

He was the show.

After that game, I just kind of never looked back. It’s really amazing to me how quickly everything happened. I’m sitting there on December 31, 2016, wondering if I was good enough, wondering if basketball was really worth it anymore. Fifteen months later, I’m in the NBA playoffs going up against Russell Westbrook. It definitely wasn’t supposed to happen like that, if you read what the experts were saying. But it was like that my whole life. I had people right before the NBA Draft, people I trusted, telling me, “I don’t know, I don’t think this is the right move. I don’t think you’re ready.”

I was in my head about it. I definitely didn’t want to leave Louisville. I had so much pride about playing there. But then I was playing against Paul George and CP3 and some NBA guys at a workout before the draft, and they both kept telling me, “You’re ready.”

Editor’s note: He was texting me every day, really unsure about it. Then one day he texts me, “Chris Paul says I’m ready!” I don’t know many of the players’ names, but I knew that was a big deal. I was always the mom telling him he needed to get his degree, but I knew how hard he had worked for this. I knew how bad he wanted this. This was his dream. I was just proud.

Going into draft night, I told my agent and my family that I didn’t want to know anything. I didn’t want a shred of info. I wanted it to be a surprise. But obviously, it’s impossible to block out everything, so before the draft I thought maybe Charlotte.

Ashlee Espinal/NBAE/Getty Images

I’ve never said this publicly, because I didn’t want it to be taken the wrong way, but when Denver was up, and they said my name, I was completely shocked, because they had like five guys in my position. It didn’t make any sense to me. Obviously, everybody at the table knew that I was about to be traded to Utah, but they were trying to stick by my rules, so they didn’t say a word.

I walked up on stage and I was so stunned that all I can remember doing is showing off my Louisville socks for the cameras. I cannot remember shaking Adam Silver’s hand. That memory is totally gone.

If you watch the tape back, Maria Taylor from ESPN tells me that I’ve been traded to the Jazz, and you can literally see me breathe a sigh of relief. It’s no disrespect to Denver at all, but it was a much better fit in Utah, and I absolutely fell in love with the city during my workout with them.

Editor’s note: Honestly, I was thinking like any mother of a 20-year-old boy. I was just praying, Keep my baby far away from New York, L.A. and Miami! He needs a stable environment! I was very pleased with Utah. Very pleased.

I know guys in the league say, “Oh yeah, I love X, Y, Z city.”

But man, I genuinely love Utah. The way that the city embraced me as a rookie is something that I didn’t even think was possible.

Editor’s note: My favorite thing was going to my first game in Utah, and I just couldn’t believe that so many people already had on my son’s jersey. You see that number 45 and as a mother, it’s overwhelming, you know?

Everything happened so fast. The first game of the season, I’m supposed to be on the bench, but then Rodney Hood went out with an illness right before tip-off. So all of a sudden, I’m running out onto the floor. And who are we playing?

OKC.

Russ.

I have to guard Russ.

And it was so funny, looking back. Because I have this ritual in shootaround where I have to lock in on my opponent. I have to see you. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing — if I look you in the eye, and I get that visual out of  the way, then I’m good. So I’m looking for Russ … can’t find him.

Of course, he always does that whole routine where he sits on the bench and he does his little dance routine, right? So I’m looking over to their bench, and big Steven Adams is standing there blocking the view. All of a sudden, he moves away, and I see Russ. He’s dancing. He’s doing his thing.

Then, out of nowhere, he turns his head, and I swear to you, he looked me dead in the eyes from all the way across the court.

Dead in my eyes.

It was like a movie. I froze. Everything kind of hit me at once, and it was like, Ohhhh, snap.

That was my Welcome to the League moment. I just kept telling myself, “Keep him in front of you. Do not let him dunk on you and yell in your face.”

Editor’s note: The first game, when Don walked out onto the floor and they announced his name, all the fans were standing up and cheering, and I was just sitting in my seat with my head in my hands, sobbing. I just couldn’t believe that we were really here. All those sleepless nights wondering, “Are we doing the right thing?” We made it here.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images

Everything that happened in the first year in Utah was kind of surreal from the dunk contest, to playing against Russ in the playoffs, playing against Harden in the playoffs, exceeding everybody’s expectations for what we could do. But for me, this second year was a lot more meaningful, because of how the city stayed behind me when I came out struggling.

The first half of the year, I was doubting myself. I am not going to lie to you. There were times when I was thinking, “Maybe this was a one year thing. Maybe I really am a one-hit wonder.” But everybody around me, from Coach Snyder to my teammates to everybody I’d run into on the street, they all had my back.

More than anything, I want to have a lasting impact on this city and this community. One thing that I know just from my own personal experience is that this is bigger than basketball. My legacy has to be more than that.

When I was growing up, there were so many people who helped me get to where I am, and they didn’t want anything in return — whether it was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce, who helped us out with clothes sometimes, or my friends from Greenwhich who used to pay for my lunch when we were out together, or my mom, who probably sacrificed more than my sister and I will ever know.

Editor’s note: Donovan is not going to like this, but I am going to be a mom here and get very emotional about my son. I think you can tell by now that I am not very impressed by all the basketball stuff. I still don’t really know the X’s and O’s, or a lot of the players’ names. What makes me really happy is when I hear the stories about Donovan going out of his way to help people that he runs into in real life — whether it’s the kid at the Apple Store who needed to fix his phone, or the person at the grocery store who was counting change, or his push to make his signature shoe be affordable so everyone can have a pair. All these stories come out about Donovan helping people, without ever making a big deal about it or posting it on social media. I know he’s going to be so embarrassed about me mentioning it now. But when I hear those stories, that’s when I know I did a good job as a mother. Because I raised a son who knows the value of money, who knows how hard it is for some people in this world. That just makes me so proud that I might go ahead and start crying right now, in fact.

I was not supposed to be here. I think that’s why I appreciate it so much. There were even times where I told myself, “You’re not good enough.” And I’m talking about when I was at Louisville. But we’re here.

For me, everything comes down to a simple mantra: determination over negativity. So many people want to tell you what you can’t do. Especially now, with social media. But I think it’s important for kids to know that haters weren’t invented on social media. Haters have been around forever. AAU parents have been telling my mom she was doing the wrong thing since I was in third grade.

But I was lucky, because she’d just put on her poker face and say, “Mmmhmm.”

She had the plan.

Sam Robles/The Players' TribuneEditor’s note: For me, Donovan is always going to be that little boy dancing on top of the coffee table. He’s always going to be that rambunctious kid in the living room, dunking the ball on his Fisher-Price hoop and calling out to me, “Mom, I broke the rim again! Can you come and plop it back up?”

I used to hear that sound coming from the other room …

THUNK.

THUNK.

THUNK.

“Mommmm, come and plop it back up!”

That’s my boy.

I was not supposed to be here. I think that’s why I appreciate it so much.

Oh yeah, and about that dream … Ever since I was in third grade and I walked into my friend C.J. Tyler’s house in Greenwich, I had this vision that I was going to buy my family a place of our own right next to my all friends.

My mom probably wanted it to happen through a law degree or medical school or something like that, but we all have our path in life.

In the end, it happened through basketball.

My mom just moved into that house, and it’s right down the road from Greenwich Country Day.

She fulfilled her own dream. She’s a teacher there now. As a matter of fact, she works with the nursery school kids. And man … I really pray to God that they’re not as extra as I was.