Donovan Mitchell finally said the quiet part out loud about being Black in Utah

If that place can make their franchise player feel unwanted, imagine what others feel like

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Donovan Mitchell
Image: Getty Images

Timing is everything. And on Dec. 19, 2022, it all came together.

On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Utah Jazz 122-99 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse as Donovan Mitchell led his new team in scoring (23 points) in his first game against his old team. On the same day, Marc J. Spears of ESPN’s Andscape released a Q&A he did with Mitchell in which the current Cavalier, and former member of the Jazz, finally let it be known — Utah is a terrible place to live when you’re Black.

“If I’m being honest with you, I never really said this, but it was draining. 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 explained about growing tired of dealing with racism in a place like Utah, and the pushback he received when he discussed it. “I’m not saying specifically every fan, but I just feel like it was a lot of things. A [Utah] state senator [Stuart Adams] 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 [Isabella Tichenor] hang herself because she’s being bullied.”

In 2021, Utah Republican State Sen. Stuart Adams said, “When you get very popular sports stars like that that are pushing back, we’ve got work to do to try and educate them. Let’s go tell him what we’re doing because I don’t think he really understands what happened,” about Mitchell’s disapproval of some resolutions that opposed Critical Race Theory.

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“But as far as Utah, it became a lot to have to deal with on a nightly basis,” said Mitchell. “I got pulled over once. I got an attitude from a cop until I gave him my ID. And that forever made me wonder what happens to the young Black kid in Utah that doesn’t have that power to just be like, ‘This is who I am.’ And that was one of the things for me that I took to heart.”

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Draining is the perfect word to describe what it’s like to be Black in Utah, especially if you aren’t from there. When you’re an outsider like Mitchell and myself were, you see things for what they are. During the summer of 2011, I interned at the Salt Lake Tribune for a few months. My experience at the publication and within the newsroom was great. Everything I experienced outside of it was a nightmare. I understand Mitchell’s plight. It’s mentally exhausting being the only one that looks like you everywhere you go — surrounded by people that are willingly oblivious to how unnatural your experience is.

And then there’s Utah’s racist history.

If we just keep it to sports, this is the same place and fan base that Russell Westbrook has a long history with. A fan was banned for calling him “boy” in 2018, and then there was the incident when a fan named Shane Keisel was permanently banned because he and his wife told Westbrook, “to get down on your knees like you’re used to” during a game.

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“Couldn’t believe it. More N-words than probably (they) had Black people in the whole city, so it was a really racial situation and people say anything now because there’s no consequences for it,” former NBA star Matt Barnes once told Colin Cowherd about what he heard during the Warriors’ Western Conference semifinals series against the Jazz back in 2007. Never forget, this is the same state that was just in the news earlier this year about allegations of a fan at a BYU/Duke volleyball game yelling the N-word at Rachel Richardson — a Black member of the Blue Devils team.

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For years, it’s been an open secret about how things are allowed in places like Utah — and Boston. “I never heard any of that, from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston. I never heard that before from Kyrie (Irving) and I talked to him quite a bit,” said Danny Ainge in response to when Irving described what he had to hear and deal with when he played against the Celtics. Ainge, a white man from Oregon who played at BYU and is beloved in Boston, felt as though he had “expertise” on race in spaces as white as Massachusetts and Utah. And you wonder how these things are allowed to go unchecked for decades, especially in a league where men like Donald Sterling and Robert Sarver — and many others we aren’t aware of yet — have such great power.

In a social media era during a racial uprising and the Black Lives Matter Movement, the state of Utah had a franchise player in Mitchell and they ran him off. This wasn’t Carlos Boozer or Deron Williams who played for the Jazz during a time in which players weren’t as open as they are about using their platforms. And Mitchell is the antithesis of Karl Malone, a Jazz legend that would rather mingle with the Tea Party than those that drink sweet tea.

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There’s a reason why the Jazz have never been a destination spot for top players in free agency. And the 2023 NBA All-Star Game is destined to be an epic failure off the court in February when a Black league with Black fans bring their unapologetic Black selves to Salt Lake City. Don’t be surprised if it’s the last All-Star Game the city hosts.

But before that eventful weekend occurs, a barometer for things to come will take place five weeks earlier. The Cavs will play the Jazz on January 10th in Donovan Mitchell’s first game back in Utah. And given that he’s now on the opposing team and has spoken honestly about his experience there, I’m sure they’ll welcome him in the same way they’ve historically treated Black people — with hate.