Donovan Mitchell Believes in FIBA Tournament’s Impact as the ‘World is in Different Places’
SYDNEY -- Before him, there was Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and James Harden.
Now, it's Donovan Mitchell's turn. He's arguably the biggest star on Team USA heading into the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. He’s averaged more than 20 points per game for the Utah Jazz, has his own signature sneaker with adidas and touts more than three million followers across social media. His on-court success and “Spida" nickname even landed him an appearance alongside actor Tom Holland in a trailer promoting Spider-Man: Far from Home this past spring.
While many NBA stars decided not to play this summer, Donovan saw it, first and foremost, as a childhood goal fulfilled to try to win gold, and one through which he could play in front of fans overseas and help bring the world together through basketball. During USA Basketball’s game against Australia in Melbourne in late August, he wrote “End Gun Violence!" and "#ElPasoStrong” on his shoes.
After practice in Sydney this week, CloseUp360 chatted with the 22-year-old about what it means to be the face of USA Basketball, immerse himself into the Australian culture and embark on his second trip of the summer to China.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Donovan Mitchell warms up for Team USA's game against Canada on Monday at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney Olympic Park. (Amir Ebrahimi)
CloseUp360: What are your impressions of Sydney?
Donovan Mitchell: Honestly, when I think of Australia, the opera house—that's the first thing that comes to my mind. So to be able to see that when we drove in was, like, really cool to me. That's something I've always wanted to see. And obviously you've seen Finding Nemo, so you kind of as a kid you want to see that. But I think I love it, it's beautiful, it's warm, it's just relaxing. I feel like laid back. I like it so far.
CU360: I know you were young at the time, but anything from Allan Houston or Tim Hardaway—who are both here with you guys—about the memories they had here in the Olympics 19 years ago?
DM: Honestly, no. I don't remember too much. I only remember really Vince [Carter] dunking on Frederic Weis. That's pretty much the only memory I really have of that Olympics.
CU360: With Vince in mind, you think about the history of some of the stars who have played on Team USA: Jordan, LeBron, Harden. Do you feel like you're kind of the face of this year's team?
DM: I don't really like look into that. I think for me, just being able to be the best leader that I can be. We have a lot of guys who are the main guys on their team, so being able to join forces like this I think takes a lot of sacrifice on all parts. I don't think any of us are coming here saying, "This is our show." I think we go out there and just lead by example, and that's one of the things I really take pride in: leading by example, my voice and let everything go from there.
CU360: A lot of guys pulled out, but you chose to play. What went into that decision?
DM: Well, for me, this is an amazing experience. A lot of guys who did pull out, for one, have played in this. I think for me, I wanted to be a part of this. I never got the opportunity in high school or college, so to be a part of this I think is special. Basketball takes you to so many different places. I don't think I would've been able to come to Australia if it wasn't for Team USA. So I think it's stuff like that that I really wanted to be a part of. And also winning a gold medal—it's something I really want to be able to do. From everyone I've talked to—from D-Wade to Chris Paul to Melo to everybody who's done this—they all said it's a great experience.
CU360: With your main endorser adidas, how exciting is it for you to expand your brand to Australia and then China?
DM: I love it. Obviously I have my own signature shoe, and it's been a great partnership. I've been wearing adidas since college. They've been nothing but great to me. I think being able to promote not only my brand, but the adidas brand throughout the world, I think it's huge. And obviously I've already been to China, so being able to go back there I think is pretty cool. Coming to Australia just to promote my shoe, I think is the best. I'm biased obviously. But I think that's one thing I really like about this trip outside of winning the gold—being able to show your brand and show people around the world who might not get to see you on a daily basis.
CU360: Off the court, how are you enjoying the cultural experience with the guys?
DM: It's great. A lot of these guys I've known. You know of these guys, but you don't really know who they are as people. And you really get to know them through that experience, whether it's a team dinner, on the bus, on the plane, in meetings, in practice. You get to know guys and know guys' habits. And I think playing in this, I think it's a true honor because not only are you playing with the best guys in the world, but you get to play in front of 85,000 people and experience that, and not a lot of people get that. So I think it's pretty special.
CU360: With Australian basketball, I know that you're coming for the first time seeing all of it. What are your observations?
DM: Actually I've had some Australian teammates since high school, so I've kind of heard about it since 11th grade, whether it was Jonah Bolden [from Brewster Academy], Deng Adel [from the University of Louisville], and then obviously [Utah Jazz teammates] Joe [Ingles] and Dante [Exum]. Now, I think being able to see it come to life, see the passion behind it, see how much it's grown. I think in the past few years, I think it's grown a lot more than when I was in high school, so I think it's pretty cool.
CU360: When you travel to different countries, what things do you like to try?
DM: I'm different when I'm here for basketball. I'm not really a tourist when I'm here for basketball. When I'm on vacation, it's a little bit different. So when I'm here for basketball, it's usually Xbox and basketball, to be honest. But I've gone out to eat. Obviously I saw my former college teammate Deng Adel in Melbourne and I'm definitely going to walk around today—just being able to take it all in because you never know when you're going to be able to come back. I'm not too touristy, but I can do it a little bit.
CU360: What are you gaming?
DM: 2K and Call of Duty—two of my favorites—and FIFA.
CU360: What's your team in FIFA?
DM: Any team Ronaldo's on, so right now Juventus. Hopefully he doesn't leave again, but Ronaldo is one of my favorite players. Messi. Those two guys are obviously the best in the league, but I love those two. Just the way they approach the game—not even just for their accolades. Just the way they approach the game is pretty special.
CU360: With how big basketball is getting globally, what impacts you about the movement?
DM: I mean, for me personally, this game has taken me throughout the world. I think, who would've thought that as a kid growing up? This is what you play at recess or gym class. One, you get paid to do and on top of that, you get to travel the world doing it in front of fans that are screaming and yelling your name. I think that's one thing that's really eye-opening. Like last night, when we rolled into the hotel and I saw the opera house, that's one thing. It's just, like, "Wow, I've always wanted to see that." And now I'm here and I'm playing basketball and I'm playing for Team USA. It's like a lot of things that compound that. I think the game is bringing the world together I think obviously at a time where the world is in different places. I think this is one thing, as well as soccer and other sports, that can really bring everyone together as a world.
CU360: Do you think one day basketball will overtake soccer as the biggest global sport?
DM: I would hope so, as a basketball player. But I don't know. It's a tough question. I think soccer is just so easy [to play]—on top of that, you can play in all types of weather. You see, basketball, you can play in all types of weather, but soccer is a little bit different. They still play in the snow and the rain. And the stadiums are way bigger. They fit way more people than inside of an arena. And basketball, it's a little different because people score so much. In soccer, it's like you wait. That anticipation allows you to go crazy.