As Team USA’s Lone Signature Athlete, Donovan Mitchell Has More Than Basketball Riding on FIBA
LAS VEGAS -- Donovan Mitchell couldn’t believe it.
He had heard rumblings last summer that it might happen, and he’d been told during NBA Las Vegas Summer League in 2018 that “it was a thought,” but at that time, he just brushed it off.
Then, in the fall of 2018, Donovan was eating dinner at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood when he got the official word, spelled out in frosting. His reps from adidas presented him with a cake adorned by the phrase “Issue #1.” The German apparel giant would soon create a signature sneaker for him.
“I cried,” he says after practice during USA Basketball’s training camp in Las Vegas. “I broke down and cried. I really didn't expect that to happen.”
That put Donovan, then fresh off a sensational rookie season with the Utah Jazz, in select company alongside James Harden, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose and Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady. Despite lacking the accolades that those superstars had racked up before landing their kicks, the kid from Elmsford, New York would soon have a line of sneakers to call his own.
“I was really emotional when that happened,” Donovan says. “I'll never forget it. I'll never forget that moment when I found out.”
Donovan Mitchell first heard he might get a signature sneaker from adidas in the summer of 2018. (Courtesy of adidas)
The hardest part, though, was yet to come. Donovan, who’s about as gregarious and outgoing as any player in the league, had to keep quiet about the sneaker until December, when adidas officially unveiled the D.O.N. Issue #1.
That cat has long since escaped the bag. Donovan played in his kicks through much of the 2018-19 NBA season, including during Utah’s first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets. If all goes according to plan, he will be the only member of Team USA wearing his own shoe at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, and will be one of two such stars competing in that tournament, alongside Greek star (and Nike endorser) Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s quite the leap for a first-time USA Basketball participant, let alone one who has yet to make an All-Star team in the NBA. But it’s a position in which Donovan can draw confidence, as much from the young signature athletes who came before him as the strong base of support he’s built, on and off the court, since he took the basketball world by storm less than two years ago.
Donovan is the only player with his own signature shoe in contention for a spot on Team USA at this year's FIBA Basketball World Cup. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Ever since the “Dream Team” burst onto the scene at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, signature athletes have, by and large, been staples of USA Basketball in elite international competition. That initial squad featured seven players with their own kicks from five different companies, including Michael Jordan, whose Air Jordans had yet to split off as a Nike subsidiary.
In the 27 years since then, another clear trend has emerged: fewer signature athletes competing in FIBA tournaments like the upcoming Basketball World Cup. According to research conducted by CloseUp360, Team USA has touted 5.7 signature athletes per Olympic cycle compared to 2.0 per FIBA tournament—2.6 if you remove the 1998 FIBA World Championship, in which all players with NBA contracts couldn’t participate due to the ongoing lockout.
Work stoppages aside, the low point for signature athletes on Team USA came at the 2002 FIBA World Championship. Despite hosting the event in Indianapolis, USA Basketball failed to field a single player who had yet earned a silhouette of his own. Though that squad, coached by George Karl and featuring All-Stars like Paul Pierce and Reggie Miller, swept through the initial group stage, it went on to lose to Argentina in the second round of group play, followed by defeats to Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals and Spain in the fifth-place game.
Those three results were the first losses USA Basketball had suffered since bringing NBA players into the fold. They signaled a decline for the program that, after a signature-studded group assembled to win gold under Larry Brown at the FIBA 2003 Tournament of the Americas, underwent an overhaul following a bronze medal finish at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Even since that revamp, FIBA competitions have largely become opportunities for younger players to step up as stars on the international stage. In 2010, Kevin Durant was the only signature athlete on the U.S. team that won gold at the FIBA World Championship, though he was joined by three other up-and-comers (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose) who would go on to get their own kicks. Four years later, Derrick was the lone such player on Team USA’s roster, with Steph, Klay Thompson, James Harden and tournament MVP Kyrie Irving nearing the emergence of their respective sneaker lines thereafter.
Alongside budding studs like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kyle Kuzma, Donovan could be that “Pied Piper” of footwear for the current USA Basketball roster, especially if he leads his teammates to victory on the court in China.
“To be able to have my own shoe, like I always say, is a blessing,” Donovan says. “You know, one thing I really think [is] that with this comes more responsibility—not just here, but with the Jazz. So [I’ve] got to go out there and be ready for it.”
Donovan was in China this past July on a promotional tour with adidas. (Amir Ebrahimi)
The experience of being a signature athlete has been nothing if not a whirlwind for Donovan, even before adidas tapped him to help lead the brand.
Last summer, he went to China twice on promotional tours. This year, he appeared in a crossover advertisement for Spider-Man: Far from Home alongside actor Tom Holland before traveling to China and France with the Three Stripes this past July. That collaboration with Hollywood’s Spider-Man has since spawned a bond between Tom and Donovan, who got his nickname, “Spider,” as a youngster when a teammate’s dad noted how his long arms and penchant for steals made look like a spider on defense.
“[Tom]'s a great guy. We're the same age, so yeah, we were just talking and conversing,” Donovan says. “Actually, we've become friends out of that commercial, so I think it's pretty special.”
In between, Donovan has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the shoe itself. He wasn’t particularly picky about features, materials and design for his first shoe, though he did insist on using Bounce foam, instead of the more expensive Boost, for cushioning. By and large, he left the details to Jimi Taylor, adidas’ senior footwear designer, before making a yes-or-no call on the end result.
“He showed me that first picture and I was, like, ‘That's the one,’” Donovan recalls. “And from there, we went right away and started going crazy with it.”
By the time the D.O.N. Issue #1 dropped on adidas’ website on July 1, the company already had four Spider-Man-themed colorways lined up. To Donovan’s knowledge, his shoe has been flying off shelves in stores and warehouses alike.
“It’s doing very well,” he says. “I don't like talking about myself in that way, but I think pretty much every single colorway has been sold out within the first two hours, so it's been a blessing.”
The shoe’s success may have something to do with the price point. At $100, the D.O.N. Issue #1 is among the more affordable signature sneakers on the market today.
But the marketability of any line boils down to support and enthusiasm from fans. To that end, Donovan is already ahead of the game as he approaches his 23rd birthday on September 7. He’s racked up more than three million followers across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and has endeared himself to the Jazz’s rabid fanbase throughout the Beehive State with his superlative play on the court and commitment to the community in Salt Lake City. The pop-culture crossover through superheroes has helped, too.
Still, Donovan insists he couldn’t have envisioned his shoe becoming as popular as it has.
“It took me by surprise,” he says. “I didn't expect it to do this well. So for me, I appreciate the support from my fans, from everyone who's supporting me.”
That backing figures to grow around the globe in the coming weeks. Donovan looks like a lock for Team USA’s 12-man roster for the FIBA World Cup and, as a result, to make his second trip to China this summer and fourth in the last two offseasons, where he’ll have an opportunity to build his brand even further.
“It’s huge,” he says. “It’s not why I did [come to play for USA Basketball], but it definitely helps.”
For all his talent and tenacity, Donovan looked to be buried on Team USA’s backcourt depth chart coming into the summer. Then came a deluge of NBA stars turning down invitations.
Steph, James and Dame (all of whom have signature shoes) declined. So did Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon and C.J. McCollum. KD and Klay may well have followed suit, had their respective injuries not forced them out of action.
Now, it appears as though Donovan will get to star for Team USA on a global stage, and wear his own shoe all the while. He will be sporting a special, America-themed edition of the D.O.N. Issue #1, with more colorways in the works and another Issue on the horizon.
“We're working on a bunch right now,” he says. “I can't give too much away, but we've got a lot in store.”
While Donovan is humbled to be one of the few active NBA players with a signature shoe, and the only one on the current iteration of Team USA in that category, he has his sights set on joining an even more exclusive club down the line. His goal is to eventually have at least 12 issues of the D.O.N.—a feat thus far exceeded in basketball shoe history by only Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Earning entry into that fraternity will take many more years of superlative play and beaming smiles from Donovan. At the moment, he’s focused on his opportunity with USA Basketball, though for him, the purpose of his trips to China and Australia boils down to something much simpler than hooping and selling shoes.
“I think that's a lot of what this is: just going out and having fun—not really going out there and making this all business,” he says. “Just go out there and embrace it.
“You play for Team USA. I have my own shoe. I'm enjoying my time and I'm excited.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.