CLEVELAND, Ohio — Call it serendipity. Maybe destiny.
Even though it was a two-month process that began during the Las Vegas Summer League in July, Donovan Mitchell becoming a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers feels like two decades in the making.
Long before he was a three-time All-Star, a first-round pick, a franchise centerpiece or one of the NBA’s top shooting guards, Mitchell was a Cavs fan. An ardent, screaming-at-the-TV, trash-talking, jersey-wearing Cavs fan — and he has a photo taken 20 years ago to prove it.
So how does a native New Yorker, born in Elmsford, about 25 miles from Manhattan, become a young Cavs fan?
Simple. His basketball-playing idol LeBron James.
“I had the Cavs jersey on when I was like 5 or 6, whatever it was,” Mitchell said during his introductory press conference at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Wednesday afternoon. “I was a LeBron fan, but I was a Cleveland fan. My man over there says Cleveland Cavaliers; I said that at the house. It’s crazy how life fills up. Being able to be a part of that, between the fire and the introductions, I remember the little things. I love playing in this arena. I’m really excited to be here, to be a part of this band, to be a part of this city.
“I couldn’t be happier.”
Not even if he were in New York — although Mitchell, who has been at the center of this summer’s relentless trade speculation, admitted the long-haul destination is where he expected to go.
“I definitely thought I was going to come home, I’m not going to lie about it,” Mitchell said. “Once Rudy (Gobert) got traded, I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I think we all did. I think we realized we had a good run. I kind of had a feeling I was going to be touched. I thought it was New York. Who doesn’t want to be home with their mom? I haven’t lived at home since I was like in the eighth grade. I was in boarding school, it would be great. But for me, when I found out I was traded and what we’re going, that topped everything for me.”
On the first day of September, when it seemed like much of the league’s offseason activity had died down, Mitchell was golfing with friends in Miami Beach. That’s when his agent, Austin Brown, called to let him know he had been traded to Cleveland. After hearing that the Cavs were able to keep Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Caris LeVert from the massive trade package, Mitchell began to happily run around the course.
“I was like, ‘Wow, we have a talented group that was third in the East and then obviously injuries happened and that’s before I got here,'” Mitchell explained. “Now we can just look to do better and better and just keep winning and keep building. We’re young, but we’re hungry. We’re ready.”
Going to small-market Cleveland doesn’t usually elicit such a joyous response. The Cavs haven’t been to the postseason since 2018 — before LeBron left for Los Angeles. They haven’t won a playoff series without LeBron in nearly three decades. Every Cavalier will forever be in LeBron’s shadow. The organization will always be at least second in the sports hierarchy, behind the ever popular Browns. It’s not as vibrant or glamorous as the Big Apple. And the winters are harsh.
But none of that seems to bother Mitchell. If anything, he embraces it. All of it.
“I love the cold, so that’s not a problem. I think I dress better in the cold,” Mitchell said with a laugh while wearing a tan Burberry sweater, white shirt, black pants, diamond necklace, white shoes and glasses. “But no, it’s not about market size for me. It’s about winning basketball. All the outfield stuff will take care of itself when you win games, no matter where you are. That is first and foremost. Coming here, not only do we have a great group, a great organization, but I get to go watch some baseball games and some football games. I know a few guys on both teams so it will be good to get around, see things, go be 26 and have fun.”
A Mets fan who grew up loving baseball and whose father works for the organization, Mitchell was invited to throw out the first pitch Thursday afternoon at Progressive Field before Guardians-White Sox, a source tells cleveland.com. He knows shortstop Amed Rosario well. Rosario came to Cleveland from New York as part of the Francisco Lindor trade in 2021. Mitchell also met Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie.
“I saw him pitch once and I was like, ‘Man, this skinny kid can throw,'” Mitchell joked.
Since the trade became official — with the Cavs sending Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks and a pair of pick trades to Utah — Mitchell has received congratulatory messages from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Ohio. native who began his college career at Ohio State before transferring to LSU, as well as Browns cornerback Denzel Ward.
On Wednesday morning, Mitchell took an even closer look at Cleveland — the raging sports city he could call home for at least the next three years. With more than 200 fans packed into the hangar at Burke Lakefront Airport, eagerly awaiting his first appearance since the trajectory-altering trade, Mitchell stepped off the plane to a welcome befitting the city’s newest star — the kind once reserved for his favorite player
“Blowed me away,” Mitchell said. “It still blows me away, looking at the sea of people here. It makes you feel appreciated. The biggest thing is you want to give your heart and soul for people who show up for you, especially coming here at 9 o’clock this morning, which means they get up at 7:30 or 8. Such things really take a long time. way and I really appreciate that because night in and night out we’re going to work and continue to fight for this city and bring this city another championship.”
Call that Cleveland’s first recruiting class.
Mitchell is under contract through the 2024–25 season. He has a player option in the final year of his deal. The pull to home, the threat of New York, will always be there. The Cavs know it.
“I think the game and the team will take care of that,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff told cleveland.com. “We’ve created an environment and we have the type of people already here that will make Donovan want to stick around his teammates. Then on the court, we have to go out and take care of business. I mean, he’s a winner and he wants to win. So, we have to do those things that will help keep him in Cleveland. There is no doubt in my mind that we just have to be who we are for the next two years and he will want to stay here.”
No matter the outcome, president of basketball operations Koby Altman, who called the trade “one of the biggest in franchise history,” felt it was a risk worth taking.
“It’s a 25-year-old, three-time All-Star. It gets pretty simple, doesn’t it? Mainly, my job is to bring the best talent to Cleveland, and I’m sitting next to one of the best players in the world,” boasted Altman. “When you boil it down to that, is Donovan Mitchell going to make us a better basketball team? Yes. How do we do that? You go through the pain points of it, but I think we’re all really, really happy and excited about what we can do .”
After the warm welcome Wednesday morning, Mitchell participated in an unofficial workout with some of the guys who are already in town before the start of training camp, including LeVert, Garland, Allen and Mobley. Both Garland and LeVert were seated in the front row during Mitchell’s flashy press conference, right next to Mitchell’s agent and his mother, Nicole. Last week, Mitchell was with the team in Nashville for a voluntary meeting that saw 15 players appear at various points.
Those workouts allowed him to build on-court chemistry with teammates while also giving him a chance to start cementing his place as one of the team leaders.
The basketball stuff will take time. Bickerstaff — who gathered his staff at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in late August for a training retreat to discuss various strategies before the Mitchell trade changed everything — needs to figure out lineup combinations and rotations. Altman is still looking for a small forward upgrade. The defense could take a step back with an undersized guard tandem. Mitchell needs to figure out how best to fit in with an up-and-coming team that now has higher expectations.
“I think we’ve earned the opportunity to try and compete against the best in the world. And it’s an exciting group that has great character, great work ethic, and most importantly guys that really want to be in Cleveland. I think that’s really important,” Altman said. “I’m excited to see what it looks like. But there is a runway here and I don’t want anyone to think that this year we have to be in contention or disruption. This is not it. This is a real runway here for these guys to grow together, learn how to play together, and get better every year and grow into hopefully some really exciting basketball.”
The Cavs doubled their win total last season before losing back-to-back playoff games that caused them to miss the playoffs. But the 26-year-old Mitchell, who has led the Jazz to the postseason in each of his five seasons, is in Cleveland to make sure that doesn’t happen again. He said there was “no reason” the team could not compete for a title immediately.
“We have to go out there and do the job. On paper, we look scary. But at the end of the day it’s about what we do in the gym,” Mitchell said. is a championship team.’ We have to go out there and prove it every night. I know we will have good months and good weeks and good days and we will have bad weeks and bad days. Bringing my finals experience and what I’ve seen to a group that’s already phenomenal, I think that can be really special.”
Because of his adoration for LeBron, Mitchell has watched Cavs games from afar for years. He even attended the infamous “Decision” on July 8, 2010, in Greenwich, Connecticut. This allowed him to see the pain caused to the city by James’ departure. But Mitchell also saw the joy James brought to Cleveland. While still at the University of Louisville, Mitchell heckled his dorm mates and watched the Cavs win the 2016 NBA championship, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to stun the mighty Golden State Warriors.
Now Mitchell gets the chance for his own moment. It’s his turn to bring the Cavs back to prominence.
“That was a special moment,” Mitchell said. “To be able to see that and now be a part of this organization and a city that really, really loves their team is amazing. The love and support you get from the fans is really incredible.”
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