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Heartbreak, Hope, and the Utah Jazz

How the story of a franchise was changed by Gordon Hayward and Donovan Mitchell

July 4th, 2017

It’s the Fourth of July. The freaking Fourth of July. I’ve got the day off work, ready to spend some time with my wife and kids in honor of America’s independence. It’s a beautiful summer day. Sun shining, birds chirping, etc. I have every reason to be relaxed and carefree in a day with no work and little daily responsibilities. But it’s there, in the back of my mind, in the depths of my chest.

Is Gordon Hayward going to stay in Utah? There’s no way he leaves, right?? He’s got everything he needs here. He loves it here. Everyone loves him. There’s no way he leaves right? RIGHT????

I have my phone in my hand. It’s on loud, volume all the way up. I have Twitter alerts set for pretty much anyone who could possibly break the Hayward free-agency news. My phone’s blowing up from these alerts, but not one of them gives any hints on where Hayward is playing basketball next season. My wife, very annoyed at this point, rolls her eyes at me. “You’re a grown man” she says. “Why do you even care so much?” I reply back with little confidence, knowing I really shouldn’t care that much. “It’s hard to explain”, I say.

Why do I care so much? I ask myself.

The Jazz are finally back. After years of being irrelevant, they won a playoff series and showed signs of promise in years to come. The team is the best it’s been since the late 2000’s and the D-Will and Boozer baby blue days. If Gordon Hayward stays, the Jazz will be a force for years. They might be able to bring in another All-Star. The future looks bright in Utah, but only if Hayward stays. If he leaves, all of this work, all of this progress, might just fall apart. The Jazz might drift back into the shadows of irrelevancy. There might not be any hope, if Gordon Hayward leaves. Gordon is a great player, a great guy, and somebody you love to have at the centerpiece of your franchise. If he leaves, what in the world do the Jazz do?

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Jazz Basketball means so much to so many people in Utah, as well as other Jazz fans across the nation and world. It’s just different here. These fans cling to these players, they adopt them like their sons, brothers, homies, whatever. The kids copy the players’ haircuts and mimic their moves in the driveway. Parents name their kids after the legends of the franchise. It’s just how it is. So it’s not just about me wanting Gordon Hayward to stay. It’s about me not wanting to see these fans, the city, the kids, the franchise, get their hearts broken.

I guess that’s why I care so much, I rationalize to myself.

The morning passes, and still no news. Every single alert notification that pops up on my phone injects a little more anxiety into my blood. I decide to go into work (ON PAID HOLIDAY OFF, SMH) to try and get my mind off it. Bad idea. Now, instead of being with my family to help distract my thoughts, I’m alone, in an office, all by myself. I sit there hastily refreshing my twitter feed with a little more distress pumping into my heart with every little twitter refresh “pop”. An hour passes, and then another.

And then it happens.

I read it again. And again. Not really believing what I am seeing. I set my phone down and stare blankly out the office window. I can’t believe he is leaving, man. How could he? What about the Jazz? What about the rest of the squad? What about all those little kids with the Hayward jerseys and haircuts? What about those fans chanting his name as he walked out of an arena after getting swept by the Warriors in the playoffs? What about Joe? What about Rudy? My heart breaks for Utah. For the fans, for Gail Miller, for Quin. Just like that, the state of the Utah Jazz dwindles in possible despair.

May 9th, 2018

It’s another bright sunny day. Just like that day almost a year ago, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. I’m sitting in the same chair, same spot, same office. But something is very different. Instead of anxiously checking my phone for updates on Gordon Hayward’s decision, I’m streaming the Donovan Mitchell’s locker room cleanout interview. As this rookie sits there in a hoodie, dad hat, and gold “45” chain around is neck, my heart feels very different than it did on that day last summer.

As Mitchell talks about the past season during his interview, I can’t help but reflect on what an incredible season it was for the Utah Jazz. A new-look team, losing Rudy Gobert to injury (twice), coming back from a 19-28 record, squeaking into the post-season in an intense race to the playoffs, and beating OKC in the playoffs in a tough,hard-fought series advancing to the second round. My mind races through all of the memories of what was one of my favorite Jazz seasons of all-time. But there’s one thing in particular that has me feeling something completely different than what I felt on the 4th of July. That thing? It’s 6-3, 209 pounds, and goes by “Spida”. That feeling? Hope. Donovan Mitchell, a rookie, a 21-year-old kid, gives the Utah Jazz organization, and it’s fans, hope.

Maybe it was the way broke rookie records, hitting more three-pointers than any other rookie in NBA history. Or maybe it was the way he dunked on everyone in the brightest of lights in Los Angeles, being crowned the Dunk Contest Champion in a vintage Vinsanity jersey. Maybe it was the way that he spun,eurostepped, and scoop-shot his way countless buckets. Maybe it was the way he put the team on his back several times late in games and led them to victory, including a closeout game six against the Thunder in Salt Lake City. Maybe it was the way he stuck up for his teammates. Maybe it was the way that he always said the right things in interviews and conversations with the media. Maybe it was the way he embraced his mother on a confetti-covered court after clinching a first round playoff victory. Maybe it was all of these things. No matter what it was for you this season, Donovan Mitchell gave hope to the Utah Jazz when they needed it most.

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

“I can’t believe this is happening” is a phrase that ran through my head several times during the whole Gordon Hayward exit situation. Ironically, I also said those words to myself several times throughout the season, watching Donovan Mitchell. I couldn’t believe the way that he got to the rim with ease, scoring 30+ points in seven games during the season. I couldn’t believe the national attention that the Jazz got throughout the year because of Donovan Mitchell. I couldn’t believe how many of the best NBA superstars flocked to Mitchell after games to dap him up and give him words of advice. Guys like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, all visibly showing support to a rookie in Utah.

As I sat and finished up watching Mitchell’s exit interview. I couldn’t help but be excited for what’s to come for the Utah Jazz. One particular comment that Mitchell made during his interview stuck out to me. When asked about his expectations for the future, Mitchell replied with a casual, yet bold statement that gives perpetual hope to Jazz Nation.

”I’m not satisfied until we win a championship. After one then I’ll want two.”

We want a championship in Utah. And just like Donovan, once we get one, we want two. There’s plenty of room in the rafters of Vivint Smart Home Arena. Up there next to Stockton and Malone, Jerry Sloan, and Pistol Pete and more, there might just be enough room for some “NBA Champion” banners. Better yet, there might even been some room for a “45” retired number jersey with Mitchell’s name on the back. The sky is the limit for what Donovan Mitchell can do for this NBA franchise. It took him a single season to win over the hearts of the fans, media, and even other nba players. It took him just one season to give the Jazz organization a renewed sense of hope and excitement towards the future. In just one season, Donovan Mitchell may have just re-wrote the story of the Utah Jazz franchise. After dwindling in a state of the unknown when Gordon Hayward left, Donovan Mitchell resolidified what Jazz basktball means to everyone invested in organization. But, it’s only been one season, and in the words of Donovan Mitchell himself, “this is just the beginning.”