CLEVELAND: From the moment he arrived, Donovan Mitchell received the kind of love once reserved in this city for his basketball idol.
The New York kid, who grew up cheering for Cleveland from afar while wondering what it was like to be LeBron James, got his first taste.
“Blew me away,” he said.
Two weeks after being acquired from Utah in a trade that stunned the NBA and blindsided the three-time All-Star guard while he was playing golf, Mitchell received a warm welcome while being introduced Wednesday by the Cavaliers.
For months, Mitchell heard the trade rumors and convinced himself he was headed to the Knicks, his hometown team. It would have been ideal, reuniting with family and again being near his mom, Nicole.
Instead, he landed in Cleveland as the newest piece for the rising Cavaliers, who doubled their win total last season before barely missing the playoffs. They don’t figure to again with the 26-year-old.
“It would have been nice,” Mitchell said of the homecoming that didn’t happen. “But for me, once I found out I got traded and what we’re going into, that trumped everything. I’m truly excited to be here, be part of this group, be part of this city.”
Cleveland received him with open arms.
The team invited fans to greet Mitchell when he touched down at Burke Lakefront Airport, and he made a good impression by stepping out of a van wearing a Cavs hooded sweatshirt and Browns baseball cap.
From there, Mitchell was greeted by team employees at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, most of whom then joined an introductory news conference that felt like a late-night TV talk show, minus the band.
For Mitchell, who averaged 23.9 points in five seasons with the Jazz, Cleveland has always been sort of a second home. Like many kids, he was enamored with James.
“I was a LeBron fan, but I was a Cleveland fan. My man’s over there saying Cleveland Cavaliers; I was saying that at the house,” he said, pointing toward arena host Ahmaad Crump. “It’s crazy how life comes full circle.”
Mitchell has already begun developing on-court chemistry with his new teammates during workouts. All-Star backcourt mate Darius Garland showed his support by sitting in the front row at the news conference along with forward Caris LeVert.
The basketball will be a work in progress, and there are no guarantees the Cavs will ascend to contender status immediately. It’s long season filled with ups, downs, wins, losses and surprises.
Mitchell knows that better than anyone. He was on a talented Utah team that never quite got over the hump, so he’s a realist when it comes to expectations.
Still, he knows the Cavs have plenty of potential.
“There are going to be expectations, there’s going to be noise, but how can we be the best team we can be?” Mitchell said. “It’s five-on-five basketball. Doesn’t matter how many cameras or how many people are watching. It’s five-on-five basketball and just do the little things — continue to grind, continue to get better.”
Mitchell’s comments brought a smile from Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who said he and his staff were meeting about the upcoming season when general manager Koby Altman pulled off the trade.
“It was kind of a curveball when it happened,” Bickerstaff said. “We had had our coaches’ retreat and put a plan in place, so we had to make some changes. But we’ll make it work.”
There will certainly be adjustments ahead for Mitchell. But after playing in Utah, he’s not worried about Cleveland’s dreaded winter.
“I love the cold, to be honest,” he said. “I think I dress better in the cold.”
And if his welcome was any indication, he’s a perfect fit in Cleveland. He’s already learned the Cavs’ fan base stretches well outside Ohio’s borders.
“I didn’t realize how many Cleveland fans there are in America and in the world,” he said. “Like, once I got traded, everywhere people were walking and they were like, ‘I’m a Cleveland fan, I’m a Cleveland fan.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’”
Mitchell should have known. After all, he’s pulled for the Cavs since he could first dribble a ball. When James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, making his nationally televised “Decision” announcement at a Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut, Mitchell was there in person.
He also remembered James’ return and making good on his promise to deliver Cleveland a championship.
“That was a special moment,” Mitchell said. “He was screaming and I was in my dorm room in Louisville screaming in front of my friends who bet against him or whatever. To be able to see that and now to be part of this organization and a city that really, truly love their team is awesome.”