SALT LAKE CITY — After walking eastward on a barricaded Karl Malone Drive, strolling underneath a pedestrian bridge and gazing up at the spray paint on the wall in the middle of The Gateway, a familiar grin emerged on the face of Utah Jazz's star player.
In this moment, Donovan Mitchell was looking at a huge mural of Donovan Mitchell on the side of the Donovan Mitchell Bridge.
It was a whole lot of Donovan Mitchell — just as Utah has quickly come to expect and love.
"That’s so awesome. Thank you," Mitchell said while staring at the artwork created on Rio Grande Street by local artists Chuck Landvatter and Jared Andrew Smith. "Can I take a picture?"
If a picture is worth a thousand words, one can only wonder what a bigger-than-life painting and the renaming of a bridge — a bridge over a once-troubled mall, you mights say — as part of the revitalization of a mall across the street from Vivint Arena is worth.
Mitchell acted quite touched to have the honor bestowed upon him toward the end of a sophomore season that started slowly but has evolved into a superb sequel from his Rookie of the Year-caliber debut.
"This is incredible to be able to have a bridge dedicated in my honor. It's humbling," Mitchell said. "Knowing where I came from, I didn’t expect to be in the NBA, let alone win the dunk contest, let alone make the playoffs, let alone be where we are today in our playoff position and have a bridge named after me. I still can't comprehend all this."
The New York native and former Louisville star reminded the attentive crowd of Jazz fans, many sporting No. 45 jerseys in various hues and editions, that he knew nothing about Utah leading up to the 2017 NBA Draft. So, he recalled after being lauded by dignitaries, Mitchell came to Salt Lake City not knowing what to expect. He didn't mention the beautiful scenery, although he is in awe of the Wasatch Front mountains. He didn't mention the nightlife — or lack there of — or how small the city skyline is compared to the one he's used to in Manhattan.
The way people treated him is what caught Mitchell's attention.
"I flew in and everybody was just so nice," he said. "I’m from New York, so you walk by and you bump somebody, they give you a look — it’s always an attitude or something. You're walking around these streets (of Salt Lake City), and everybody's walking around smiling."
Mitchell specifically named one of the employees in the kitchen at the Zions Bank Basketball Center.
"Bernie, one of the cooks, she was one of the nicest lades I ever met," Mitchell said. "It’s not just two or three people. It's everybody."
Though he was lauded for his play on the court — Salt Lake City councilwoman Ana Valdemoros joked about how her husband sometimes startles her by yelling after Spida hammer dunks — the dignitaries who paid tribute to him on Tuesday afternoon all thanked him for the contributions he's made to the community.
The school visits. Donating supplies. Giving scholarships. Helping empower women through his new foundation.
David Larcher, whose Vestar Development company owns The Gateway and is pouring $100 million into a revival that will include restaurants, entertainment, condos, retail and even a four-star boutique hotel, put it this way: "He has redefined what it means to be a professional athlete today, in my view."
Mitchell said it's his pleasure to assist a community that gives off such a good vibe to him and others.
"It’s easy to give back to people who are so genuine and so kind. It’s easy. That’s really where it stems from," Mitchell said. "I know I do a lot, but really you guys make it so easy, not just for myself but for everybody on the team, to be so loyal and so dedicated to this city. So shout out to you guys, for real. Give yourselves a round of applause for that. It really goes a long way."
Not surprisingly, Mitchell gave love to his teammates for helping him get to a point so early in his career that he could have the type of success one needs to have to get things named after them.
Before taking a handful of questions from the crowd, Mitchell made an interesting promise after offering his gratitude another time.
"This is incredible," he said. "It’s going to be a fun two months — three months. We’re playing into June, so it’s going to be a lot of fun."
Larcher said it's The Gateway wanted to honor Mitchell for being "the bridge from the storied teams of John Stockton and Karl Malone to the young and exciting team of today."
Now someone in Salt Lake City needs to dedicate a tower in honor Rudy "The Stifle Tower" Gobert.3 comments on this story
"Some might say this is an unusual step for a property like ours to take," Larcher said. "However, we think it would be strange not to acknowledge the star power of our neighbor to the east. We thank (Mitchell) for what he’s already done for this community and, like The Gateway, we know that we can look forward to even more great things ahead."
Valdemoros, who credited Mitchell for often being the first player off the bench to cheer on teammates when he's not playing, won't even mind if her husband keeps yelling at the TV at home.
"Donovan, you inspire us with your kindness, your loyalty and how freely and unselfishly you give up yourself to our community," she said. "Thank you, and keep the hammer dunks coming.