Donovan Mitchell '15 soars in the NBA while remaining grounded by his upbringing and values. Former coach and teacher Al Simoes recalls their relationship as student and mentor and how Donovan has managed to stay true to himself despite his growing national and international fame.
By Al Simoes
In a flash of blue an imposing athletic figure confidently rushed down a crowded hallway in the Barclays Center in New York City, encircled by four all business security personnel and followed by a host of vocal enthusiastic fans all calling his name. He was undeterred as he focused on the destination ahead, the ESPN interview platform. Just as he was about to pass the security checkpoint, one voice echoed above the others and caught his attention, “Donovan! Donovan! Coach Simoes is here!” He suddenly turned, his eyes widened, and he flashed that unmistakable grin when he recognized me.
“Coach!” He pressed beyond the security detail. He gave me a hug and asked if I could wait “just a bit” while he took an interview nearby. Soon he called me over for a warm welcome and a quick photo.
Despite so many accolades and an emerging celebrity status that would have inflated so many, Donovan Mitchell '15 was still the Donovan many of us who taught and coached or played and studied alongside him knew.
This is Donovan Mitchell, the talented, gregarious, charismatic, and fiercely loyal young man that I knew through my teaching and coaching experiences at Brewster Academy.
The fact that this young man has accomplished so much in such a short time is surprising only considering the environment that surrounds celebrity for so many gifted athletes. We live in a time when too many athletes are merely interested in pounding their chests and touting their own individual accomplishments rather than seeking more self-actualizing goals. At too young an age, promising players are repeatedly told how great they already are, giving them an inflated sense of where they truly are developmentally and where they need to go to fulfill that ever-elusive target of “full potential.”
As a result it is difficult for athletes to appreciate and completely comprehend the complexities and challenges involved in becoming successful and the selfless and indefatigable diligence and dedication it takes to get there. Potential is a pretty empty word unless it is fulfilled through dedication and hard work, especially in the NBA where so many falter for reasons beyond talent and opportunity. Since the average career lasts statistically only four to six years, the window of opportunity is extremely brief. Although the rewards are certainly considerable for those who actually make it, the perils in making poor decisions are equally great especially considering the many pitfalls that are associated with the process. These difficulties are especially true for parents trying to make the best decisions for their children. Today parents have to compete with the barrage of ambitious AAU coaches and in some cases unscrupulous “handlers” or “life coaches,” who promise the world and too often only deliver poor advice and heartache. In more than 30 years of coaching I have seen first hand that it happens all too often where promising prospects are kicked to the curb when they are no longer of financial use to those who seek to exploit them.
Donovan is unlikely to fall prey to this fate because he has a great support system beginning with his mom, Nicole Mitchell.
Donovan has had the good fortune to have such informed support at home, particularly from his mother who is a dedicated educator. She knows the value of setting rules and priorities and then sticking by them. Nicole has been steadfast in the face of great pressure to emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic and the development of a rock solid educational foundation in Donovan’s academic endeavors. She chose to keep him in Greenwich to go to school even though she was under constant pressure to take him closer to New York City from well-meaning friends and so-called experts who felt that he needed to be more challenged athletically. Like many parents she worried about making these difficult decisions but her instincts served her well, because in the end it allowed him to benefit from both worlds and instilled in Donovan an appreciation for those who helped along the way.
He initially went to school in Connecticut but played AAU in the city. When the time was right she sought out a prep school that could provide the academic environment that he needed as well as the competition necessary for him to grow athletically. Although she worried about him being away from her direct supervision, she chose Brewster Academy for its nurturing environment, strong support system, and a top basketball program. Brewster’s ongoing communication with parents and team approach gave her the confidence that Brewster was the right place for Donovan to grow as a student, as an athlete, and as a leader in a richly diverse community.
Donovan took advantage of every positive opportunity. He learned to become more independent and responsible for his own success in the classroom and enjoyed interacting with all of his classmates. He took an active role in student government eventually being voted in as senior and school prefect. In this role he and another classmate served as leaders of the senior class and student representatives for the whole school. A few important duties expected of this position are leading morning meetings and assemblies, delivering administrative messages to students, and providing input to the head of school and the academic dean especially in terms of the general consensus of students in a variety of situations.
Prior to student leadership at Brewster, he took advantage of the arts at previous schools, playing drums in the band, singing in the chorus, and even performing a duet in a production of Oliver. At Brewster he was so much more than just a high profile athlete. Yes, he played basketball for the top prep school in the country and was named team captain, but Donovan also was highly respected by his peers and teachers. He was an active participant in his classes and connected with the whole Brewster community who still follow his career with admiration and support.
Donovan and I met in the fall of 2013. He arrived as a junior with a world of raw but untested physical talent and a unique blend of genuine enthusiasm and sincerity. What I loved about him was his playful optimism and his willingness to listen. He was attentive but not so hard on himself that it interfered with his progress. There was also an intangible quality about him that made me believe in him. It was that look of “Coach I can do it!”
I was in the fortunate position of assistant so I found myself in more of a mentorship role for the players. Our head coach, Jason Smith, had to worry about his overall development including the delicate balance inherent in knowing when to encourage and when to demand.
At Brewster Donovan was coming into a nationally recognized program that played in the toughest league in the country. Coach Smith knew that Donovan needed to reach beyond what was easy and comfortable for him. He had to become more focused than ever before and to apply himself as ardently and consistently to his classwork as well. He took on these challenges in both arenas and it all came together even better than all of us hoped. According to his junior U.S. History teacher, T.J. Palmer, “Donovan always completed all of his work, I mean always, even during the grueling basketball season with all of the long road trips. He was such a young man of integrity – accountable for every assignment, every quiz, and every essay.”
To his credit, Donovan seemed to know intuitively that to listen intently and to accept criticism gracefully meant he could climb that ladder of success to a higher plane. Above all, he loved to compete. I remember on one occasion early in his first basketball game at Brewster Donovan, at only 6’3”, drove to the basket, elevated above the rim, and slammed home an explosive dunk over a stunned 6’10” opponent. I looked over at Coach Smith and just smiled. Coach Smith recognized his talent from the start, but we all knew he was going to be someone really special.
In the end, Donovan led our team to two straight National Championships. When he graduated from Brewster he was truly a well-rounded scholar-athlete. Ultimately Donovan accepted a full scholarship from the University of Louisville, where he excelled as one of the nation’s most promising guards and went on to be drafted 13th by the Utah Jazz in the NBA.
At every level he has not only met expectations but exceeded them. Donovan’s attitude and work ethic propelled him to new heights in the NBA. His workouts with NBA teams preceding the draft were so outstanding that many coaches were amazed by his abilities and his basketball IQ. When I found out who drafted him I was thrilled that he landed in such a strong program as the Jazz. I remember meeting one of their recruiters a few years ago who told me that they actually recruited within the league for players who were of high character. Any team that placed such a high premium on character had to be a great place for Donovan and it has been just that.
Early on coaches marveled at how quickly Donovan progressed and were impressed by the respect he earned especially from veteran players like Rick Rubio. In his first year in the NBA he broke the record for 3-point shots, won the NBA Dunk Contest, led his team to key playoff wins, was voted as Rookie of the Year by the players and most recently, was awarded an ESPY for being the “Breakout Player of the Year.” Despite being one of the hottest commodities at the NBA Draft this year and with all of his other accolades – Donovan is still Donovan, a warm, sincere, witty, appreciative, and charismatic phenom, and I look forward to watching his career unfold.
Al Simoes was the assistant coach of the Brewster boys’ prep basketball team from 2007-2014, and from 2010-2014 he taught English at Brewster.
Cover Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated