SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – After missing his team’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell addressed his experience during the team plane’s emergency landing after a bird strike on Tuesday afternoon.
“I was scared as s***,” said Mitchell when speaking to the media on Friday. “I immediately started texting my mom and my sister, telling them ‘This could be it.’”
Shortly after leaving Salt Lake City International Airport en route to Memphis for Wednesday’s contest, the Jazz’s Delta charter flight collided with a flock of birds, causing major engine damage and forcing the flight crew to make an emergency landing back at the airport.
“We were in the air for about eight to ten minutes, and the next thing you know, it was just a loud boom like something had exploded on the plane,” Mitchell said. “I was sitting across from Royce, and were sitting there kind of praying because we really didn’t know what was going on. There was a point where you just thought this could be it.”
Mitchell did not make travel with the team to Memphis, but said he will travel with the team on its next road trip to Dallas on Sunday.
“I know I have a job to do,” Mitchell said. “I understand that comes with the job. I took the time that I needed to get myself mentally in a good place. I’ll be fine come Sunday. But I just needed that day mentally. It was just a full day for me where I can’t make that trip, not for a game. Some things are just bigger than the game of basketball itself, and that right there was it for me.”
The incident was quite a scary one, according to recollections from multiple members of the Jazz.
“It felt like the plane was breaking apart in midair,” described guard Mike Conley after the game on Wednesday. “For five or 10 minutes, it felt like complete helplessness. We’re thankful it wasn’t as serious as it could have been, but it was scary.”
For Mitchell, who has admitted to disliking air travel in the past, the experience was especially unsettling.
“Everyone knows I hate flying, have a fear of flying,” said Mitchell.
After the flight crew completed the emergency landing at the airport, the team was rerouted on a different plane to Memphis later that night. Mitchell did not travel with the squad on the second plane. The Jazz listed the All-Star guard as out due to personal reasons on the mystery report, but it was no secret that Mitchell had been shaken up by the ordeal.
Even though they had to play without one of their leaders and most important players, his teammates had no problem with Mitchell’s decision to stay in Utah. The Jazz ended up beating the Grizzlies, 111-107, led by Conley’s 26 points.
“I mean, it was a crazy situation,” said guard Jordan Clarkson postgame. “I understand fully why Don didn’t come.”
After taking one road trip off to recompose himself, Mitchell acknowledged the reality of life as a professional athlete, air travel is an inherent risk that comes with the territory. Moving forward, he doesn’t plan on missing more road games due to his fear of flying.
“I know I have a job to do and it comes with the job,” Mitchell stated. “I took the time I needed to just get myself mentally in the right place. I just needed to take that time.”
Historically, several prominent sports figures have voiced their fear of flying. Some have found a way around the need to fly, choosing to hit the road instead. Most notably, longtime NFL head coach and broadcaster John Madden was famously averse to flying, choosing to travel to his television commenting duties across the country on a customized coach-bus. Before that, Madden was known to travel on the Amtrak train service.
However, unlike the NFL, which plays games only once a week, air travel in the NBA is an absolute necessity. The NBA’s schedule, which requires teams to play in a different part of the country on a very night-by-night basis isn’t practically suited for Madden-like accommodations. It is not uncommon for an NBA team to travel up to 50,000 miles throughout the course of an 82-game season, in non-pandemic years.
Mitchell cited the football coach’s difficulty with getting on a flight when describing his willingness to move past his fears, saying he can’t pull a “pull a John Madden and drive everywhere.”
“I understand I’ve got to fly,” said Mitchell. “I’ll calm down and I’ll be good.”
Utah will face the Chicago Bulls at Vivint Arena on Monday at 7 p.m. The Jazz’s next road game is scheduled for Monday against the Dallas Mavericks.