Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell: How COVID-19 infected an already tense relationship in Utah

Sporting News

If the Jazz had it their way, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell would be the modern version of Karl Malone and John Stockton, a big man and a guard working in concert both on and off the court to deliver success to the Utah franchise.

Yet the relationship between Gobert and Mitchell feels more like that of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The bad news for Utah is that comparison is drawn because Gobert and Mitchell aren't exactly the best of friends. At least Shaq and Kobe helped Los Angeles win three NBA championships after Malone and Stockton failed to win one.

Talent level and superstardom aside, there's another key difference between today's Gobert-Mitchell pairing and yesterday's Shaq-Kobe duo: O'Neal never pissed off Bryant by recklessly exposing him to an infections disease during a global pandemic.

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MORE: Everything to know about the NBA bubble

The strained relationship between the Jazz's top two players is far from a secret, so Mitchell shunning Gobert for a month after the guard potentially contracted the coronavirus from the center was not too surprising. Yet as Utah prepares to resume its season in the NBA bubble, both players seem at peace with whatever tension exists between them.

"It's never going to be perfect," Gobert, 28, recently said regarding his relationship with the 23-year-old Mitchell. "Sometimes we're going to be very happy, and sometimes we're going to be frustrated with each other. But as long as we, as men, respect each other and keep things between him and myself, and approach it as men, we're going to be fine."

Gobert delivered that quote as part of a lengthy ESPN article that dives deep into his relationship with Mitchell, who declined interview requests for the story. For Mitchell's part, he told reporters in early July that he and Gobert were "good" and "ready to hoop" despite an ugly period while the NBA was on its hiatus.

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Long story short: Gobert and Mitchell, who have been paired as teammates for just two-plus seasons, are still working on their dynamic as co-stars in Utah. Gobert is the more tenured player who views himself as the demanding team leader and an underrated center in the NBA. Mitchell is the flashy young guard who leads the team in points per game but, as Gobert has publicly pointed out, isn't exactly known for his passing.

Yet Utah has made the playoffs in both seasons since Mitchell arrived, with Gobert winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year in each season and with both players earning their first career All-Star nods in 2020. On the court, at least, the pairing seems to be working, and the Jazz by all accounts plan to keep both Mitchell and Gobert in place as the team builds around them.

Which is to say Utah better hope the COVID-19 incident of 2020 has not actually made the Gobert-Mitchell relationship "unsalvageable," as it has been described.

Below is a quick timeline detailing what went down between the Jazz's top players while the NBA season was suspended as a result of Gobert's positive test in March.

Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell: The COVID-19 timeline

March 9: Gobert, after discussing the Jazz's new COVID-19 protocols during a media conference, jokingly touches every mic and recorder in front of him before he leaves, seemingly mocking the threat of the virus.

March 11: Shortly after the Jazz and the Thunder tip off in Oklahoma City, the NBA announces it has suspended the 2019-20 season after Gobert tests positive for COVID-19. The Thunder television crew had reported that there were concerns over the health of Gobert and teammate Emmanuel Mudiay, but especially Gobert. Both players had been listed as questionable for the game because of illness. Gobert reportedly was ready to play had he not tested positive for COVID-19.

March 12: ESPN reports Mitchell also has tested positive for the coronavirus, and that "Jazz players privately say Gobert had been careless in the locker room touching other players and their belongings." Mitchell is the only other Utah player or personnel member to test positive for the virus.

March 12: Gobert apologizes for his "careless" behavior and says he has felt "fear, anxiety and embarrassment" since learning his diagnosis.

March 12: Gobert, whose fear that Mitchell is mad at him is confirmed by ESPN's reporting, attempts to contact Mitchell after learning the latter had tested positive. But Mitchell doesn't respond to calls, texts or Instagram direct messages.

March 16: Mitchell during an interview on "Good Morning America" is asked whether he has spoken to Gobert since both tested positive. Without answering the question, he responds, "To be honest with you, it took a while for me to kind of cool off. I read what he said and heard what he said. I'm glad he's doing okay, I'm glad I'm doing well."

March 27: Gobert, Mitchell and the rest of the Jazz's team and staff are medically cleared by state officials after observing a two-week period of self-isolation. The team announces that the Utah Department of Health had determined that the players and staffers "no longer pose a risk of infection to others." The NBA season, though, remains suspended.

April 10: In a report published by The Athletic, a source says the relationship between Gobert and Mitchell "doesn't appear salvageable," adding that "Mitchell remains reluctant to fix what might have been broken."

Mid-April (date unclear): Gobert and Mitchell finally speak about a month after the suspension of the NBA season. "We told each other what we had to say to each other," Gobert later says of the talk. "We are both on the same page. We both want to win. We both think that we have a great opportunity, and we know that we need each other. We talked about a lot of things, but the main thing was that we are on the same page and the fact that our team needs us. We can win together. That's the most important thing."

April 12: Gobert in an interview with Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks admits "it's true that (he and Mitchell) didn't speak for a while" but had spoken in recent days. "We're ready to win a championship," Gobert says. "It's far from perfect, but at the end of the day we both want the same thing. We're grown men, and we're both going to do what it takes to win."

May 5: Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey claims Gobert and Mitchell have made the necessary repairs to their relationship: "At the most basic level, they know they need each other to accomplish the goals that we want to accomplish, to be the last team standing in the NBA."

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July 2: For the first time since the GMA interview in March, Mitchell comments on the Gobert situation during a conference call with reporters. He claims the two have moved on but also confirms the tension between the two was real. "Right now, we're good," he says. "We're going out there ready to hoop. I think the biggest thing that kind of sucked was that it took away from guys on the team, took away from what the guys on the team were trying to do. ... Rudy and I had COVID and whatever happened, happened, but now we're ready to hoop."

Mitchell also is asked why it took him so long to publicly address what everybody recognized as a rift with Gobert, and specifically about The Athletic's report that described their relationship as irreparable. "We know what it is internally as a team, and that should be it," Mitchell says. "That's part of that maturity and growing up. I could have easily gone back and forth with whoever on Twitter and kind of addressed it, but I'm just like, you know what, there's no need for that.

"My teammates and my coaches know how I feel, and I feel like that was over with. That's it, and I'm leaving it at that."

July 26: The on-court chemistry between Mitchell and Gobert appears back on track during a scrimmage with the Heat inside the NBA bubble. “People didn’t have much to talk about for four months,” Gobert says when asked whether the conflict with Mitchell was overblown. “Now that we’re back playing, I think it’s time to put it behind. I get asked about it every day. I can understand. But I hope there are some more interesting topics now.”

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