It was the summer of 2015.
Newcomers Lamar Jackson and Donovan Mitchell were just a couple of weeks into their courses on the University of Louisville’s campus when the true freshmen bumped into each other for the first time late one night.
Jackson, a quarterback, was kicking it with a few teammates while Mitchell — a guard for the basketball team — was hanging with the hoopers.
The introductions and casual conversation turned into friendly competition when they decided to enter the basketball program’s KFC Yum! Center practice facility for an impromptu dunk session.
There were no cameras. No media. No pressure. Just teenagers having fun.
“I was doing little basic dunks. … If we were talking about [NBA] 2K dunk comparisons, mine would be like generic, and his would be some crazy s— like Vince Carter or something,” Jackson told ESPN.
“It was impressive just to see him, and it was a few others and they were jumping and doing some stuff,” Mitchell recalled. “I’m like ‘Y’all might beat me if y’all actually focused on dunking and basketball,’ but I had to go out there and do some tricks myself and put that to bed.”
Now mentioned among the best at their positions in the NBA and NFL, the former Louisville classmates often reflect on those memories with great fondness.
Mitchell, 25, is a two-time NBA All-Star in his fifth season with the Utah Jazz, and he’s widely regarded as one of the most exciting young players in the league.
Jackson’s electrifying style has made him one of the faces of the NFL as he continues to break records as a 24-year-old quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens.
On Saturday, Jackson — who won the 2016 Heisman trophy and 2019 NFL MVP — will have his No. 8 jersey retired by Louisville during the Cardinals’ game against Syracuse (noon, ESPN3). He will join Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas as the only football players in school history to receive the honor.
“I can’t even explain it. Everyone keeps asking me like, ‘How do I feel about that?’ It’s really so many feelings in me right now about that situation,” said Jackson, who will be in attendance for the ceremony. “I’m still alive and I’m getting my jersey number retired from a DI school. That’s crazy.”
‘It’s constant support and love for each other’
On New Year’s Day 2019, Mitchell showed up at the Jazz’s game at the Toronto Raptors wearing Jackson’s purple No. 8 jersey.
Jackson, then a rookie, was days away from becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game. Mitchell sent a message telling Jackson how happy he was for him, well aware how far Jackson had come — from being drafted with the last pick of the first round and told by some NFL scouts he should consider switching positions.
Surely, Mitchell could relate.
During his rookie season in the NBA, Mitchell was doubted by critics early who said he was shooting too much. But his play eventually led the Jazz to a first-round upset over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I kind of just find ways to give him encouragement,” Mitchell said.
The messages of support have since continued. Last season, Mitchell sent a text of encouragement after the Ravens fell to the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round. And Jackson did the same when the Jazz were defeated by the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semis in June.
“I had hit him up. I told him, ‘You’ve got to keep going.’ Because I’d seen it in him. He was trying to get that NBA championship,” Jackson said. “He’s gonna get it one day. I feel like he is, with his passion for the game. He loves the game, and he’s got doubters and stuff. I see people talking about him.”
“It’s constant support and love for each other,” Mitchell said.
A new era
At first glance, Jackson was disappointed when he saw a No. 8 jersey sitting at his Louisville locker.
He’d worn No. 1 for much of his childhood before switching to No. 7 at Boynton Beach (Florida) High School.
“I’m hot. I’m mad,” Jackson said of seeing the number. “I’d seen [wide receiver] Alphonso Carter had No. 1, and he’s older, he’s like a junior at the time. So, now I’ve got to wait years or something to get this number back, but then I [called] my mom.”
Jackson’s mother, Felicia Jones, listened to her son vent before offering her feedback. After researching the number, she discovered that, in the Bible, the No. 8 represents a new beginning. After hearing that, Jackson’s mood changed.
“So, I’m like ‘new beginning?’ I kind of like that. So, I’m feeling like I’m different from everyone going into college so I’m like ‘new era,'” Jackson said. “So that’s how I got my Instagram name (@new_era8) with it. I put that new era with that. I’m like new era everything, I’m going to take over everything. That’s how I’m thinking.”
Now, Jackson’s No. 8 is one of the top 10 selling jerseys in the NFL.
Mitchell not only owns a Jackson jersey, he loves what it represents — a Black athlete challenging norms.
Living and playing in Utah, Mitchell has spoken out on racially charged incidents, most notably when vulgar and racist comments were directed at NBA guards Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies and Russell Westbrook, then of the Washington Wizards, inside Utah’s Vivint Arena. The organization banned those fans.
Mitchell also spoke out against a Utah charter school that was allowing parents to opt students out of Black History Month curriculum. The decision was later reversed after public outcry.
Jackson runs a free football camp for kids in his native South Florida called “Funday with LJ,” which provides free snacks and a designated food truck for the attendees.
While Mitchell won’t be in attendance for Jackson’s jersey ceremony in Louisville, with the Jazz hosting Miami, the honor signifies much more than an athletic achievement through his lens.
“The biggest thing in our individual ways, and in our own respective ways, we’re just showing our community that you can be great. You can also be a great person, a great advocate for the community and do big things,” Mitchell said.