Utah Jazz’s Mike Conley on plane scare: ‘All of us on that flight were questioning whether we were going to be here’

As the Utah Jazz’s team charter plane tried to make an emergency landing after birds struck the plane’s engine on Tuesday afternoon, members of the organization could not help but think about the worst-case scenario.

“For a good 10-15 minutes, I think all of us on that flight were questioning whether we were going to be here today,” Jazz guard Mike Conley said following the team’s 111-107 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. “That’s how serious it was for us. I can’t speak for everybody. But I know guys were trying to text family just in case. It was that kind of situation.”

And it was a kind of situation the Jazz struggled processing. The Jazz’s plane landed safely at the Salt Lake City airport on Tuesday afternoon shortly after taking off for Memphis. The team eventually took another flight Tuesday evening and arrived in Memphis later that night.

Still, the Jazz have remained shook with what had happened in the previous 24 hours.

“I don’t know that an experience like that is just suddenly passed on and away,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Everybody is impacted in different ways, all very significant. It wasn’t something we were going to solve by just talking through everything. But I think it was important to acknowledge what we all went through.”

Here’s a look from @KSLChopper5 at fire crews escorting a Delta 757 across @slcairport. We don’t have a ton of info yet, but @flightradar24 shows the flight taking off and immediately returning to land. @KSL5TVpic.twitter.com/vL48pe4qPw

Therefore, the Jazz (36-11) permitted All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell to miss the game and stay in Salt Lake City for what the team described as “personal reasons.” Snyder declined to comment further on Mitchell’s absence and if Mitchell might miss future road games, saying, “I never comment on personal situations with any of our players; I hope you can respect that.”

But Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson reiterated respect for Mitchell sitting out.

“I understand fully why Don didn’t come. All of us were out of there in limbo,” Clarkson said. “It’s definitely something that you got to push through and get over it. That’s just a tough situation. I don’t think that’s happened many times on a plane ride. I talked to many of my friends that are in the league and they said that’s the biggest fear.”

After all, former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter (Gianna) and seven others died in a helicopter crash nearly 14 months ago. Following its loss to Baylor in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Michigan’s team plane made an emergency landing in Evansville, Indiana after departing from San Antonio and losing altitude and cabin pressure.

In the Jazz’s case, a team spokesperson said the team’s charter plane took off between 1:30–2 p.m. MT on Tuesday before birds struck the plane. The Jazz remembered the details vividly a day later.

After grabbing something out of his bag shortly before takeoff, Clarkson returned to his seat after takeoff only to hear what he called “a loud bang.” Clarkson turned toward Conley, who yelled out “those are the birds” as they passed by the window. When Clarkson peered out a window, he recalled “seeing the whole engine shaking.”

“All of a sudden, it felt like there was an explosion,” Conley said. “That’s what it sounded like for most people on the plane. We hit something big. The plane immediately started to bounce and started tilting. People in the back of the plane said they saw flames.”

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Jazz coach Quin Snyder talks to players during a timeout in Wednesday night's win over the Grizzlies. (Photo: Nelson Chenault, USA TODAY Sports)

The Jazz then had dark thoughts.

“Immediately, they’re probably thinking that the plane is fully caught on fire,” Clarkson said. “Just recalling that whole situation was pretty crazy. The whole plane just started shaking. It definitely was an experience that I’m happy we’re able to tell. A lot of us really came to a point at least 30 seconds in that flight that thought this might be over for us. It’s sad to say that.”

With nearly 10 to 15 minutes passing without any clarity from the pilots or flight attendants, it was hard not to think that way.

“No one really knows what’s going on. They are going through their protocols and checklist. While that’s happening, you’re in limbo,” Snyder said. “That’s a traumatic and eerie feeling. So anybody that’s been in those types of situations and they come in lots of different forms, in the moment and in hindsight, you have a gratitude and appreciation for the many people and relationships we all have in our lives.”

Hence, the Jazz started alerting family members and friends. Soon enough, they learned they would be okay.

“The flight attendants and pilots were very calm and basically telling us what happened and saying we lost the engine and we’re going to be able to land somewhere and turn the plane around. That was definitely a comforting thing,” Clarkson said. “But we were looking out the window and thinking, ‘Land anywhere; we don’t care; we can check everything else later once we get on the ground. Please just put this plane on the ground and let us live and get past this.’ But it was definitely a calming thing once the pilot got on there. He was super calm and let us know what was going on. We got back to the ground. Shout out to them for landing and getting us back safely.”

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