SALT LAKE CITY – Damned if this alleged “small market” doesn’t have a place-to-be vibe these days, something almost cosmo and maybe even nibbling at chic. There’s so much swirling around this second pinnacle in the 42-year history of the eccentrically named “Utah Jazz” that the themes do cram the skull.
There’s the element of sports and the generations, given the Jazz’s No. 1 playoff seedings tucked neatly apart (1997, 1998, 2021), which brings the occasional sighting of Karl Malone or John Stockton jerseys upon young adults who spoke gibberish at best while Malone and Stockton played. There’s the eternal value of one smashing superstar with one gracious personality that flatters his parents – in this case Donovan Mitchell, his appeal reflected in the No. 45 jerseys de rigueur around town.
There’s the idea of “small-market” fans reveling in small-market-ness against the metropolises and their snoots and their TV-ratings worrywarts. There’s a veritable tutorial on the fact that while sports fans through time have proved excellent at fretting, at whining, at drinking, at blaming, at hoping and at howling, they have really mastered the art of waiting.
They have done some waiting here since those NBA Finals of 1997 and 1998, when Utah played its crucial role in the Michael Jordan saga. In the energy of 2021, you might just sense the value of the wait.
“You can’t ignore the Jazz,” said Thurl Bailey, the Salt Lake City mainstay and sage who played here from 1983 to 1991 and in 1999. “You just can’t. They’ve earned their way here. That’s no fluke. They came out No. 1 in the regular season, and that’s not a fluke. That’s a story. Whether you want to cover it or not, whether you want to admit it or not, there’s something going on here.”
There’s something going on here, so look: Full-capacity crowds have returned. The Western Conference semifinals have begun, with the Jazz holding a 2-1 edge over the Los Angeles Clippers heading into Monday’s game in L.A. The teams return to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, where the Utah faithful will be in full force.
Jazz player Bojan Bogdanovic has called the noise the loudest of his seven-year tour of the NBA. There’s a dude on a bike before Game 1 riding around with a speaker playing “Zombie Nation” and “Get Ready For This.” On an outdoor stairwell alone, a small part of the two lines for Game 2, there’s a Mitchell, two Mitchells together, and another Mitchell; on the other queue, a Mitchell, a Mitchell, a No. 27 (for Rudy Gobert, the NBA defensive player of the year, the French “Stifle Tower”), another Mitchell, another Mitchell.
Seemingly so many people here have the surname “Mitchell.”
Not far from the intersection of the chunk of 100 South known as Karl Malone Drive and the chunk of 300 West known as John Stockton Drive and not far from the Malone and Stockton statues, there’s a guy running to catch tip-off in a Miami Heat No. 2 Dwyane Wade shirt.
That’s not random here lately, either, what with Wade sitting courtside as a minority owner in the new group headed by 44-year-old billionaire Ryan Smith, who bought the club last year from the civically beloved Miller family.
All this follows a straight line of passion maybe from when the great Zelmo Beaty led the Utah Stars to the 1971 ABA title, but surely from 1983-84, that first Utah Jazz NBA playoff season, when Bailey could feel what he feels and what defies verbiage.
“You could start to see that fan base grow with us, if you will,” he said, “and there’s something, I haven’t been able to find a word for it, there’s an intensity. Maybe it’s because it’s the only (major pro sport) team in town. Maybe it’s because we’re just so into basketball.”
All this came from someone who tells of himself in 1983, a Black man from D.C. and N.C. State, reaching Salt Lake City and craving familiarity but finding it only among teammates yet finding also a culture “so inviting,” he said.
And now here come the budding contrasts to 1997-98 that sprout from the direct line of passion. “I think Utah has changed in that not only has it been able to share its culture,” Bailey said, “but they’ve been able to learn from folks like me, like Donovan.”
For one thing, whereas the 1998 team carried 14 Americans, the 2021 team has players from Nigeria, Croatia, France, Turkey, Australia, with lineage from at least Senegal and the Philippines, with Filipino American player Jordan Clarkson recently helping refurbish a local food truck that had suffered racist graffiti.
For another, sit outside during pregame in the heightened air of 2021 and hear here and there the basketball chatter in a pretty sound: Spanish.
With Latinos a backbone in the budding internationalism of this Olympic city, Nelson Moran gives a tour of the Spanish-language radio headquarters, south of downtown.
He has worked in radio since program-directing Radio Mil 80 in his native El Salvador, and he has that energy, often found in radio people, that screams he has located his passion in life.
He hosts the Spanish-language broadcasts of Jazz games on two stations, with Isidro Lopez doing play-by-play and Francisco Vazquez as color analyst.
“Ciento doce a ciento nueve!” Lopez exulted the score at the end of Game 1.
To hear Moran speak of the Jazz moment is to realize he has become one with the city to which he emigrated in 2001.
“We are basically dreaming,” he said. “We are hoping. We are praying. We feel this is our moment. This is our time.”
With the Spanish-speaking audience “night-and-day” larger than 11 years ago when Moran got started with the broadcast, he revels in being “so grateful for the opportunity to tell the audience the action, to tell the audience: ‘Hey, you have to work? Don’t worry. We’ve got you. We’ve got the game for you. If you are driving, working with delivery, don’t worry. We’ve got you.’ ”
And in a key feature of 2021, he joins those who don’t remember Malone and Stockton yet who know Malone and Stockton. Or, as Nate Martinez put it, “I think when people think of the Jazz still, they’re the two names they think of. They’re the Utah Jazz, and then Jerry Sloan. Those are the names that come to mind.”
Martinez knows because he hears all over the state. He’s the director of youth programs that include “Junior Jazz,” birthed in the olden days of 1982-83, seeing 65,000 kids per year through 120 parks-and-recreation departments. He can reel off names of those who played “Junior Jazz” as tykes, including Smith, the new owner. Martinez used to attend games with his grandmother, who died unfairly in 1996, and he sees the generations routinely and clearly. He says, “I would say there’s never been anything like when we were in the Finals. The whole city was on fire.”
Cole Bagley, 25, witnessed those 1998 Finals in person even if he can’t recollect any of it, but he does have photographic evidence. (His parents had season tickets.) He embodies the generational moment with an ecstasy about the present combined with an adoration for a past he technically never experienced.
“Even though I don’t remember them, you do have this connection,” said Bagley, these days a sports editor at the University of Utah student newspaper.
“The ’97 and ’98 Utah Jazz are almost part of your identity. They’re almost part of your family.” He calls them “enshrined.”
So this happens: “I grew up reminiscing about Stockton and Malone, wearing their jerseys to school, thinking of them, without really having seen them.” And this: “I would say they’re still two of my favorite players ever though the only experience I have watching them is probably highlights.” And this: His 8-month-old son went to his first Halloween wearing the very Stockton shirt his 25-year-old father used to wear.
Now, after 23 years and eight missed sets of playoffs, seven first-round exits, six stalls at the conference semifinals and one cameo in the 2007 Western Conference finals – Spurs, four games to one – here’s another moment, similar and different all at once.
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