The Utah Jazz
The year is 1997. It’s winter. You are in downtown Salt Lake City. The Delta Center behind you. To your right, a beautiful, snow-covered, mighty mountain range towering in its purple and white majesty matches the ones worn proudly on the jerseys of the Utah Jazz. To your left is the Gateway Mall, the social heartbeat of Salt Lake City. Flags wave, and posters hang. As far as can be seen, there is only purple and blue. People shuffle around you. Excitement mixes with the fog and fills the air as people talk about the current Utah Jazz season. Optimistic words dance all around you like the falling snowflakes as conversions about the Utah Jazz take over the city.
Fast forward five months. It is now June. The sun is smiling down approvingly on the city. Before melting, the snow receded from the valley and briefly capped the tops of the Rockies as if our iconic mountains had crowned themselves the victors, then disappeared. The Finals are on, and, once again, they are right here in Salt Lake City. They have done it again. Another season of the 6'1'’ floor general, John Stockton harassing opposing point guards and dishing out dimes in record quantities to Jeff Hornacek and “The Mailman” Karl Malone, who has, once again, delivered. Only one team stands in our way before we can join our beloved mountains in crowning ourselves the victors. The sea of purple and blue that was nothing less than impressive five months ago has only grown. You stroll through the Downtown; restaurants, shops, and stores are all covered in purple and blue, their windows almost boarded shut plastered with newspaper clippings from The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News highlighting this year’s season. The people you encounter are almost suspiciously happy. If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake this ordinary June day for Christmas Eve with everyone cheering greeting one another with ecstatic and joyous salutations of “go Jazz” and as total strangers would emulate tendencies of best friends as they cross paths and end up spending time talking about the Jazz. Not a soul in the city wasn’t donned in purple and blue. Not a soul in the city wasn’t watching. Not a soul in the city wasn’t critically morally invested. The Salt Lake Valley had not been happier since that large flock of California gulls flew into The Valley and devoured the plague of crickets that were destroying the original settlers’ crops in 1848.
Fast forward again. It is now 2017. The palatial edifice that was once proudly coined The Delta Center has suffered many name changes and now bears a name most fans aren’t totally aware of. Many still call it the Delta Center and some the Energy Solutions Arena. Nothing is the same. The passionless city is dotted with billboards displaying the face of All-Star Gordon Hayward, with varying quips and anecdotes and the clever use of the new fan-invented hashtag #Stayward. All of it sending the very clear message from a starving desperate fan base to a hero: please stay. It was a valiant effort, but it failed. The only traces of this once-great franchise are the two bronze statues of seemingly forgotten heroes John Stockton and Karl Malone, proudly sending an unreceived message of unity, passion, and victory. Their legacy has long since been trampled on. Where banners hung throughout the city displaying the purple and blue of our Utah Jazz, now hang banners of a yellow and green, or nothing at all. The logo which portrayed our own magnificent mountain range has been replaced by one displaying a music note that belongs to the city of New Orleans. It seems now that after years of enjoyment our team has grown restless and feels as though it belongs back in its old city. A team once dedicated to Salt Lake City seems to be regretting the move it made here in 1978. A city once populated solely by Utah Jazz is now overrun by bandwagoners.
That feeling you felt standing in Salt Lake City in the late 1990’s has never been duplicated. That atmosphere has never since found place in our valley. Like Lake Bonneville, that sea of purple and blue has dried up in this ruthless desert. This city’s drought of wins has all but destroyed those hallowed colors. That same purple and blue once worn by five men on the hardwood and thousands on the streets is now worn by none. That same purple and blue that once hung proudly from every home and business has now been removed and often replaced, heartbreakingly, by colors of entirely different teams. That same purple and blue that once represented an entire community of dreams has now been reduced to nothing but a “throwback” and represents nothing but ruined dreams and almosts. That same purple and blue that was only thing that came close to dethroning the greatest man to ever play. Had it not been for the Jumpman himself, it would have been that same purple and blue that would have brought back-to-back championships to this well-deserving city. How movie-like it would have been. How scripted it would have seemed. But this city isn’t Hollywood. This city is Salt Lake.
Instead of back-to-back championships near the end of the century, the state of Utah was forced to endure a long winter, not unlike the ones our founders did. Like many winters in the Salt Lake Valley, it appeared suddenly and too soon only to melt away slowly. The arrival of the winter coincided with particular specificity with the resignation of Jerry Sloan. The years of winning, all overseen by Coach Sloan, were at one time, led by John Stockton and Karl Malone. Those years were chased gracefully away by more of the same, this time led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, still under the watchful eye of Coach Sloan. Those years were chased away by the worst record in almost a decade and the longest playoff drought in franchise history. Then, in 2016 the first All-Star selection and playoff appearance in five years seemed to indicate that winter was over. It wasn’t. This was merely the last winter storm. The kind that comes just as spring is supposed to break and brings with it piercing colds and biting winds. Although it was the very next season when the Jazz made the playoffs again, that final winter storm took its toll on the Salt Lake Valley.
Fast forward to today. The year is 2021. It’s spring. You are in downtown Salt Lake City. The Vivint Arena, with two magnificent statues, behind you. It seemed like the winter would never end, yet this ray of hope soon became what the last one merely pretended to be. The inversion lifted from the valley, spring returned to melt the snow until it sat like a crown on the caps of the mountains, and winter was finally over. The Salt Lake Valley, parts of which had never lost hope, has finally fallen fully back in love with the Utah Jazz. The Jazz seem to finally love Utah back. The state has fallen into a deep trance, finally being rewarded by the franchise. The purple jerseys were returned, new jerseys were introduced, All-Stars were selected, and ownership changed hands to a young, hungry, unapologetically dynamic tech billionaire determined to pursue change and progress on the court, in the city, and in the entire country. Flags wave, and posters hang. Excitement mixes with the sunshine and fills the air as people talk about the current Utah Jazz season. Optimistic words dance all around you as conversions about the Utah Jazz take over the city.
The Jazz have yet to win the finals. Not John Stockton Drive nor Karl Malone Drive has yet to be used for a championship parade, yet they both exist. Those streets, like the statues stationed outside the Vivint Arena, stand as tributes not only to the players that they represent, not only the years of success they brought to the franchise and not even the franchise itself but to Salt Lake City and the state of Utah. They stand as a reminder that the Utah Jazz basketball team is an organization that this state can be proud of and excited about. They stand as a recognition of us, the fans of the Utah Jazz, and our support, devotion, and passion.
The Jazz represent us and are a personification of our community. When the Jazz fell short of those two titles in the 90’s, it did not result in the community turning its back on the franchise because that team, like this one, is more than wins and losses. It’s an extension of us. The Jazz, then and now again, symbolize us and the pride we rightfully place in the team. It’s not just a basketball team we are proud of; when the Jazz so fully represent our community, we place our hope and pride not only in them and their ability to win games, but in ourselves, each other, our families, and the entire community.
This piece was originally an unfinished letter written in 2018. It was written to and about the Utah Jazz in regards to the perceived disconnect between the franchise and the community and the dismal state of the organization at the time, urging action, up to and including a change of ownership. It was completed and adapted to reflect recent events.