Being a Utah Jazz fan is hard. Paradoxically, for me, this team has been a significant resource for elation and excitement for a few fleeting moments, and a source of heartbreak and despair to fill in the gaps. It plays with my emotions, yet I’m always ready to be hurt again whenever the Delta Center illuminates for Jazz basketball. Why do I torture myself, though? If my support is in vain, why don’t I find another team to support? Why not focus on another sport or stop watching sports altogether? I watch and follow because the sport of basketball is beautiful, and no team encapsulates that beauty quite like that scrappy squad from Salt Lake City.
The New Orleans Jazz moved to Utah in 1979. A common practice when moving a professional sports franchise is to change the nickname of the team. When the Seattle Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City, they became the Thunder in reference to the "Tornado Alley" storms that plague Oklahoma. When the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans, they became the… Pelicans. Which is cool, I guess.
Since the move to Salt Lake City, the Jazz have ignored every suggestion to change the team’s name. "The name doesn’t make any sense!" "No one plays jazz in Utah!" "They should change their name to the Mountain Elk!" I’ve heard each of these while living in Utah (and the last one was just a bad idea), and they’re all dead wrong. Jazz is the perfect name for this basketball team, and I’ll tell you why.
Jazz. It was born and had become synonymous with the culture of New Orleans, where the Jazz basketball team also took root. Many are relatively indifferent about jazz —it largely doesn’t have a great reputation outside of New Orleans — many find it difficult to follow, and even more refuse to take the time to listen. In theory, jazz music is a celebration of musicians’ talents on display coming together to create something new and spectacular. When done well, professional jazz musicians have a special ability to create synergy in their performances. In practice, though, this isn’t always the case. If done poorly, jazz music can feel aimless, directionless, and completely unnecessary.
I once attended a jazz performance that lasted over 4 hours. For the first hour, their music was pleasant, if not repetitive. Fortunately, the music served as background noise while I ate and talked with my friends. The night took a turn when it fully leaned into being a concert. At first, the music was jiving and full of energy, but it wasn’t long before each song began to drag for longer than 10 minutes, with each musician taking their turn to come to the front for their solo, no matter the instrument. At first, it was fun, but like many things in life, this becomes much less charming as you enter the third hour.
The issue wasn’t the quality of the music — the musicians were quite talented — it was how these musicians collectively missed the entire point of the medium. Jazz sounds best when played together. When one player takes center stage for longer than a few moments, the entire band’s impact is diminished. A jazz band reaches its potential when each instrument compliments the others — a synergetic symphony.
Aren’t we talking about basketball, though? What does this have to do with the Utah Jazz? This has everything to do with the Utah Jazz and I’ll tell you why.
The history of the Utah Jazz is similar to the dynamic setting on a treadmill; you shouldn’t get too comfortable going uphill or downhill. Sometimes the speed is unbearably fast and sometimes the speed is painfully slow, but at all times the treadmill continues to move forward. If you’ll please allow me to demonstrate the highs and lows of the Utah Jazz’s history, you may view the team from a fresh perspective…
In the beginning, Pistol Pete created the jump shot and the crossover. The Pistol Pete era was the true beginning of Jazz basketball. Pete Maravich was an incredible college athlete. At LSU, Pete averaged 44.2 points per game without a 3-point line. With the Jazz, he displayed a flashy playstyle complete with dizzying dribble moves and mind-bending passes. Once during a game, he attempted a pass where his hand rapidly orbited the ball in mid-air several times before slapping it to his teammate near the sideline. When the referee called a travel, he shouted, "You can’t call that a travel — you’ve never seen anything like that before!" That quote is the perfect way to describe how he played: we have never seen anything like him.
After Pistol Pete’s departure, the Jazz were a very quiet team. They had talented players, but the music was in a bit of a lull. The players looked at each other as if to say, "What now?" Adrian Dantley and Darrel Griffiths were exciting and talented players, but the Jazz couldn’t overcome being a middling presence in the greater NBA.
After a period of darkness, the Golden Age of Jazz basketball was then ushered in by John Stockton and Karl Malone. If you ask your dad about the Jazz, he will tell you all about the Stockton-to-Malone connection. Stockton, who is still the all-time leader in assists and steals, and Malone, who won the MVP award in 1997 and 1999. These players led the Jazz to the NBA Finals in ’97 and ’98 and could have won if it weren’t for the buzzsaw that was Micheal Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Despite the duo never usurping Jordan’s reign over the NBA, Stockton and Malone have been forever cemented as legends of the game.
How were these two different from other tandems in the history of basketball? Why do they make the Jazz special? The magic of the Stockton-to-Malone connection was how the Jazz shared the ball and played as one. If one player had a move to make, the other gave them the space to do so. Teammates were happy to see the other shine for the good of the team.
In the context of jazz music, individual sacrifice for the benefit of the whole is the most important aspect of excellence. In the case of Stockton finding his open teammates, if he let the ball stick in his hands instead of playing complimentary, the team wouldn’t meet the same level of success. Jazz, like basketball, is a team sport. It should never be played in a "your turn, my turn" style. The artists must contribute as the song necessitates; that’s what makes music — and basketball — so beautiful.
As the Stockton-Malone era faded in Utah, a dark age of Jazz basketball began. Headstrong stars battled with coaches and teammates for control of the team. This period of Jazz history was my introduction to fandom. Deron Williams’ feud with Jerry Sloan sent him to New Jersey and led to a period of rebuilding that made up most of my early Jazz memories.
In recent years, the Jazz saw a new star tandem light up the NBA and bring an era of hope and excitement that hadn’t been felt since the days of Stockton and Malone’s Finals runs. High-flying rim-rocker Donovan Mitchell and shot-blocking savant Rudy Gobert led their 2021 team to the best record in the NBA. A team that was near the top of the league in both offensive and defensive production, they were considered legitimate championship contenders. Painfully, as we learned after years of postseason heartbreak, the ceiling of this team was in the second round of the playoffs; they couldn’t break through.
This team had many problems. A lack of perimeter defense to support the world’s best interior defenders, for instance, allowed opponents like the Clippers to hit an unstoppable amount of 3-pointers. Donovan Mitchell had beef with Rudy Gobert, a fellow All-Star. One statistic showed that Mitchell began to stop passing to Gobert, averaging 2 passes per game. Coach Quin Snyder didn’t have answers for his opponents’ in-game adjustments. Despite the clear talent present on Utah’s roster, they had a limit, and after the 2022 season, the consensus was that a team with once great potential had peaked.
In 2023, new owner Ryan Smith and GM Danny Ainge wanted a fresh slate. To accomplish this, they traded their stars, Mitchell and Gobert, to bring in new young players. They brought in players like Lauri Markkanen, Colin Sexton, and Walker Kessler to build a new team from the ground up.
Unintentionally, by creating a team that loves to play in unison with each other, they jumpstarted their rebuild with a super-powered engine. In today’s NBA, a new sound comes together when the Jazz play. While they aren’t setting the world on fire, they continue to be a solid team with promising young talent. Most importantly for fans like myself, though, they are fun to watch and easy to cheer for.
Over its history, the Utah Jazz has been the home of beautiful, synchronous basketball, less-than-impressive results, and everything in between. As a fan, I’ve had to acknowledge that I will likely never see the team lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy after winning the NBA Finals. As a small market team, they will never be able to add players like larger LA, New York, or Miami.
Taking a step back, I’ve been able to see the historic rhythm and flow of a team that represents far more than basketball. Like a jazz band, their song is full of swells and lulls but always seems to be moving somewhere, even when no one is quite sure where that destination may be. Being an observer can be excruciating when you feel your team is moving in the wrong direction. If the melody was incredible in the most recent chorus, full of harmonizing horns and persistent piano, one might be disappointed to only hear a simple bass line for a moment. But the trained ear knows that the bass line isn’t a sign of the song’s demise; the bass line is the beat that keeps the song alive.
Even though the Jazz may never reach the end of their song, I’ll be sitting front and center holding to every last note — every last point — anticipating the moment they reach the pinnacle of basketball achievement. Being a Jazz fan is hard, but stay the course and you may one day witness something truly noteworthy.