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Home / Articles / Archive / Arts & Entertainment /  Black Elephant
Arts & Entertainment

Black Elephant

When it comes to NBA players in Utah, race is still the unspoken big critter in the room.

By Geoff Griffin
Posted // June 29,2007 -

As the names of draft picks get read off at the NBA Draft in Madison Square Garden, some of the world’s top basketball players who haven’t heard their names called yet will start worrying about when they will be taken. But, as the picks begin to wind down to the 25th spot held by the Jazz, some of those wannabes may be thinking, “Please, anywhere but Utah!?

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It’s no secret that Zion is not a desired destination for NBA players. One year ago, Sports Illustrated conducted a survey of 248 players. When asked which team they would least want to play for, the clear No. 1 answer was the Jazz, with 27 percent of players declaring that Utah is not The Place. With 30 cities to choose from, more than one in four of those with incredible elevation skills said the state that offers “Life Elevated” is the last place they would want to land. Players would rather leave the country and face the winters and taxes in Toronto (which took a distant second in the poll) than get stuck in Salt Lake City. Former NBA guard Derek Harper seemed to sum up the players’ position on the Beehive State 10 years ago when, asked about possibly being traded to the Jazz, he responded, “You go play in Utah.?

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The Utah media has come up with a familiar laundry list of reasons for why this is so. A year ago, the Jazz were not a playoff-caliber team. The Jazz have a grumpy coach who runs a boring offense. Utah is a small market that can’t bring the national spotlight. There’s a perception that Utah lacks night life'a perception the Jazz could address by sending NBA players and potential draft picks subscriptions to City Weekly to let them know something is going on here after 9 p.m.

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This list gets brought up every summer prior to the draft and during the free-agent signing period, always with the implication that the players don’t know what they’re missing. Why wouldn’t they want to come to a franchise that has a winning tradition, a bright future and an owner who is willing to spend money on salaries? They must not really care about basketball, so we’ll just take our ball and go home because we don’t want that kind of attitude here, anyway. But that doesn’t explain why the same Sports Illustrated poll found that the team players most wanted to play for was the San Antonio Spurs'who, like the Jazz, play in a small market and run a boring, old-school offense.

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The aforementioned laundry list always seems to conveniently skip over the elephant in the room when it comes to why so many NBA players might have an aversion to Utah: race. More specifically, the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints'and in the public mind in many parts of the country, the state of Utah and the LDS Church are interchangeable'with regard to race. Despite the increasing numbers of foreigners in the NBA, 75 percent of the players are still black, and despite changes in demographic trends within the state and expansion of the LDS faith outside of it, Utah is still seen as a place full of white Mormons.

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What happens when you try to mix the two? As the Rev. Al Sharpton pointed out earlier this year in a New York Daily News interview, “There is a long and painful history between the African-American community and the Mormon church.” While the mainstream media was busy ripping the reverend for his comments about Mormon beliefs, what got overlooked was the irony that, as Sharpton said on CNN, “I’m the one that belonged to a race that couldn’t join the Mormons, and I’m the one that is the bigot.” That observation still strikes a chord in many quarters.

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But of course, that’s all behind us, now that Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams are emerging Jazz superstars. Right?

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One has to wonder when one gets into a discussion with a Jazz fan who worships Stockton but berates Malone. One has to wonder when someone calls in to a local sports talk-radio station to state he misses the “calm, peaceful feeling” he used to get when former Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek (who is white) was shooting the ball, and that the jump shot is a lost art in today’s NBA. That’s generally code for saying that the league has become too black and needs more of a Hoosiers feel. While any one person can call in to a radio station and state an offbeat opinion, in this case, the show’s hosts and next five callers agreed with him'even though one of the Jazz weaknesses this year was that opposing outside shooters tended to go crazy on them.

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Only Jazz fans can look into their own hearts and decide whether race is still an issue. And then they need to sell that answer to the guys sitting in Madison Square Garden waiting for their names to be called.

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NBA Draft
nThursday, June 28
n5 p.m., ESPN
nLive coverage at EnergySolutions Arena

 
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