Thomas S. Monson and the Paradoxes of the Utah Jazz

By November 17, 2008

“You go live in Utah.”

– Point guard Derek Harper to reporters, explaining why he refused to report to the Utah Jazz after being traded to the Salt Lake team

I’ve been alarmed to note that a particularly symbolic cultural recalibration that the Monson administration has wrought has gone largely overlooked.[1]  We used to have a church president who visited the locker rooms of the BYU football team in order to instruct the players not to “muff it.”   Today, however, the team that reaps the undoubtedly vast rewards of prophetic beneficence is the Utah Jazz. [2]

Now, granted, Thomas Monson may be indifferent to the larger circles of meaning rotating around his choice of entertainment, and nothing more than a pro basketball fan.  These are not unusual creatures along the Wasatch Front  However, as will be further explored below, the cultural significance of their presence there is often missed.  So it behooves us to think a bit more deeply about the sport and its particular manifestations in the geographical and cultural landscapes of Mormondom.

Now, I would not go so far as to say that the events of March 28 mean Dave Rose or Mark Madsen have any real shot at transcending bridesmaid status and breaking up the ongoing love affair between the Mormons of Utah and the BYU football program; indeed, I am sure we can count on Cougar allusions in the General Conference of the Church to continue to amuse Rocky Mountain Latter-day Saints and confuse those outside the country for years to come.  Both the devotion of the fanbase and the General Conference call-outs are, in and of themselves, meaningful and provocative.  They tell us that enjoying BYU football is a tribal act.[3]

For other equally Mormon reasons, however, we could have seen that fateful Thomas-Monson-to-Jerry-Sloan, prophet-to-head-coach backslap coming.  Basketball has not come out of nowhere to compete for the Mormon soul.  Church leagues have a long and noble history of socializing the youth of Zion (mostly by instituting behavioral “guidelines” upon young folk who wanted to play and whisking them away from out of door courts into the easily monitorable sanctuary of the local stake house). [4]

How do these two things compare?  Well, institutionally speaking, the Mormons of Utah watch football, but they play basketball.

(Except for Turkey Bowls.)

Anyhow, so far, so good.  Here’s the question: the Jazz?  The Jazz are not a mechanism of ecclesiastical control like church ball; they are not a celebratory locus of communal identity like the Cougars.  Rather, the Jazz are – or are supposed to be – a cultural bridge.  They arrived in Utah amidst much fanfare in 1979.  Larry Miller, a local auto dealer, kept them there in 1985 when he bought the team.  Miller and the schemers of 1979 – businessman Sam Bettistone, Deseret News editor Wendell Ashton – all rhapsodized about how the Jazz would make Salt Lake a more cosmopolitan city.[5]  Now Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Herb Kohl had a reason to visit Utah!   The Jazz were supposed to make Mormon Utah less, not more, like itself, to integrate the state even more tightly into the cultural networks that bound American society together, to help the state look, to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase, like America.

While, of course, Larry Miller is a Mormon and the team has occasionally featured an LDS player or two (Tom Chambers!  The incomparable Thurl Bailey (post 1995)!), in general the Jazz have done this sort of work well.  If there’s a word other than ‘Mormon’ that comes to the mind of your average citizen of the world when they hear ‘Utah,’ it’s either ‘Stockton’ or ‘Malone.’ (Or, um, ‘Jazz.’)  Their multivalent presence, for example, was key to Salt Lake’s successful bid for the 2002 winter Olympics, from the plausibility of the Delta Center as a figure skating venue to the rabid sports fan base that filled the Center to capacity every night to the hunger of Olympic Committee members for playoff tickets (this was a Finals run year, lest we forget), all proving to the world that Salt Lake was a grown up sports city. [6]   Mormons now have a compelling reason to join rank with the millions of Americans who are Laker haters or who not-so-secretly resent Michael Jordan.   Sports is a common tongue in American culture.  Finally, the Jazz front office has, perhaps inadvertently but also indisputably, consistently constructed teams that resemble global cultural dynamics more than the population of the Wasatch Front.  The Jazz were among the first teams to began drafting international players seriously in the late 1990s, picking the Russian pogo stick Andrei Kirilenko and the floppy haired Spanish point guard Raul Lopez before anyone else in the NBA knew who these people were.   The Jazz are the WTO of pro basketball.

So, in one sense, Thomas Monson’s implicit endorsement of the Jazz is symbolic of a version of Mormonism that has since the mid-nineties risen to supplant the retrenchment-era faith of the 1950s through 1980s.[7]  While retrenchment Mormonism was looking to re-establish its uniqueness credentials and was therefore suspicious of the outside world and hostile to modern American culture, the Mormonism of Gordon B. Hinckley was familiar with the mass media and comfortable with going to the movies once in a while.  (Except for Chicago.)

But here’s what’s weird.  In a different sense, Monson’s visit to the EnergySolutions Arena is a brilliant strategem that affirms Mormon distinctiveness at the same time as it makes all the culturally ecumenical gestures I note above.   At the same time as the Jazz were supposedly making Salt Lake City matter to the rest of the country (and vice versa), a few years ago 27% of NBA players said Utah was the team they’d least like to play for.   This is because the Jazz are routinely called out among pro basketball fans for being – get this – too much like their state, by which is meant too much like the Mormons.

One way this is so is racial. The Jazz, according to their detractors, are a racist team.  This is supposedly in some way connected to the demographic of the state and the consequent sensibilities of the management.

Another: the Jazz are boring.  It is widely believed that, like the culture of their city, while on the court they spurn that which is titillating and exciting in favor of that which is safe, bland, and predictable.

I would argue that the second is more fundamental, because what is interesting about both criticisms is not the question of accuracy but the ways in which they reveal cultural predilections.  And the relevant demographic for both is at base religious.

First, race.  Though the shorthand among fans for both the above undesirable characteristics is often ‘white,’ Salt Lake City’s racial demographics are comparable to those of several other NBA cities whose teams are not so labeled.[8]   Critics point to the makeup of the team, which has featured three or four Caucasian players in the rotation for the past decade or so.[9]   What is interesting about this accusation, however, is that fully half of the relevant players are European.  As the rest of the NBA has caught up with the Jazz in overseas scouting, the Jazz have become increasingly typical.[10]

These sort of statistical arguments, however, don’t get at the more nebulous issues of style and play.  And here we loop back to the YMMIA Sports League.

A central argument of basketball’s Progressive (and Mormon) advocates back in the 1920s went like this: Basketball encourages young men to work together.  It teaches them the importance of functioning within a hierarchical structure in which each individual has particular tasks to the attainment of larger goals.  It brings individual creativity into loyalty to the common cause. Basketball is the cure for urban anomie and the alienation of modern society.  Further, it makes you healthy.   This is why playing basketball (rather than wrestling or ice hockey or some such) remains a central pillar of the Young Men’s program.

A common complaint about modern basketball is that the balance and communal ethos of the team has been sacrificed upon the altar of stars who can dunk.  That is, the modern NBA is diametrically opposed to the Mormon basketball ethos.  This crime is laid at the feet of many culprits: Spike Lee, Nike, Michael Jordan, hip hop, David Stern, ESPN.    And it’s somewhat overstated; there’s a great deal of good and entertaining team basketball in the NBA today. [11]

Now, what these people are really complaining about is the demise of an old Progressive ethos: that sports are not entertainment, for the viewers or for the players.  Rather, sports are supposed to be good for you.[12]   They are supposed to teach you valuable lessons about teamwork and self-discipline, not reward you with adulation and groupies for waving off your teammates so you can pull off a Statue of Liberty dunk on Erick Dampier’s head.  For some reason, these virtues are no longer associated with things like fast breaks, alley-oops, and headbands.

Now, as I already indicated, teamwork and hard defense and self-sacrifice and the rest have hardly vanished from the NBA.  But – and here’s the key – of all the franchises across the country, the constellation of conditions that give the perception of the presence of these virtues aligns most perfectly over EnergySolutions Arena.  Utah remains the bastion of Progressive era basketball.  Which is why the Jazz are so often lauded for their old school ethos, and why, perhaps, they represent pro basketball as a Mormon prophet could enjoy it.

The Jazz have a coach who prefers layups over any other sort of shot.  Contrary to what one might think, this is not an uncommon strategy.   Fortunately, Jerry Sloan also talks a lot about “playing the game the right way” and doesn’t allow his players to play in untucked shirts and is a hardnosed farmer in the offseason.   The Jazz may not target white players, but they certainly target players who lack outsized personalities or celebrity appeal.[13]   Sloan talks a lot and openly about the work ethic of his players. Finally, Larry Miller is a noted curmudgeon.

The past few years the Jazz have been near the top of the league in points per game.  Contrary to common perception, they actually play at a fairly quick pace.  Dunks and alley-oops have been on the rise since Andrei Kirilenko and Ronnie Brewer joined the team. But the concievably negative narratives associated with those things are overwhelmed by competing narratives – represented by Sloan’s discipline and Miller’s entrepreneuralism – which Thomas Monson can endorse.  Their actual play on the court is similar to a great number of other teams in the league.  But the meanings they represent exemplify the continuing cultural tensions of being Mormon in the twenty-first century.


[1] Kudos, however, must be offered to Kevin Barney’s continued intrepid coverage of prophetic leisure; see for example  here and here.

[2] Transcendent photographic evidence here.  I have difficulty expressing the amusement I reap from this photo.  It’s a remarkable shot; for some reason the expressions, body language, facial hair and garb of the people in it are much more expressive and colorful and hilarious than one would think the random populace of a candid photograph would have any right to be.

[3] This, of course, is not a particularly unusual phenomenon, and is only one of several interesting ways in which sports participates in broader cultural dynamics.  The Catholic kid Rudy wanted to play for Notre Dame, not UTEP.

[4] See Richard Ian Kimball, Sports in Zion: Mormon recreation, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2003) 95-96, 104-107.

[5]Jeff Metcalf, “Home Court Advantage,” Salt Lake Magazine (November 1991);”Jazz at 35: Jazz’s Years in New Orleans were No Mardi Gras,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 19, 2008, c1.

[6] Kirk Johnson, “Tarnished Gold: a special report,” New York Times (March, 11 1999) 1.

[7] The term “retrenchment” is of course Armand Mauss’s, from The Angel and the Beehive: the Mormon struggle with assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994).

[8]  It is true that Salt Lake City has fewer African Americans than any other NBA city.   However, whites make up roughly the same portion (roughly 75% – 80%) of Salt Lake City residents as they do in the NBA cities of Seattle, Portland, Oklahoma City (where the Sonics recently moved), or Orlando.  See here, here and here, respectively.

And while we’re here: Nobody calls the Portland Trailblazers racist, in part because until recently the Trailblazers were dogged by a number of stereotypically African American problems involving drugs and violence.   Indeed, the series of incidents led to the amusing nickname of “Jailblazers” and the unfortunate reduction of an entire franchise to the status of dead horse for the All That’s Wrong With the NBA Today mob.  Weirdly, over the same period of time that the Blazers were shedding that reputation, several Jazz players were involved in incidents like a bar fight, lying to police, and statutory rape, and yet the Jazz continued to own a reputation for uptightness throughout the NBA.  The power of perception.

[9] John Stockton is clearly the most important of these, but also relevant have been Greg Ostertag, Jeff Hornacek, and Lopez (all since retired, or fled back to Europe), as well as Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring, and Mehmet Okur (all still with the team).  Possibly relevant in the future: Kosta Koufos, Kyrylo Fesenko.

[10] Twenty percent of the players in the NBA today are international; this is more than double the ratio of eight years ago.   The mighty Lakers regularly played four Caucasian players, two who started, in the 2007-8 season.  Three of them (Vujacic, Gasol, Radmanovic) were international.

[11] See the Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons, until both sacrificed their chemistry in recent desperate trades. Heck, the Lakers, the Spurs, Boston also.

[12] See Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Harvard, 2003) 20.

[13] This is why they passed up Chris Paul.  That and the fact Paul is six feet if he stands on his tiptoes.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History Popular Culture Race


  1. Great analysis, Matt. I’d add another important element though, Jazz fans. They’re notorious around the NBA for being loud and obnoxious, and seem to think that their team is the best in the league, year after year, in spite of the obvious evidence to the contrary. How do these folks fit into this symbiotic relationship?

    Furthermore, how do the self-proclaimed “Jazz haters,” individuals living in Utah that go to the Delta Center, er, Energy Solutions Arena, ready to bash on the Jazz while rooting for the other team? These folks derive great pleasure from seeing the Jazz lose, heckling the players (Karla Malone!), and thereby enraging Jazz fans.

    (Full disclosure: I’m proud to be a Jazz hater, and I’m not the only one 😉 )

    Comment by David G. — November 17, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  2. I was in the MTC in the winter of 1998. The visiting GA proudly announced the score of the Jazz-Bulls game before he began his talk. The Jazz won, to the near applause of several hundred missionaries.

    Other thoughts:

    There’s a long list of NBA players who were offered contracts to play in Utah, but took less money to play elsewhere. Among those are Derek Harper, Brian Williams (Bison Dele), and Rony Seikaly.

    The Jazz were almost unanimously voted the dirtiest team in the NBA by their peers with Stockton taking much of the blame. But anyone who’s played “church ball” appreciated his style.

    ESPN said the three states whose citizens were most passionate about basketball were #1 Indiana, #2 North Carolina and #3 Utah.

    Comment by Tim J — November 17, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  3. Here’s a great quote from Rick Majerus (former U of U coach) about basketball in Utah:

    There are good Mormons, rogue Mormons, drunk Mormons, polygamy Mormons. But one thing they all have in common is basketball.

    Comment by Tim J — November 17, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

  4. The most interesting article I’ve ever read about basketball, really. I think I might check out that Muscular Christianity book, the whole Progressive influence was never a thought in my mind until now. Thanks!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 17, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

  5. This was a fun post, Matt. Thanks for bringing two of my life’s greatest loves–Mormonism and basketball–together.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

  6. the self-proclaimed ?Jazz haters,? individuals living in Utah that go to the Delta Center, er, Energy Solutions Arena, ready to bash on the Jazz while rooting for the other team?


    Do you mean “Jazz haters” like these guys?

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  7. So, you give the reason for young men’s basketball, but what about young women’s basketball? In what ways is basketball supposed to be “good” for them? Or is young women’s basketball about as flattering as Title 9 or the WNBA? Obviously my questions point to larger questions for women within American culture, but they also point to questions about women in Mormonism. Would you say that the short-lived existence of the Starzz in Utah is revealing of Mormonism’s true feeling towards women and sports? Is basketball only nominally part of the church recreation culture for women, or is it actually contributing to the “good” of those women? And if so, what is that good?

    And this turns into a personal question, in my basketball playing days, was I more my father’s child or my mother’s in terms of ideology–the idea that sports are good for you (my dad) or the idea that women should have the same opportunities as men (my mom)? And I don’t know if I could even say that those ideologies were exclusively their own. Both would subscribe to both ideologies, I think. But I honestly don’t know of too many young women who got up at 6 a.m. during the summer to play b-ball with the high priests, although I know plenty of gals who were much better players than I was. I think I was wanting to make a cultural statement. And I just really loved to play.

    Comment by Elizabeth — November 17, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

  8. p.s. Chris, love the photos. The man in the blue pull-over is suspiciously Cubanesque-looking. Is it true?

    Comment by Elizabeth — November 17, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

  9. The man in the blue pull-over is suspiciously Cubanesque-looking. Is it true?

    You better believe it.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

  10. I <3 matt b.

    Comment by Kristine — November 17, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  11. Thanks, folks.

    Dave – This is a good point, though I wonder which teams fans are not loud and obnoxious and sometimes delusional. The inhabitants of Arco? Dee-Troit basket-ball boosters? Heck, Knicks fans?

    Certainly, there should be a place for fans here, but teasing out the distinction between those of Utah and those elsewhere seems like it would be a delicate and perhaps unfruitful task.

    Tim – Yes. The dirtiness (or, one might protest, grittiness) of Stockton and Malone is a topic well worth thinking about. My impression is that their style was much more common back in the 1980s; the Detroit Bad Boys, the brawls between the Lakers and Celtics. It became rather anachronistic in the 1990s, until the Knicks and Heat began trying to win while scoring as little as possible.

    Elizabeth – Actually, Kimball addresses YW basketball tournaments in the 1920s; there were some, but contemporary documentation is much sparser than it is for the boys. Which probably seems familiar.

    As a former Starzz season ticket holder (yep), I’d probably argue that their failure in Utah is symptomatic of the larger problems that female professional sports face. The WNBA is still dependent upon NBA subsidies, and I think it would probably require a transformation in both national attitudes about encouraging girls in sports and national sensibilities about why sports is entertaining before that changes.

    Comment by matt b. — November 18, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  12. Oh, and I double <3 Kristine.

    Comment by matt b. — November 18, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  13. matt b.,

    This post is a three-pointer, from way downtown.

    Also, it is wonderful to see certain people proclaim their love for Sarah Palin, even to the point of wearing t-shirts. You maveriks know who you are.

    Comment by Mark Brown — November 18, 2008 @ 7:06 am

  14. Basketball? Is that some kind of game? 😉

    Comment by BruceC — November 18, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  15. All the Jazz haters I grew up with (and I spit in their general directions) complained more than anything about how boring, low-key, and inexciting the Jazz players and style of play was.

    Rick Majerus called John Stockton an “assassin” on the floor, and he was indeed feared and reviled. Pound for pound, the greatest pick-setter in the history of the game. The stort shorts were wierdly wholesom.

    Only Stockton could make dirty seem so clean.

    Comment by Brad Kramer — November 18, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  16. sigh… typos.

    Comment by Brad Kramer — November 18, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

  17. Yeah, the Jazz were known (and to some people will always be) as the dirtiest team in the league, starting with John “Short Shorts” Stockton, or Flopton, as I’ve heard him called. Karla was also known for the elbows and flopping when little guards came into the lane.

    Comment by David G. — November 18, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  18. Jeez, David, you’re spoiling for it, aren’t you? 😀

    Comment by matt b — November 18, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

  19. Add to the Mormon Basketball Obsession the placement of hoops in chapels where the local populace don’t play basketball.

    Matt B, you are the DB, no doubt about it.

    Comment by Ronan — November 19, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  20. Yip you are right… i live in south africa and you have no idea how much of a pain those damn hoops are… NOBODY plays… well there are those few who think they are Amreican… lol

    Comment by Bryan Banfield — November 19, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  21. […] the Juvenile Instructor, Matt B., shares the most brilliant social commentary on the relationship between Mormondom, class, race, and the … that has been or will ever be written, in a post that resonates entirely with the rabid old […]

    Pingback by Points of interest, #37 « Mind, Soul, and Body — December 4, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

  22. I’m still waiting for Mormons to figure out that soccer is actually the One True and Living Sport. I can just imagine the General Conference announcement: Brothers and Sisters, it has been revealed to us that the time has come to put indoor turf in all church gymnasiums and play 7-a-side tournaments year-round…also, this time around, the young men will be forced to wear the pastel-color uniforms 4 sizes too big for them. (…not that i’m bitter or anything 😛 )

    Comment by Erika — December 6, 2008 @ 10:28 am

  23. Heh. I bet Uchtdorf is already lobbying. Perhaps he’ll get some Latin American allies in the future.

    Comment by matt b — December 6, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

  24. […] 30th Anniversary Priesthood Commemoration held June 8, 2008 at the Tabernacle? Matt B.’s incisive piece of social analysis about Utah and the greatest sport on […]

    Pingback by Last Chance for Niblet Nominations at Mormon Matters — July 1, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  25. […] Matt B.?s incisive piece of social analysis about Utah and the greatest sport on earth […]

    Pingback by 2008 Niblets: Rock the Vote Here! at Mormon Matters — July 6, 2009 @ 5:49 am

  26. […] Support of RonNick Literski: In Support of Ron2008 Niblets: Rock the Vote Here! at Mormon Matters: Thomas S. Monson and2008 Niblets: Rock the Vote Here! at Mormon Matters: “And this time, there2008 Niblets: Rock the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » For the Love of Blogs — July 6, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  27. […] have in the past devoted significant wordiage to the subtle intersections between the religiocultural paradoxes of the Wasatch Front, the deeper […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Book Review: Lance Allred’s Longshot: the adventures of a deaf fundamentalist Mormon kid and his journey to the NBA (HarperCollins, 2009): A pilgrim’s progress — July 11, 2009 @ 3:02 am

  28. […] part I, on the intertwining cultural meanings of Mormonism and the Utah Jazz, can be found here; part II, a review of the religious pilgrimage of Cleveland Cavaliers bit player Lance Allred, […]

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