“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. 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. 
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.
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). 
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. 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.  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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 
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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 See Richard Ian Kimball, Sports in Zion: Mormon recreation, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2003) 95-96, 104-107.
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.
 Kirk Johnson, “Tarnished Gold: a special report,” New York Times (March, 11 1999) 1.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 See the Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons, until both sacrificed their chemistry in recent desperate trades. Heck, the Lakers, the Spurs, Boston also.
 See Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Harvard, 2003) 20.
 This is why they passed up Chris Paul. That and the fact Paul is six feet if he stands on his tiptoes.