This is an ode to the sports fans of Utah.
And to the state itself.
It's not a poem. Just a column from the heart.
In the wake of Gordon Hayward's departure, a lot of voices from around the country, including Boston, have piped up not only on Hayward's decision to leave Utah for Boston but also about players either wanting or not wanting to play here or be here or win here. In the process, in some cases, Salt Lake City has been relegated to the dump heap of NBA destinations, a sort of hellhole to which nobody wants to come.
National talk-show hosts on television and radio, and writers, too, have jumped on that theme, some disagreeing with it, many others furthering a stereotype that makes out this community to be a Western version of an Amish village. Not that there's anything wrong with the Amish or their villages.
Even former Jazz player Trey Burke grabbed that gear, writing in a rebuttal tweet, responding to a tweet claiming he wasn't talented enough to play here: "Lol no I'm just afraid no one wants to play there my guy." That would be the same Trey Burke who the Jazz traded up to draft, then slammed their heads against the wall as he plainly made it clear to anybody with peepers to peep that he was better suited to play in the Estonian League or Slovakian League or German League than he was anywhere in the NBA.
It was wondered that if the Jazz couldn't hang onto Hayward, a 27-year-old family man with a wife and two kids, who could they hang on to or attract in free agency?
It would be easy to react defensively to these kinds of comments, firing back on them as stupid, ridiculous, backward, ignorant, pea-brained, idiotic, outrageous, laughable, dazed, dopey, unintelligent, witless, moronic, imbecilic and dense.
But I'd never, ever, ever, stoop so low.
I've never forgotten the words of a friend, a columnist in Chicago, who gave advice to the people and the city of Salt Lake during the 2002 Olympics bid scandal and the Olympics themselves. He counseled SLC to do what the broad-shouldered city would do in such an instance of examination and judgment, of tumult and potential turmoil and embarrassment.
He said there was no way Salt Lake City was going to be perfect before, during or after the Games. His advice was to own the imperfections, to be what we are, to work on being better but to shy away from nothing. He said to take pride in the town as a whole, even with its flaws, to wear them like a badge of honor.
"Put a potted plant on them," he said, "and move on."
OK, so Salt Lake City is a unique place. Some of its corners might be considered a little weird. It's widely religious, widely Mormon, widely old-fashioned. But not completely. We only raise barns and drive buggies occasionally. Otherwise, we're every bit the sophisticated metro area in which residents steal one another's TVs and cars and identities, rip off people in bad business dealings, and evade paying as many taxes as possible. In that way, we're mainstream America.
Salt Lake has some nice restaurants and a smattering of nightclubs, it has Park City, but it's not exactly Manhattan or South Beach or West Hollywood. The mountains surrounding it, were they near a big city on the East Coast, would be some of the nation's best-known landmarks. Here, they're just another bunch of rocky peaks. But magnificent, they most certainly are.
This is a terrific place to live, once you settle in and learn to appreciate it. It's not all things, but it's some things, from the religious to the ungodly, from the uncommon to the spectacular, from the pretentious to the modest, from the inclusive to the exclusive, from the conservative to the liberal, from the sour to the sweet.
When it comes to partisanship in college sports, it's fervently divided by the blue and the red. And the Jazz, on the professional side, more than anything else, bridge that divide, bringing the community together.
Just because Hayward didn't want to stay doesn't mean others won't. He wanted to play for his college coach, who in the Celtics' presentation to him laid out on a grease board plans and promises that he would have more opportunities to score, to pile up offensive stats, to have his name featured on the marquee, to regularly be an All-Star. In the weaker Eastern Conference, some of that might be true.
But no one, not one of the hundreds of Boston sports fans who communicated with me over the past week or so about the Hayward deal, ever will convince me that the fans there are better, more passionate than the fans in Utah. That reaches beyond basketball.
Look, I've taken my hits from the folks here who at varying times disagree with my opinions on one matter or another. Ute fans think I'm a BYU guy, Cougar fans think I'm a Ute. RSL thinks I hate their owner. Utah State thinks it doesn't get enough attention. Whatever. As I always say, like the words of the song, "Ain't no good guy(s). Ain't no bad guy(s). There's only you and me, and we just disagree."
That isn't all bad.
I've lived on the East Coast and on the West, and in Europe.
The fans in Utah are as good as any fans anywhere.
They're imperfect, just like the state and its capital city. Just like fans and cities everywhere else.
But they care about their sports here, they care about their basketball, they care about winning, they care about the athletes who compete with and for them. They're savvy enough to cheer their guts out when the team deserves it, and to boo it when it deserves that. On any given Saturday in the fall, they put over 100,000 fans into their college football stadiums. On any given night from the end of October into the month of May, they load upwards of 30,000 fans into their college basketball arenas and 19,000 fans into the Jazz's home building.
This place is great for sports and for those who play them.
That much needs to be said. The money earned here is as good and as green as the money earned anywhere else. The attempts to win championships are every bit as honorable. It was classy that the Miller family took out full-page ads in the major daily newspapers thanking Hayward for his years in Salt Lake. Maybe it should have thanked the fans.
They deserve to feel good about themselves, being the flawed and passionate whack-jobs that they are.