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When some Utah Jazz fans sink low, the Jazz raise their expectations, Robert Gehrke writes

As Utah revisits its NBA reputation for fan ugliness, the team is for standing up for what’s right.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Last week, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant put on a brilliant performance, torching the Utah Jazz for 47 points in a valiant losing effort.

What transpired in the stands soon overshadowed his heroics and the Jazz’ hard-fought victory to even the series — and once again put Utah in the national headlines for the wrong reasons.

Three Jazz fans … No. Not the right word. Three miscreants unloaded some vile, blatantly racist filth on Morant’s father, Tee Morant, who was watching his son play and engaging in some sparring with the surrounding crowd.

“I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy,” one of the fans said. Another made a sexually explicit remark to Morant’s mother, Jamie, and told her to shut up, using a pair of expletives.

It’s hard to comprehend what goes through someone’s mind. The team rightly banned all three indefinitely. “The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior,” the team said in a statement.

But the embarrassing, shameful display once again put the franchise in what is becoming a familiar role — that of social conscience for our state.

If you’ve been to a Jazz game, you probably see a lot of people who look like me — or at least younger, more attractive versions — and who are relatively comfortable.

But the franchise and its players haven’t shied from challenging us to confront the issues of race and racism, privilege and power — a valuable exercise in a state where legislators caved to a vocal minority opposed to teaching the reality of how our nation’s racist past permeates our present.

And they have been unflinching, even when it riled up the basest of the fanbase.

In April, a caller on a radio show asked Gov. Spencer Cox what he planned to do about the Utah Jazz’s “racist” program that awards a scholarship to a young person from an underserved community for every win the team racked up.

Cox gave the right answer: Nothing. The Jazz can give money to whomever they want and, what’s more, they are serving an important role in bridging the gaps that do, in fact, exist in our society and helping these young people achieve their dreams.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — who knows quite a bit about racism, as one of its leading practitioners — twisted it into a reverse-racism grievance and called it “totally immoral.” But the team stuck to its guns.

And if you watched — as I did with teary eyes — the video the team released of players calling the first 30 of the scholarship recipients and saw the joy on the faces of those young people, it’s impossible to not at least recognize the potentially life-changing good from the program.

Last year at this time I wrote about how valuable Donovan Mitchell’s voice was in this community, as he spoke out against the police shootings of Jacob Blake and demanded justice for Breonna Taylor.

And the team has joined the NBA’s efforts to raise awareness of social justice issues and Black Lives Matter, even when it costs them support. One major steel company in the state cancelled its suite last year over the activism.

Ok, fine. Bye.

On some level, incidents like the one during the playoffs last week play into a media narrative going back decades that Utah fans are racist. Back in 1993, Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges called Salt Lake City the “last bastion of white supremacy.”

The day that the slurs at Morant’s parents hit the news, a judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Shane Keisel, who heckled NBA star Russell Westbrook at a game and told him to “get down on your knees like he used to.”

I don’t buy that Utah Jazz fans are uniquely racist or that these backwards sentiments are widespread. There were, after all, 13,747 people in attendance at the playoff game last week who didn’t behave like clowns. And some, we do know, showed some class and courage.

For example, Daniel Rueckert tweeted video of him and his brother Michael seated next to Tee Morant. They bought him a beer. He got the next round. And credit is due to the Utah fans who notified security when the despicable slurs were hurled at Morant’s parents.

We need more of that. And we need this franchise to keep pushing issues of social justice to the forefront. The good news is that last week Mitchell told my colleague Andy Larsen that there is no intention to let up.

“I think the best part that I’m happy about is that the foot is still on the gas as far as continuing to have those conversations,” he said. “It hasn’t died down.”

For the good of the state, I hope it doesn’t die down. What Mitchell and the Jazz are doing is more important and has far more impact on the state than just basketball. So here’s hoping they keep doing it deep into the playoffs and beyond.

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