If Utah’s lieutenant governor is not the biggest sports fan ever to hold a major political office in the state, he’s in the starting lineup. That distinction is quantifiable in the era of social media, and the Utah State alumnus has a strong Twitter presence — especially in support of the Jazz, USU athletics and former Weber State star Damian Lillard, his second-favorite NBA player.
Cox’s background includes being cut twice from North Sanpete High School’s basketball team, turning to tennis after breaking his hand in baseball (he delivered a first-pitch strike before a Salt Lake Bees game in May), officiating “thousands” of basketball games (having become certified as a teenager) and coaching his children in multiple sports. He’s an avid storyteller, a trait that’s not easily accommodated by his schedule. He seemingly could have talked all day about this stuff on a recent morning at the Capitol, if not for being pulled away to official duties.
Ask anybody, and they’ll say Abby Cox is a much of a fan as her husband, and the love of the Jazz has spread through their three sons and a daughter. Cox’s run for the Utah governor’s election in 2020 started last weekend, in an RV painted with an outline of Utah in gradient colors. The resemblance to the Jazz’s “City” logo is “not necessarily a coincidence,” acknowledged Jon Cox, a friend and distant relative who’s not officially involved in the campaign.
Expressing devotion to the Jazz that’s traced to an uncle’s taking him to an annual game at the old Salt Palace, where he cheered for Adrian Dantley and Rickey Green in the early 1980s, Cox weighs in regularly on Twitter. “It’s so much fun for fans to interact; it makes the games themselves and the offseason so much more entertaining,” he said. “We have such a great sports culture here in Utah, especially around Jazz Twitter.”
He formerly used Jon Cox as an pre-tweet editor whose role was to save him from himself, when necessary. That filter? Removed. “He’s just given up on that,” Jon Cox said. “That is the Spencer you see on Twitter. He’s leaving it all out there.”
His public office creates some complications and scrutiny, even as a fan. Cox once was asked to clarify that he paid Jazz owner Gail Miller to use her front-row seats at a game, responding to suggestions of influence. In the political realm of sports fans, Cox believes he may have competition from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), who’s known for his obsession with Cornhusker football. President Barack Obama is so immersed in college basketball that he annually filled out an NCAA Tournament for an ESPN feature, and other figures follow their local teams.
“They don't get a giddy as you do, though,” clarified Kirsten Rappleye, his chief of staff.
Cox's social media threads are not limited to the Jazz; he recently live-tweeted the Fairview Elementary Dance Review in the tiny central Utah town where he resides, while commuting 100 miles to Salt Lake City almost daily. The statewide interest in the Jazz, though, gives him a forum for his 32,000 followers.
“My hope always was that if you only knew me on Twitter or Facebook or whatever and met me in person, that I would be exactly who you thought I was,” Cox said. “It wasn’t this calculated thing, like, ‘Oh, maybe people would like me more as a politician if I got engaged in that.’ That was never a consideration at all. In fact, I think that’s the mistake a lot of people make, and you can tell the difference. You can tell when somebody is trying to do it for votes or trying to be one of the guys, [addressing] passionate fans that actually know what they’re talking about.”
A slight exception may have surfaced last June. As Cox acknowledged, “Being anti-Duke is a strong position for a politician.”
So amid speculation that the Jazz were about to draft Duke guard Grayson Allen with the No. 21 pick in the first round, Cox made his feelings known. “Please don't take Grayson Allen,” he tweeted, repeating the sentence seven times.
The Jazz, of course, took Grayson Allen.
Cox, three minutes later: “I LOVE GRAYSON ALLEN SO MUCH!”
He since has met Allen and describes him as “a really good guy.” Allen’s a Jazzman, after all.
Cox laughs. “That’s the fun thing about fandom, right? We cheer, based on laundry,” he said. “And so, immediately, all the Jazz fans are all-in on Grayson Allen, including me.”
While showing improvement near the end of his rookie season, Allen has a long way to go in any hope of reaching an Ingles-level endorsement from Cox. His admiration stemmed from Ingles' defensive work against LeBron James in a January 2017 win over Cleveland and has only grown since then.
“First of all, Joe Ingles needs a statue built to him,” Cox said, quickly warming to the subject. “I think he's everything we kind of love here in Utah. We see ourselves as the underdogs; we always have.”
And Ingles is “a guy who looks like he belongs in Utah,” Cox said, “with that math teacher look he has going for him.”
The two had yet to meet in January 2018 when Cox temporarily became governor as Gov. Gary R. Herbert underwent surgery. Just for fun, he thought of naming a Jazz player as his lieutenant governor. Team president Steve Starks recommended Ingles. His Twitter bio highlights that “one glorious hour” in the top job, and Cox may use this slice of history in building gubernatorial support: The Jazz rallied at Toronto for a signature victory in what became a remarkable finish of their 2017-18 season.
In any case, that's how Cox found himself claiming to be “the real Joe Ingles.”
Ingles endorses Lifetime Products, a Clearfield-based manufacturer of basketball hoops, among other outdoor fixtures. Clint Morris, the company's senior vice president of marketing, knew Cox and suggested he participate in a commercial shoot. Cox, who's not identified in the commercial, eagerly agreed.
“They got along great,” Morris said. “It was fun to see how he truly loves the Jazz.”
The script exposed Cox as someone other than the real Ingles, as he airballed a 3-pointer and stiffly delivered an attempt to Ingles' renowned trash-talking ability, as he jabbed a finger toward Ingles' chest: “Your basketball skills need improvement.”
The process took three hours, because they couldn't stay in character. Even in the final version, Cox barely maintains a straight face. “We have outtakes after outtakes of them just busting up,” Morris said.
This leads to the story about Ingles that Cox says he shouldn't tell, and proceeds anyway. A Jazz teammate once dared Ingles to get a technical foul, promising to pay the $2,000 fine. Ingles tried and failed, even while saying “things that should never be said,” because his Australian accent apparently is so disarming.
In his officiating days, Cox issued his share of technicals and even some ejections. Jon Cox managed his friend's 2012 Utah Legislative campaign. As they analyzed the delegates, Spencer Cox pointed to one name and said, “I'm not going to win that vote.” That's because Cox once kicked him out of a youth game as a coach.
As a USU student, Cox officiated an intramural tournament of champions from other schools. He won't identify the offender, but he called a technical on an All-America football player from another school. “I thought he was going to kill me,” Cox said. “I just thought, you know, maybe this isn't the thing I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Cox pauses and grins, with a delivery that suggests he has used this line about officiating before and will employ it again. “So I found the only career where people hate you more,” he said, “and that’s where I am now.”