Nine hours before the Jazz rolled the Thunder and took a 3-1 series lead, a man in a black baggy jacket and raggedy jeans dropped to his knees on the sidewalk. He pressed his palms together, interlocking his fingers. He shut his eyes and prayed.
Along his walk north on 200 East, he stopped at the sight of a gold cabinet, decorated with various votive candles and a small porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary. As he knelt, he did so also alongside a faded basketball, a photo of the late Larry H. Miller and Junior Jazz jerseys hanging on the doors of the display.
Center-stage inside the cabinet sits a framed photo of small forward Joe Ingles making a Joe Ingles face, surrounded by photos of legends of the past, including Jerry Sloan, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Darrell Griffith and Pete Maravich.
Now there’s no telling what he prayed for, or knowing to whom, but it served as a snapshot of how basketball-crazed Utah has become once more, a man praying in front of a shrine dedicated to Jazz past and present. That’s further proof that this team, headlined by a mastermind coach, a rookie superstar just scraping the surface of his ability and the league’s most make-you-think-twice force in the middle, has made it easy for Utah fans to fall head over heels.
Ken Sanders can’t remember the last time he watched a Jazz game. He doesn’t have personal social media accounts. But the owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books, a few steps away from the Jazz playoff shrine, said this team has him turning on the radio each night and tuning in to live calls again.
He added to the shrine Monday. An employee opened a book and found a bookmark, a photo of a child holding a basketball, so Sanders taped that piece of fate to the center of the gold cabinet and started offering his own Jazz takes.
“It’s pretty hard not to love them,” he said, a smile emerging from his burly beard.
Under coach Quin Snyder, this Jazz team has personified a crucial tenet of what defines Utah sports fandom: proving the naysayers wrong, and doing so in a league built on superstars.
“What’s happened is, we have so many players that play their heart out,” said Jazz owner Gail Miller. “Anybody that comes in gives it a 100 percent effort. I think that’s why they’ve fallen in love with this team. They know the team is giving it every effort it takes to do what the fans appreciate — and the fans appreciate what they’re doing.”
Every team and era will be measured — fair or not — against the glory days of the franchise, when Sloan’s bark accompanied the sidelines and Stockton and Malone made Salt Lake City a regular hell for visiting teams. But Utah Jazz President Steve Starks said a common remark he’s heard this year is that this group is endearing itself in similar fashion, even this early in the postseason.
“I’ve heard a lot of comments saying, ‘This is my favorite team since the Finals teams’ or ‘I’ve never felt this way about the Jazz,’” Starks said. “It’s [a team] that’s united Jazz fans and brought some Jazz fans back.”
As Starks explained, the momentum cultivated from this season stretches beyond the team, too.
Marketing home runs like the Jazz’s Nike City jersey have built new hype in an area otherwise untapped by the franchise for several years. During the Game 3 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Vivint Smart Home Arena was speckled red, orange and yellow to mimic the uniforms — which in turn mimic Utah’s redrock vistas.
“For a lot of people, they felt a connection for the Jazz that perhaps they didn’t feel before,” said Starks, “that this is Utah’s team; it’s not Salt Lake’s team.”
It hasn’t hurt either that the newly renovated arena, estimated to have cost $125 million last offseason, is being christened by a team that fills seats and stormed to the postseason after revamping nearly its entire roster from a season ago. The Jazz defied expectations of many around the league, which only adds to the exposure of a phenomenal late-season run that started three months ago.
“That’s what sets us apart is the fact that we’re a deep team, we have that camaraderie and we play well together,” Miller said. “We just don’t have two or three superstars and then hope everyone else comes to the party.”
Utah’s home-court advantage remains real and loud and as in-your-face as ever. Miller said she took notice when the Jazz Bear’s noise-o-meter reached upward of 115 decibels Saturday. Forward Jae Crowder said the atmosphere in his first two postseason home games with the Jazz recently sparked a conversation with a friend.
How does it compare?
“It’s top-two, for sure,” Crowder said. “You’ve got to realize I played in Boston in a Game 7. … It’s right up there. [The fans] really helped us and really carried us.”
Snyder says he usually tunes out the noise, even as the volume levels soar. But before the Game 3 win, he saw fans flooding the area around downtown Salt Lake City hours before tipoff.
“It’s a neat thing,” Snyder said. “Just this city, this state, our fan base has been essential to what this team has been able to do. They never waver in their support of the team.”
Which is why fans continue to stop at the shrine on 200 East and 300 South and add personal touches reflective of their fandom.
“They’ve always been this underdog team that’s pretty good,” said Adam Bateman, a lifelong Jazz fan who contributed to the shrine over the weekend. “We get the best of both worlds: We get to cheer for an underdog team that is still winning all the time.”
When the prayer in front of the shrine eventually ended, the man in the baggy jacket and raggedy jeans crossed himself, kissed his hand and lifted himself off the pavement, and before walking away, did a quick scan to take note of what else was in front of him. Plenty of Jazz love, which there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of now — or in the immediate future.