Dwyane Wade says ‘the perception of Utah is not our reality.’ The NBA legend is working to change that.

The NBA legend Wade and Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith say they are focused on making Utah — in both perception and reality — more welcoming to outsiders

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dwyane Wade, three-time NBA champion and part owner of the Utah Jazz joins Ryan Smith, Founder and Executive Chairman of Qualtrics and owner of the Utah Jazz as they joke around on stage during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Dwyane Wade knows what outsiders think about Utah. He remembers, especially, what NBA players thought of Utah.

“It just never felt like a place where I felt like I was wanted,” Wade remembered. “The warmth, it wasn’t there. And a lot of players around the NBA feel that. Coming here, you don’t feel like you have places to go, things to do. ... It didn’t feel inviting for you to get out and do things, like New York.”

So, Wade stayed in his hotel room. When visiting Utah, he stayed in what NBA personnel call “the tunnel” — taking the bus from the plane to the hotel, the bus from the hotel to the arena, then the bus back to the airport after the game, but always staying indoors. He had a perception of Salt Lake City, but never really left “the tunnel” to go test it.

That changed, Wade said, once Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith gave Wade a tour of the city and the surrounding area. And as Wade explored Utah further, he learned of the beauty of the mountains. He played golf on some of Utah’s best courses. And, as he explained to a room of tech industry workers at the Silicon Slopes Summit this week, he found that Utah had more to offer than he expected.

“The perception of Utah is not our reality. I understand perception because I come from inner-city Chicago — a black man in America. I understand what I’m perceived as in a lot of rooms I walk in, but also understand once you get to know me more, once you peel back the layers, the reality is not what you see,” Wade explained. “And that’s the Utah state.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dwyane Wade, three-time NBA champion and part owner of the Utah Jazz joins a conversation at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

In fact, that was part of Smith’s sales pitch to Wade in joining the Jazz’s ownership group, over, say, joining forces with the team he represented as a player, the Miami Heat.

“That was the pitch to Dwyane: ‘Hey, do you want to go with the state that we can help change?’ You can change Utah and get stuff done. You’re not changing New York,” Smith said.

So what’s Wade and Smith’s vision for Utah? Step one, they say, is to make everyone feel welcome in Utah — make all types of people, no matter their race, gender, or sexual orientation, feel as if they belong and matter in this state. That’s why both were on hand at a news conference for the nonprofit group Encircle, along with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Utah governor Spencer Cox, and Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds. Encircle builds homes in that act as community centers for LGBTQ youth, running activities and offering different types of therapy.

It’s a topic that’s close to home for Wade: his daughter, Zaya, is transgender. Of male sex at birth, Zaya came to Wade and his wife (actress Gabrielle Union) when she was 8 years old, and told them that she didn’t feel comfortable continuing to live that way.

“She wanted to be who she felt she was born to be,” Wade said of his daughter, now 14. “We need to understand that we live in a world where everyone is different, but we’re all trying to reach the same goal: that is to be our best selves in life.”

[Related: Jazz owner Ryan Smith confirms the team’s color scheme will get a black-and-white makeover.]

That philosophy also backed another high-profile charitable program that caught the attention of many, including the NBA’s stars — and yes, negative attention from pundits. Smith’s push to donate a college scholarship to a minority student for every Jazz win last season did that, while also working to establish a base for minority youth to remain in Utah.

“We want people from Utah, we want the kids of Utah, to grow up proud to be from here,” Wade said.

There’s also, Wade and Smith say, a PR campaign to be done about the current state of Utah. Smith lists significant changes that have occurred in the state — population growth, tech sector growth, tourism growth, and real estate prices among the changes.

“This isn’t the same Utah as it was in 2000,” Smith said. “This isn’t the Utah you saw in The Last Dance” — the Michael Jordan-produced documentary about the 1998 NBA Finals.

And changing the perception of Utah — and attracting more NBA free agents to Utah — is about educating NBA players of that reality.

“My wife and I ... got to go around and see the growth of not only the last 10 years, but what the next 10 years can look like, that exciting leap,” Wade said. “How are we going to change that perception? Not just for our players, but for every player who touches down and comes and plays in Utah, it’s on us to show them what we’re talking about, that it’s not the status quo,” Wade said.

Not every opposing player is going to get a tour of the city from Smith — the NBA’s tampering rules would likely forbid it even if it were feasible — but the team wants to explore other ways to get the word out about Utah. Part of that can happen by partnering with someone like Wade, who has significant cachet with NBA players, still. He retains connections with high-profile league trainers and agents.

“I’m getting a chance to experience it in a way that a lot of my counterparts and friends have not, but it’s our job to make sure that we continue to keep opening up the curtain and show how amazing this place can be,” Wade said.

Wade opened his mind about Utah, and wants the next generation — of all types — to do the same.

“I’m excited to sit down with Ryan and the whole organization to figure out a way that we use this Jazz platform to make sure that not only players coming in,” Wade said, “but hopefully the minority community can look from around the world to say ‘Oh, I want to spend time in Utah.’”