Joe Ingles returns to Utah with both a healthier knee and perspective

Initially disappointed by his trade from the Utah Jazz a year ago, despite his torn ACL, the Milwaukee Bucks forward is now “happy” for his former team, as faced them for the first time on Friday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then with the Utah Jazz, Joe Ingles prepares for a game agains the Boston Celtics in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Ingles returned to Utah as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks for Friday's game at Vivint Arena.

When Joe Ingles last appeared at Vivint Arena, hobbling around on crutches following a recent surgery to repair his torn ACL, and clad in Portland Trail Blazers gear, he acknowledged having “very mixed emotions.”

He’d just been traded by the Utah Jazz — the team he’d spent eight years with, the team he’d hoped to retire with. And while he logically understood the deal and the team’s desire to get useful pieces in exchange for a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent sidelined by a catastrophic knee injury, he just wasn’t OK with it emotionally yet.

Now that the acerbic Aussie made his second return to the Viv on Friday night as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, and faced the Jazz for the first time as an opposing player, his feelings for his former team are in a much better place.

“I’m really happy for them. I hope we smack ‘em tonight, but every other game I hope they do really well!” Ingles said with a laugh following Milwaukee’s morning shootaround.

The first part of his wish, at least, came true, as the Bucks cruised to a 144-116 victory. He totaled six points and six assists.

That he’s been a productive player (7.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 44.4% from 3) for one of the NBA’s best teams has certainly helped. And they’re certainly happy to have him on the roster.

“From the day he walked through our doors, he’s impacted our facility, the spirit, the energy,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He’s funny, he’s hard, he’s edgy. He’s just somebody you want to have in your program.”

But Ingles also just doesn’t have it in him to harbor any lingering bad feelings about a place where he accumulated so many good moments and memories.

That time he came to the arena with the Blazers (almost exactly a year ago), he was still living in Utah and rehabbing here, and showed up at the game only to meet some of his Portland teammates for the first time. He acknowledged being in a bad headspace then: “I don’t even know if I was here or not for half the game,” he said.

But on Friday, thinking back on the eight years he spent in Salt Lake City, he mentioned the Jazz’s unexpected playoff series wins against the Clippers in 2017 and over the Thunder in 2018 as personal highlights. The first Autism Awareness night the franchise held after his son Jacob was diagnosed holds a special place in his heart. So too do the relationships he forged with current and ex-employees of the organization, from the trainers to the PR staff to former head coach Quin Snyder.

“If I didn’t do my knee, am I still here? Who knows? But I understand the away-from-the-court side of it. Obviously, I wanted to play here my whole career — that’s what I thought I was going to do, that was the intention. My family grew up here, Jacob was born here, but then things happen, it’s the NBA,” Ingles said. “And the flip side to that is I was lucky to play eight years with one team. How many players are playing eight years with a team in this day and age?”

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ahead of the Jazz-Blazers game on March 9, 2022, Trail Blazers forward Joe Ingles addresses the Utah media in his first return to Vivint Arena since being traded by the Jazz.

He was surprised from afar — at least initially — watching his old team get broken apart, piece by piece, over the summer. When Rudy Gobert was shipped to the Wolves, he rightly concluded a full teardown was coming.

Still, when he saw his return to Utah coming up on the calendar, and his wife, Renae, asked him how many of his former teammates were still with the Jazz, he was nevertheless a bit surprised — “pretty crazy, really” — to discover that only Jordan Clarkson, Rudy Gay, and Udoka Azubuike remained.

Recognizing the inevitability of it all helped him come to grips with his own earlier-than-desired departure.

“We had a hell of a run; at some point, they always come to an end,” Ingles said. “Ours did — not by the players’ choice, but that’s how it works.”

Still, he’s been keeping tabs on this Jazz team’s performance, and between their unexpected success this season and the draft capital they have going forward, he’s pleased to see the franchise (and, by extension, the fanbase) set up well for the future.

“It’s obviously a place that’s always going to be special to our family and to me. … This city, they deserve a good team, so I’m happy they’re playing well,” Ingles said. “And I love Will [Hardy] — Will’s doing a great job. … They got some really good players back that’ve had great years, JC has had a great year, great coach like I said, and with all the picks and the young guys, they’re gonna be good pretty soon.”

Hardy, who got to know Ingles well while with the Spurs through his connections to Australian National Team members Patty Mills and Matt Nielsen, and coach Brett Brown, said he was looking forward to facing him, as the veteran missed the previous Bucks-Jazz matchup this season while concluding his rehab.

“The Aussie crew is pretty tight. … And so I’ve gotten to know Joe over the years through Patty — we’ve bonded over sarcasm,” he said. “… It’ll be fun to talk some trash to Joe. I’m glad I’m not wearing a mic tonight.”

Beyond the organization, Utah as a community remains a special place for Ingles and his family, which only adds to his good feelings about Friday’s return.

He noted that when he told daughter Milla on Thursday that they were coming back to Salt Lake City for a game, she excitedly asked if she could visit her old friends from school. Beyond that, “My twins think it snowing at Christmas is normal — they’re gonna get a rude shock when we go to Australia! [But] Utah is home to them, that’s all they knew, that’s all they still know.”

His sticking around wasn’t meant to be, no matter how much he or his family wanted it.

But a year later, his time with the Bucks has helped him come around on his initial disappointment.

“The grass isn’t always greener or whatever, but I’m really happy where I wound up, my kids are really happy, Renae’s really happy, and on-court-wise, it’s gone really well. The team’s really good, the organization’s been great to me and my family, and they put a hell of a team together. So it’s been a good fit for [this] point in my career,” Ingles said. “… There’s definitely no ill feeling or anything towards anyone here. I loved my eight years here.”