Utah rabbi says Jazz made him put down ‘I’m a Jew and I’m proud’ sign after Kyrie Irving complaint

Avremi Zippel concedes he wanted to make a point about the Mavs guard and antisemitism. The team claims Zippel’s signs “created a distraction and interfered with play of game.” Irving disputes he complained about it at all.

Rabbi Avremi Zippel is a prominent figure in Utah’s Jewish community. He’s also a lifelong, die-hard Utah Jazz fan.

Though he doesn’t attend every game, he made it a point to be at Monday’s game between the Jazz and the visiting Dallas Mavericks. He wanted to send a message to guard Kyrie Irving, who was suspended by the Brooklyn Nets (his team at the time) in November 2022 for posting a link to an antisemitic film on his Twitter feed.

“Some of the things that Kyrie said about the Jewish community and about Holocaust denial were vile and disgusting,” Zippel told The Salt Lake Tribune.

But after Zippel and three other rabbis displayed signs from their front-row seats that read “I’m a Jew and I’m proud” — drawing a reaction from Irving in the process — arena security told the four they had to get rid of their signs.

The Utah Jazz said in a statement Tuesday that Zippel’s signs violated arena rules created “so that games can be played without distraction and disruption. No matter where someone is in the arena, if a sign becomes distracting or sparks an interaction with a player, we will ask them to remove it.”

“During an out-of-bounds play in the first quarter of yesterday’s Jazz game against the Dallas Mavericks, there was a group sitting courtside whose signs sparked an interaction with a player that created a distraction and interfered with play of game,” the Jazz’s statement continued. “As the next step in standard security protocol, the fans were asked to take down their signs. … The issue was the disruptive interaction caused by usage of the signs, not the content of the signs.”

Zippel, however, said he does not believe his sign conflicted with written policy and called the decision to ban it “really sad and profoundly troubling to me.”

Kyrie Irving’s reaction to Utah rabbis’ signs

Knowing there was a chance to sit courtside with Irving playing, Zippel reached out to a family of a Holocaust survivor, who owns four front-row seats for Utah Jazz games and frequently donates them to others. Zippel procured their tickets for himself, his brother (Rabbi Chaim Zippel), their father (Rabbi Benny Zippel), and a friend (Rabbi Moshe Nigri).

Zippel said he sat down long before the game and, “with a fine-tooth comb, researched the Jazz’s code of conduct and the NBA’s code of conduct,” so that he and his group could bring signs with them to register their disappointment in Irving.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Avremi Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah lights a menorah during halftime as the Utah Jazz host the Portland Trail Blazers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019. At right is Rabbi Samuel Spector.

The Nets suspended the All-Star guard for eight games in 2022 for “publicizing a film containing deeply disturbing antisemitic hate.” Irving failed to “unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs,” the Nets said at the time.

On Monday, the rabbis brought identical signs displaying the message, “I’m a Jew and I’m proud” to the game. Zippel said he believed the signs to be benign enough not to cause offense but direct enough to send a message to Irving. Not wanting the signs to be construed as politically motivated, Zippel said they deliberately avoided any mention of Israel and its ongoing war.

Then, during the game, came an interaction with Irving.

The Mavs guard was coming to the sideline to receive an inbounds pass and was standing near Zippel and his group and took notice of them.

“He comes by, he looks at the sign, and he says, ‘Nice. I’m a Jew, too,’” Zippel recounted, noting that Irving then showed him a Star of David tattoo he has.

Zippel said he was annoyed by the comment but did not want to cause a scene. He said he replied, “Nice. Happy New Year, buddy.”

After Irving took the pass and began to dribble up the court, Zippel said the point guard yelled to them, “Don’t gotta bring something like that to the game.”

A few moments later, Irving checked out of the game. It was during the subsequent timeout, Zippel said, that the trouble began. A security guard came over to his father and asked to see their tickets. After determining they had tickets for the seats they were sitting in, the guard walked away. But, Zippel said, about 30 seconds later, another security guard came over and told them, “You need to put the signs down.”

He added that a Jazz executive subsequently approached him at his seat and apologetically told him that an arena policy prohibited fan signage in the front row.

Zippel said another Jazz executive told him at halftime that the issue came after Irving had complained to security.

“That’s why they told you to take the signs down, because Kyrie complained about it,” Zippel said the second executive told him.

The Dallas Mavericks did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

On Wednesday, a public relations representative for Irving told The Tribune, “He did not complain about the signage.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving comes off the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

“The Jazz seemed to fully acknowledge that we said nothing to Kyrie, [but that] Kyrie walked over, saw the sign, and chose to comment on it,” Zippel said in response to the Jazz’s statement. “And so this idea that if you have signage that sparks interaction with a player, we’re going to ask you to take down that sign, I’m curious where that precedent leads to; I’m curious where that goes, how broadly that can be applied?”

What the Utah Jazz’s code of conduct says

The Jazz’s Fan Code of Conduct section devoted to “Banners & Signs” addresses limits on their size, prevents them from being commercial advertising, does not allow them to be attached to sticks or poles, or hung on or affixed to any part of the Delta Center, says they cannot block or obstruct guests’ view, and says they “must be related to the event/show and not contain obscene or offensive language or pictures.”

The code says that “guests will enjoy the basketball experience free from disruptive behavior,” which includes “foul or abusive language and obscene gestures.” It also requires that “players and fans respect and appreciate each other.”

Zippel feels he and his fellow rabbis were not in violation of that code Monday.

Zippel noted that the group “didn’t exactly smuggle” their signs inside Delta Center. They brought the signs through a security checkpoint and were not questioned about them. The four men took their courtside seats about 15 minutes before tipoff and had a member of the arena’s security personnel take a picture of them with their signs.

Zippel said Jazz owner Ryan Smith came over to say hello, took a look at the signs, and chuckled about them.

Zippel made it a point to note that he did not want to go “scorched earth” on the Jazz, as he very much remains a fan of the team and friends with some people in the organization.

But he said he felt frustrated and disappointed by the situation.

“I said to my wife and my father this morning when I got to the office: ‘You know, at some point today, someone will call and just be like, Hey, we’re ... sorry about that all the miscommunication and emotions running high,” Zippel said. “And this all could have been over and should have frankly been over.”

He continued: “And the fact that the Jazz are doubling and tripling down … The man sees a sign that says ‘I’m Jewish and I am proud,’ takes issue with that sign, gets into a conversation with someone sitting courtside, and the organization feels like that sign needs to come down. What am I doing here? That’s pretty much the overarching reality at this point.”