Racism runs deep in the Jazz DNA: a history of racism and the Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz have once again found themselves at the forefront of a racism controversy following yet another fan incident at a game. This time it involves several Jazz fans saying racists comments to the father of Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant. But the Jazz are no stranger to racist controversy from their fans, ownership and even players. It is who they are, it is part of their DNA.

The Jazz started in New Orleans in 1974. New Orleans was part of the old confederacy, part of the racism belt in America that thrived off Jim Crow laws and segregation. The Jazz were founded just six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, and were the first expansion team to ever be placed in the deep south.

The Jazz first owner, Sam Battistone Jr, also owned several restaurants called Sambo’s. While the name was a combination of Sam Battistone’s name and co-owners Newell Bohnett name, it soon began to get associated with the book The Story of Little Black Sambo. The book’s cartoonish depiction of African and other black peoples are now considered to be highly racists and highly offensive. The book is one of the most banned children’s books in the American library system due to its offensive nature.

Sadly, Battistone and Bohnett decided to capitalize on this connection and placed offensive imagery throughout their restaurants. Like most things run by Battistone, the Sambo’s restaurant chain has since gone bankrupt.

The Jazz, being in the heart of the south and the culture and race relationships at the time, lead to many racial incidents at early Jazz games. Several Klu Klux Klan members were ejected from a game in Baton Rouge in 1974.

One controversy arose shortly after the Jazz began playing in the NBA. The team sucked and was 1-14 when they fired head coach Scotty Robertson. Robertson was replaced by assistant coach Elgin Baylor, Battistone wanted to keep Baylor but was persuaded by other team personal to hire Butch Van Breda Kolff. In an interview in the 1980s Baylor hinted that this decision was made in part due to his skin color. Van Brada Kolff would coach the Jazz through 3 lackluster seasons before he too was fired and Baylor became the franchises first black head coach.

The Jazz time was plighted with a host of issues. The team was poorly run and star player Pete Maravich was difficult to deal with, causing a lot of tension amonsgt team mates. Though, Maravich did have his teammates back. When a season ticket holder called a black Jazz player several racists things, Maravich threatened to sit out if the man did not lose his seats and the Jazz obliged.

The Jazz relocated to Salt Lake City in 1979 and race tensions arose almost immediately. Players were worried about the lack of black culture in one of the whitest cities in America, and fans worried about having black players. Many players had also experienced the fan harassments at the college level. Utah is home to three major college sports programs in Utah, Utah State and BYU, and all three were known to be bitterly racists towards opposing players.

There was also a religious issue. Salt Lake City is the headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), commonly referred to as the Mormons, though they no longer wish to be called that. At the time of the Jazz relocation to Salt Lake City, the LDS church had just changed a long standing policy of racial segregation against blacks in their church. Blacks, and other non-white parishioners were not allowed to received their priesthood before 1978. This issue was a major point of contention between the state of Utah, the LDS church and the US government. Eventually the LDS church gave in to the pressure and changed the practice and allowed blacks to start receiving their priesthood and other religious sacraments.

The LDS church has a long history with racism going all the way back to its founding in the 1830s. Utah was a slave hold state until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

The lack of black people in Utah also likely contributed to the issues. Even today only about 1 to 2 percent of Utah is black. Though since the 1978 change in the LDS church the state has seen an increase of non-whites moving to the area, especially among those of Pacific Islander heritage.

Oddly enough, there was not a lot of fan-player issues in Utah during the early 1980s, the fans in large part behaved themselves better than fans in other NBA cities. This does not mean that there were no race issues, it just happened outside of the arena. Several players have reported receiving threats and being verbally abused during their stays in Salt Lake City.

As the Jazz continued to improve issues either became more widespread or they began to get reported on better. Following Larry H. Miller’s purchase of the team, and saving them from relocation to Minneapolis, a string of racist accusations began against the Jazz.

The Jazz began getting whiter and whiter as the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, which was a start contrast from the rest of the NBA. Though, only one time in it’s history has the Jazz ever been the whitest team in the NBA. This has become a gripping point for many fans throughout the years, and a running joke amongst some Jazz fans is that they draft the whitest player available. This may be best evident when they selected Deron Williams over Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA draft, or when they selected Gordon Hayward over Paul George in 2011. Since moving to Utah in 1979 the Jazz have drafted 18 white, or mixed race players in the first round of the NBA draft, which is the second most of any NBA team. This number does include mix-raced players like Jose Ortiz, Deron Williams and Rudy Gobert, who have at least one white parent. They have drafted 22 black players in that time. Another thing of note in this statistic is it does not count players draft by the Jazz and subsequently traded, it does count players acquired by the Jazz; so Tyler Lydon is not counter but Donovan Mitchell is.

Larry H. Miller, the Jazz owner who saved the franchise and made the stable in Utah, had a lot of high profile incidents involving either accusations of racist comments or down right homophobia. Miller was known to get insanely emotional with the Jazz, so much so that he attacked fans in Denver during a playoff game in 1994. But it was often said that some of those emotional outbursts could be seen as racist, especially in todays climate. Miller had several well publicized public outburst with Jazz star Karl Malone, and in one it is reported by some Jazz fans he called the Mailman the N-word, though Malone and Miller both denied the accusation. Miller also famously brought unwanted national attention to himself and the Jazz when he banned the film Broke Back Mountain from playing in his theatres.

Jazz fans in the 1990s were notoriously vicious and there were several run-ins between players and fans. In 1997 several fans were denied entry due to offensive signs brought to a home game vs the Houston Rockets.

A lot of the antics and issues of Jazz fans during the 1990s have not been well recorded, and all there is are stories from players and officials about the incidents.

One of the most adamant players in his detestment of Utah Jazz fans is former Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell. Maxwell’s hatered for Utah fans is pretty much the majority of his posts on Twitter. But Mad Max detailed his issues with Jazz fans, where he said for 13 years he was subjected to repeated comments from Jazz fans, most of them being somewhat racist in nature. Though, Maxwell himself has Tweeted several things directed towards Utah that could also fall into the racist category.

Former players have commented about the abuse that they have suffered at the hands of the Utah Jazz, the fans and the staff. John Amaechi played for the Jazz from 2001 until 2003 has commented several times on things that were said to him, especially by former head coach Jerry Sloan. Amaechi, who became the first former NBA player to publicly come out as gay, stated that Sloan frequently called him homophobic slurs and other offensive names. Amaechi also claims he was worried that if he was found out to be a homosexual that Miller would cut him immediately from the team.

Jerry Sloan, though probably one of the biggest country boy hard-asses the game of basketball has ever seen, was not known to have used or even allowed the use of racially insensitive terms; at least by the standards of his day. Other insensitive terms, however, were a totally different ball game and he used them with a frequency that would cause most US Marines to blush. Sloan was known to be set in his way and pushed back against some of the black culture that made its way into the NBA. He famously banned headbands from being worn, only allowing Antoine Carr to don one due to a an eye injury. Sloan’s successor Tyrone Corbin also kept the ban on headbands and it was just recently lifted.

Management too has been the focus of racist accusations. Recently Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey was accused by former Jazz player Elijah Millsap of saying racists things during an exit interview in 2015. Other Jazz GM’s have also been accused of harboring racists sentiments. Dave Checketts, the former Jazz GM, was accused of saying some things that could been seen as racist when he was GM of the Knicks in the 1990s.

But it is the fans who really make Utah standout for racist behavior. Most of the issues chronicled above are a product of their time and while that is not an excuse for their existence, people change and people mature.

Even when Jazz fans are not being racist, they are usually seen as amongst the worst fan bases in sports. The other terrible fan bases like those in Buffalo and Philadelphia at least have alcohol to blame for their antics; not the Jazz.

Take for example the 2008 game between the Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers. This game took place a year after the Jazz made their last western finals appearance, but in the Western Semi-finals Derek Fisher missed game 1 and most of game 2 because his daughter had some form of eye cancer. Fisher hit a couple of huge shots in game 2 for the Jazz to seal a win vs the “We Believe” Warriors. Fisher asked for a release from the Jazz and was granted one, and quickly signed with the Lakers. The following season the Jazz are playing the Lakers in the playoffs and while Fisher is shooting free throws a Jazz fan can be seen covering his eye in a mockery of Fisher’s daughters cancer.

Another example during the same season, a Jazz fan brought a whistle to the game and blew it. The whistle caused the Golden State Warriors to stop playing for a second and the Jazz got a fast break dunk. During a game with the Warriors a fan also had a cutout of Warriors forward Stephen Jackson in a prison uniform.

The most famous recent incident involves a Jazz fan and than Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. The fan called Westbrook “boy” and said some other things which prompted Westbrook to threaten to beat the man and his wife. This incident came a season after the Jazz beat the Thunder in the playoffs and Westbrook got into it with Jazz fans and even slapped a phone out of a fans hand.

The fan who called Westbrook “boy” sued the Jazz and Westbrook after receiving a lifetime ban and facing many social repercussions for his actions. The lawsuit was recently dismissed with the judge stating that the Jazz and Westbrook are both protected under the First Amendment.

Now we have the incidents from Game 2 of the Jazz and Grizzlies, where three fans were banned for saying racists and offensive comments to the family of Ja Morant. The day after this news broke, news came to light that Jazz fans had also been calling Grizzlies forward Dillion Brooks racist names.

A lot of commenters have said that it’s not all Jazz fans who are racist and what not, but there is a significant enough history that it does not matter that not all Jazz fans are racist, enough of them are that it spoils the whole batch. If you have a raw piece of chicken in your chicken nuggets you are going to throw the whole thing away and call it contaminated.

Yes, Jazz fans did call out their own during the Morant incident, and they should be applauded for doing so. But the culture still exists where enough individuals seem emboldened enough to say these things. This will not stop after this series, it will continue with this franchise and this fan base because it is who they are, it is who they have always been, and it is who they will continue to be.

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