In NBA All-Star spotlight, Utah looks to change perceptions

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The Vivint Arena is shown during the transformation taking place inside the arena before the start of the NBA basketball All-Star weekend Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Salt Lake City. More than 60 players are making their way to Salt Lake City for All-Star weekend, some of them for the first time, one of them for the 19th time. And while some events will tout the league's future, many will be celebrating the past.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY – In the 1990s, Dallas Mavericks point guard Derek Harper famously shot down an offer to be traded to the Jazz, quipping to ESPN: “You go live in Utah.”

Two decades later, members of the Golden State Warriors squad mocked Salt Lake as a nightlife-free city that could “lull you to sleep.”

And two months ago, former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, reflecting on his time in Utah, said it was “draining” being a Black man in the mostly white, deeply religious state.

As the spotlight turns toward Salt Lake City and Utah during this weekend's NBA All-Star Game, business and political leaders are seeking to chip away at long-held notions — in basketball circles and elsewhere — of the state as a peculiar, boring and homogenous place that lags behind on LGBTQ- and race-related issues.

Their push to showcase the city and state as increasingly diverse and vibrant has been complicated by Utah's enduring legacy as a religious conservative stronghold, coupled with recent political developments at the intersection of race, gender and sports.

Just a year ago, a statewide ban implemented on transgender kids playing girls' sports raised worries that organizers of some events like the All-Star Game would think twice about coming to Utah.

Still, political leaders see efforts to make businesses and tourists feel welcome as key to Utah's continued growth and ability to attract profitable trade shows and the Winter Olympics, which it is seen as likely to bid to host again in 2034.

“What happens with those oddities that people think is, they're very quickly dispelled when people actually come to Utah,” said Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican and avid Jazz fan.

Downtown, a pop-up liquor store has been erected to serve fans this weekend between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ flagship temple and the Jazz's home arena. Team owner Ryan Smith is telling anyone who will listen about the state’s robust tech sector and progressive thinking. And the NBA is heavily advertising a pregame performance featuring Post Malone, a Utah-based, heavily face-tattooed rap star popular among residents.

Salt Lake City has long been more liberal and religiously diverse than the rest of Utah, a blue island in a sea of red. A majority of members on the current left-leaning city council identify as LGBTQ and are people of color.

In the three decades since 1993, the last time the All-Star Game was here, the population has diversified and almost doubled, transforming it into a thriving metropolis complete with the politics and problems that plague many midsize cities including pollution, housing shortages and homelessness.

A skyline dense with apartments, office buildings and two downtown malls has sprung up between Temple Square and the nearby mountains. The 2002 Olympics brought an influx of funding that helped build a light rail system many visitors will use during All-Star festivities.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the counterculture that rose up in response and continues to thrive both contribute to the city’s social fabric.

“We may still be peculiar, but we’re minority Mormon now,” she said.

The extensive influence of the faith known widely as the Mormon church will still be apparent, yet changes within its culture and the influx of thousands of secular residents may complicate how the expected 150,000 All-Star visitors perceive Salt Lake City, said Patrick Mason, a professor of religious studies at Utah State University.

“Anybody who visits — especially for the first time — is going to be immediately struck by the Salt Lake Temple and the church’s holdings right downtown very close to the arena. This is, as a lot of people say, 'Mormonism's Vatican,' " he said.

High-profile church members also demonstrate how the image the faith projects has remained distinct while also becoming more assimilated into the mainstream, he said.

“That really gets reflected in the younger generation of entrepreneurs and politicians,” Mason added. “People like Cox and Smith are Latter-day Saints who are committed to their faith but also are savvy people who grow up with the internet, plugged in to a global culture.”

Hosting All-Star Weekend is a major opportunity in particular for Smith, who purchased the Jazz in 2020 after selling the survey-software provider company that he founded, Qualtrics, for $8 billion.

“This is just a chance to really have a moment together. People definitely know that there’s something here,” Smith said. "It’s absolutely unique in all the positive ways. I think the one thing that is beautiful about Utah, that the people keep telling me from a wellness standpoint, ‘Utah is like where I’m at my best.’ ”

Since Smith attended part of 1993′s All-Star Weekend as a member of the Jazz’s youth basketball program, the NBA has cultivated a reputation for embracing progressive politics and social justice to a greater extent than most other professional sports leagues.

The ban on transgender athletes in girls’ sports didn't end up costing Utah the All-Star Game. But some fear marketing efforts could face challenges as the state doubles down on socially conservative stances on matters of race, gender and sports. Last month lawmakers banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth, a policy being considered by lawmakers in a number of states across the country.

Utah has among the highest white populations of any state at 78% of its 3.3 million residents, and less than 2% are Black. That lack of racial diversity is long believed to have hurt efforts by the Jazz to lure free agents and retain players.

Mitchell, after being traded to the Cavaliers last offseason, said it took a lot of energy to confront a series of highly public race-related experiences and the pushback he received in response. They included incidents of bullying against Black students in Utah schools that he called “demoralizing”; a dustup between him and the state Senate president over new restrictions on how race and history could be taught; and the time Mitchell said he was pulled over and “got an attitude from the cop” until the officer saw Mitchell's ID and realized he was the Jazz player.

“It’s no secret there’s a lot of stuff that I dealt with being in Utah, off the floor. ... I took on a lot because I felt like I could do it. But at some point, it became a lot to have to deal with,” he told the ESPN publication Andscape in December.

Some see All-Star weekend as a means of elevating social justice initiatives and changing Salt Lake City’s image through showcasing oft-overlooked pockets of diversity. Sheena Meade, CEO of the Clean Slate Initiative, helped organize an expungement clinic with the NBA’s social justice arm in the lead-up to the game, a year after Cox signed legislation to clear low-level convictions from people’s criminal records. She said the NBA's presence in places regardless of the prevailing local politics has had tangible impacts.

“They are doing more than lip service. They’re putting out a host of events,” Meade said. “What it means for the All-Star Game to come to a state like Utah is it brings an immersion of culture and diversity and lifts up what’s happening on some social issues.”


AP sports writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.