Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

All that jazz: Salt Lake City has the stage

- By Sam Metz

SALT LAKE CITY — In the 1990s, 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, Warriors players mocked Salt Lake as a nightlife-free city that could “lull you to sleep.” And two months ago, former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell said it was “draining” being a Black man in the mostly white, deeply religious state. As the spotlight turns toward Salt Lake City during this weekend’s NBA All-Star Game, business and political leaders are seeking to chip away at long-held notions of Utah as an odd, boring place that lags behind on 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. Still, political leaders see efforts to make businesses and tourists feel welcome as key to Utah’s continued growth and ability to attract trade shows and the Winter Olympics, which it is 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 Utahbased, 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 last was here, the population has diversifie­d and almost doubled, transformi­ng it into a thriving metropolis complete with the politics and problems that hit many midsize cities.

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.

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.

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.’”

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