SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – In the 1990s, Dallas Mavericks point guard Derek Harper famously turned down an offer to be traded to the Jazz, telling ESPN, “You live in Utah.”
Two decades later, members of the Golden State Warriors squad mocked Salt Lake as a nightlife-free city that can “lull you to sleep”.
And two months ago, former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell reflected on his time in Utahsaid it was “draining” to be a black man in the mostly white, deeply religious state.
While the spotlight turns to Salt Lake City and Utah during this weekend’s NBA All-Star Gamebusiness and political leaders are seeking to undo long-held perceptions — in basketball circles and elsewhere — of the state as a idiosyncratic, boring and homogenous place that lags behind on LGBTQ and race-related issues.
Their efforts to showcase the city and state as increasingly diverse and vibrant have 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 state ban implemented against transgender children playing girls’ sports raised concerns 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 considered likely to bid again in 2034.
“What happens with the rarities that people think is, they get dispelled very quickly when people actually come to Utah,” said Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican and avid jazz fan.
A pop-up liquor store has been erected downtown 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 tells anyone who will listen about the state’s robust technology sector and progressive thinking. And the NBA is heavily advertising a pregame performance with Post Malonea Utah-based, heavily face-tattooed rap star popular with the 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 the members of 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 nearly doubled, transforming it into a thriving metropolis complete with the politics and problems that plague many mid-sized cities, including pollution, housing shortages and homelessness.
A skyline dense with apartments, office buildings and two downtown shopping centers has emerged between Temple Square and the nearby mountains. The 2002 Olympics brought an influx of funds 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 arose in response and continues to thrive both contribute to the city’s social fabric.
“We may still be distinctive, but we are minority Mormons now,” she said.
The widespread influence of the faith known as the Mormon Church will remain evident, but changes in culture and the influx of thousands of secular residents could 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.
“Anyone who visits — especially for the first time — will be immediately struck by the Salt Lake Temple and church grounds right downtown, very close to the arena. This is, as many say, the ‘Vatican State of Mormonism,'” he said.
High-profile church members also show how the image the faith projects has remained distinct while becoming more assimilated into the mainstream, he said.
“It’s really 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 who are also savvy people growing up with the Internet, connected to a global culture.”
Hosting All-Star Weekend is a big opportunity especially for Smith, who bought the Jazz in 2020 after selling the survey software provider he founded, Qualtrics, for $8 billion.
“This is just a chance to really have a moment together. People definitely know there’s something here,” Smith said. “It’s really unique in all the positive ways. I think the one thing that’s beautiful about Utah is that people keeps telling me from a wellness standpoint, ‘Utah is like where I’m at my best.’ “
Since Smith attended part of the 1993 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 degree than most other professional sports leagues.
The ban on transgender athletes in girls’ sports didn’t end up costing the Utah All-Star Game. But some fear marketing efforts could face challenges as the state doubles down on socially conservative positions on issues of race, gender and sports. Last month, lawmakers were barred 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. This lack of racial diversity is long believed to have hurt the Jazz’s efforts 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 streak of very public race-related experiences and the backlash he received in response. They included incidents of bullying against black students at schools in Utah that he called “demoralizing”; a dustup between him and the state Senate president over new restrictions on how race and history can be taught; and the time Mitchell said he was pulled over and “got an attitude from the police” until the officer saw Mitchell’s ID and realized he was the jazz player.
“It’s no secret that there are a lot of things I dealt with in Utah, off the floor. … I took on a lot because I felt I could do it. But at some point it became a lot to deal with, he said ESPN publication Andscape in December.
Some see All-Star weekend as a means to elevate social justice initiatives and change Salt Lake City’s image by showcasing often-overlooked pockets of diversity. Sheena Meade, executive director of the Clean Slate Initiative, helped organize a deportation clinic with the NBA’s social justice arm ahead of the game, a year after Cox signed legislation to remove low-level convictions from people’s criminal records. She said that the NBA’s presence in places regardless of the prevailing local politics has been concrete impacts.
“They do more than pay lip service. They put on a variety of events, Meade said. “What it means for the All-Star Game to come to a state like Utah is that it brings an immersion in culture and diversity and elevates what’s going on on some social issues.”
AP sportswriter Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.