The Utah Jazz (despite their recent best efforts to avoid it) are right in the hunt for a playoff spot in a competitive Western Conference and this Utah transplant couldn’t be happier.
For the first time in my life, I’m actually the fan of a hometown professional team. It’s something that never happened during my formative years in upstate New York.
I’ve always been a huge sports fan, from football to cycling, baseball to golf or basketball to bull riding. My eclectic taste in all forms of physical competition means my television stays on ESPN by default most days of the week.
Despite my love of all things sports-related, I’ve always supported a geographically diverse group of teams with little connection to where I lived or went to school.
I grew up about three hours from New York City but the rural, upstate regions of the state might as well be a different world. I felt no connection with the Jets, Giants, Islanders, Rangers, Nets or Knicks, and outright hated the Yankees, a belief reinforced by my baseball enthusiast great uncle.
Even the Buffalo Bills, with their blue collar fan base, were too far away to resonate with me.
I essentially grew up in a dead zone for professional sports, with no franchise within a few hours of my home. So with no obvious ties, I became the fan of a unique collection of teams.
In professional football, I grabbed myself a spot on the still spacious Jacksonville Jaguars bandwagon. While I’d never been to Jacksonville, the team entered the NFL in 1995, when I was only 4 years old and I felt kinship with a franchise that was as new to pro football as I was.
My favorite baseball team, and longest sports loyalty, is the Cleveland Indians. The love affair with a random Ohio franchise began when I got an Indians batting helmet for Christmas when I was really young and I never looked back.
My hockey loyalties were never fully cemented in one direction or another, except in the college game. My alma mater, Rochester Institute of Technology, had a Division I hockey team and I was a season ticket holder and active participant in the antics particular to college hockey fandom.
As far as college football goes, I’m an ardent University of Michigan Wolverines fan. It’s the only team I root for that has ever won a national title while I’ve been alive, when it split the crown with Nebraska in 1997 in the pre-BCS, pre-College Football Playoff days.
So how does this lead me to cheering for the Jazz? It’s a result of circumstances and an incredible game last season.
Shortly after moving to Utah, while we were still housed in an extended stay hotel, I suggested to my wife that we go to a Jazz game. Specifically the Jazz-Cavaliers game on Nov. 5, 2014, with the opportunity to see the greatest player in the world at the time — LeBron James.
While I watched quite a few NBA basketball games up to that point, I was more interested in watching great players compete — James, Steph Curry, Marc Gasol and the like. I didn’t see any point in torturing myself by being a Knicks fan or hoping on the bandwagon of the hot team at the time.
So when I arrived at the then-EnergySolutions Arena, I was more excited about watching LeBron James than any of the Jazz players, whom I was somewhat familiar with. I knew of Gordon Hayward from his days at Butler, as well as Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Trey Burke, but that was honestly about it.
Coming through the arena doors, we were given free T-shirts and the place was humming with excitement. I figured I’d root for the Jazz in this game despite my attention still focused on watching one of the greatest players of all-time do his thing.
Right out of the gate, the Jazz were playing well — culminating with a chase-down block of James by Hayward before the end of the half.
It became apparent the Jazz roster was incredibly likable — the multi-faceted Hayward, steady Favors and old-man game of Aussie Joe Ingles.
The game tightened up near the end of regulation and the arena atmosphere became incredibly intense. After James hit a ridiculous, fall-away three-pointer to cut the lead to one with 13 seconds left, it was already one of the best games I’d ever seen, let alone live.
James tied the game at 100 on three free throws, setting up a dramatic finish with three seconds remaining. The ensuing inbounds play went to Hayward, who hit a step-back jumper to win it at the buzzer.
When it happened, I threw both hands over my head so hard, I thought I might dislocate my arms. The whole arena was going absolutely nuts and my wife and I knew right then — we were Jazz fans.
Shortly thereafter, my wife had a Hayward jersey. We attended a few more games and then decided to spring for upper bowl season tickets for the current year.
It’s been an incredible experience to move to a new place and fall in love with the local sports team. I’ve always been a passionate sports fan and it’s fun to share that with the city I live in.
As the Jazz push for the playoffs, I know that this recent fan is excited to see where this young team goes in the future.