The return of summer basketball to Salt Lake City after an absence of several years couldn’t have gone much better.
Utah Jazz executives and coaches were all smiles as they watched the waning moments of their squad’s overtime win over No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday in front of a boisterous crowd of 12,128 at EnergySolutions Arena.
More than 12,000 fans for what amounts to a glorified scrimmage, played nearly four months before games actually count? With rosters made up largely of players who may never see playing time in the D-League, let alone ever reach the NBA?
This had to be well beyond anything the Jazz could ever have expected.
Sure, the crowds always were good at the old Rocky Mountain Revue when it was played at Salt Lake Community College. But consider this: last season, the Sixers averaged 13,940 fans per game during the regular season. Thursday night’s summer league finale drew more fans than 11 of Philadelphia’s regular-season home games did in 2014-15.
Since EnergySolutions Arena already is booked for this time next year, officials are pondering using either the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah or the Maverik Center in West Valley City to handle the crowds.
In Orlando, where the Magic play host to an annual week-long summer league that includes 10 teams, they just play in the team’s practice facility.
The only reason that the NBA’s premier summer league is in Las Vegas is because, well, it’s Las Vegas during the offseason.
But as far as a basketball hotbed? Look no further than Utah, a market starved for a winner since making back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in the John Stockton-Karl Malone-Jeff Hornacek days.
Last week, reserve point guard Bryce Cotton and undersized center Jack Cooley had the fans out of their seats. First-round pick Trey Lyles received quite an ovation when he came off the bench for the first time. And when current Jazz stars Rudy Gobert, Trevor Booker, Dante Exum and Alec Burks and former fan favorites Mark Eaton and Mehmet Okur were shown on the JumboTron, the crowd response got even louder.
Toward the end of Thursday’s game, when Cotton launched his attempt at a game-winning 3-pointer from approximately three feet in front of yours truly, the tension in the air felt more like a regular-season game than a meaningless summer league contest.
Sure, Salt Lake City is the smallest market in basically all of major professional sports. And sure, it lacks the entertainment options of Las Vegas or even, say, Denver. But there’s nothing small about the passion that local fans have for their basketball team.
If this is the response a bunch of raw prospects get just for wearing Jazz practice jerseys on a weeknight in July, imagine what the atmosphere will be like in downtown Salt Lake City next April if the real Jazz are playing important games down the stretch in an effort to return to the postseason.
As the late, great Hot Rod Hundley would say, “You gotta love it, baby!”
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. Despite not being a Jazz fan himself, he’s always known there’s something special about the fans of the Beehive State’s home team. Email him at email@example.com.