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Salt City Hoops - Jazz Jersey Release a Perfect Metaphor For a Team Without Identity


Dan Clayton


The Jazz’s new jersey lineup says very little about the Jazz, Dan Clayton writes. (via UtahJazz.com)

The Utah Jazz’s botched rebranding really just represents the broader problem: nobody knows what the hell the Utah Jazz are right now.

The Tribune’s Andy Larsen confirmed what most people suspected upon seeing the club’s messy, inconsistent rebrand. The Jazz clearly made a thoughtless, unresearched commitment to an identity their fans would ultimately hate, and when public sentiment tried to save them from themselves, it was too late to reverse course. League rules and production timelines meant they were largely stuck with a look and feel that resonated with virtually nobody outside whatever small group of Ryan Smith’s yes-men approved the initial shift. They hurried and tacked on an addition to placate the masses, but all that did was underscore the confusion about who and what the Jazz are trying to be.

“Purple is back!” screams the Jazz website. Except that three of the four jerseys introduced on Friday don’t feature a single stitch of purple. They’ve already teased two new purple versions that won’t be worn until next season, which is a pretty clear indication that they recognized their mistake and started planning for a U-turn away from the jerseys that “scream nothing,” per Larsen’s apt description. Apparently though, it was too late to scrap the black and yellow in favor of those new designs, so instead the purple will creep its way back into the Jazz’s identity more gradually. How often do you see a team rebrand but not actually lead the announcement with the new primary colors and logo? The Jazz likely knew well before today’s launch that the black and yellow wouldn’t be received as well as they hoped.

The color scheme isn’t as much the problem. The black and highlighter yellow are, you know, whatever. But the enormous numbers, the generic block font, and the complete lack of any defining visual elements whatsoever are the real problem. Those jerseys could belong to literally any team in the league.

But here’s the thing: how different is this jersey mess from the broader Jazz experience right now? It is a weird time to be a Utah Jazz fan, because we literally don’t know what it is we’re rooting for. Changes at the top mean that the basketball identity is sure to change to a not-insignificant degree. Many (if not most) of the key players with whom fans have built an emotional connection will be gone. And yes, the team will even be physically unrecognizable, playing in generic, emotionless garb that they well could have picked up on Amazon.

What exactly does being a Jazz fan even mean today? That’s not a dramatic question. Of the things that tie together the affinity of the people who call themselves Jazz fans, how many are destined to change or at least in flux? Are we truly just rooting for a zip code at this point?

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a timeless bit about how sports fans “are actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it.” A player you love, Seinfeld jokes, can change teams and put on different colors and now you hate him. “Boooo! Different shirt!” Joke’s on Jerry, though: Jazz fans don’t even have a set of clothes to tie them together at the moment. The next time their favorite team takes the court, they’ll look different, play different, have different guys… it’s just a completely ambiguous time to claim any amount of passion for this team. Whatever you loved most about the 2021-22 Jazz, there’s a good chance it won’t be the same this fall.

Basketball-wise, the franchise as a whole is defined by the same dissonance that was evident with this messy jersey unveiling. There’s very little sense as of today of what the Jazz are, what they stand for, or what they will be moving forward. Their awkward search for newness could very well lead them down a path that is just like the rebrand, only much worse from a competitive standpoint. The same way a few disconnected people in a board room chose a visual identity that nobody much cared for, a group of individuals will now decide for you which players are and aren’t worthy of your love as a fan. And sure, that’s part of the deal with sports fandom to a degree. But let’s be honest, the amount of roster turnover we’re likely to witness in Utah could wind up being something far more abrupt and drastic than what is typical in sports. It’s likely that one (or maybe even both) of the club’s All-Stars will be back, but beyond that it’s anybody’s best guess.

They also still don’t know what their basketball philosophy will be. They remain coach-less at the moment, which means they could enter draft night and even free agency without a sense of what system they’ll be trying to align to or what the foundational basketball principles are. Imagine being a free agent and being asked to choose to play in Utah without knowing who is going to be designing the sets, constructing a rotation, or making fundamental decisions about how the team plays.

The Jazz have been through rebuilds and rebrands before. But I can’t think of a single time in Jazz history when it was this unclear how to define the Jazz.

When the Jazz launched into their post-John and Karl rebuild, they had a stable ownership and management situation and a fiery, principled Jerry Sloan to bridge them to a new era with a sense of some of the things they would continue to represent. Fans also had already begun to develop a connection with Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring and other figures who would join them in the next phase of the franchise, even as the team started to lean away from its legacy with the 2004 rebrand.

In 2011, the club would shift again from an on-court perspective, when Carlos Boozer, Sloan, Deron Williams and Kirilenko would all move on within a few months of each other. But before that happened, the Jazz had already returned to their roots from a visual identity standpoint, and the new head coach was a Sloan disciple who would aim to keep the basketball philosophy somewhat consistent. Plus, the fan base had already spent years embracing Paul Millsap and his lunch-pail style, and had just been introduced to a floppy-haired but intriguing rookie who would define the nascent hope for a return to relevance.

By the time the Quin Snyder era began, Utah’s faithful had already become fond of a growing group of talented youngsters, so the new coach’s charge wasn’t to remodel the roster all at once, but to gradually suss out whose trajectory took Utah to interesting places and then reshape around them, little by little. The biggest single personnel shift came in 2019, but even that redesign was anchored around a precocious and likable offensive star, an all-league center who had quite literally grown up in Salt Lake City, and a locker room leader and fan favorite in Joe Ingles.

In other words, even through multiple franchise pivots, there has never been a single moment with quite this much change happening all at once. In a fairly short period of time, Jazz fans will have gone through an ownership and front office change, a coaching change, a roster shuffle, and a new brand. Almost nothing that defined your allegiance to the Utah Jazz as recently as five years ago still remains intact as a defining feature of the club. They do play in the same building. Oh and there’s a note involved — sometimes.

So consider these jerseys — generic, emotionless, and representative of almost nothing — to be a metaphor for the state of the Jazz fan as of June 17, 2022. Maybe that ambiguity will be replaced soon by a better idea of what exactly being a fan of the Jazz means, just as the lifeless black and yellow kits might be replaced eventually by something with a shred of meaning. In the meantime, the imperfect rebrand does a perfect job at summing up the Jazz’s lack of identity, vision, or defining principles.

If they can figure out their broader identity issues, they can play in potato sacks for all I care. But for now, this is a team of unknowns, represented quite fittingly by perhaps the most anonymous, brand-X jersey in recent NBA history.

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