Identity. It’s a loaded term; one that is used in many different contexts. Yet, the word is often meant to point us in a particular direction. It’s often expressed as a singular idea that serves as an umbrella to organize converging traits that make up the whole. Within the world of sports, you often hear that a team assumes the identity of their coach or a particular player (usually their best). A team’s identity can be fluid, but it can also serve as a point of reference.
As the Utah Jazz begin what will be their 5th major expression of the franchise, (3rd post John and Karl), the question of who this team is and what they will become, has become evident. How does a young team develop an identity uniquely their own while continuing in the tradition of its past that will be recognized by the community it plays in? While change for change’s sake is almost always counterproductive, to stay true to who you are and remain relevant means that reinvention is necessity. Perhaps a look outside of the world of basketball might give us a better picture of what I mean.
In Dublin, 1989, as the Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum version of U2 was playing a final gig, in front of their home town, front man Bono made a veiled statement, “We have to go away and dream it up again.” The comment left many fans wondering what the future had in store for the band. Here’s the interesting thing about fans: when we fall in love with a band (or team), it tends to be for life. Usually, the version of the team we like best (like our first album from our favorite band) is the one we most easily identify with. For many U2 fans, it was the Joshua Tree version of the band.
The next time U2 was heard from by the public, the noise that was altogether still theirs was described as, “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.” It wasn’t just the sound that was different, it was the look. How would the U2 faithful respond?
After the initial shock wore off, many of the U2 faithful found the change exciting and fresh. In fact, despite the different sounds and look, at the end of the day, it was still them. The reinvention was necessary, according to Bono, if the band was going to continue to make music that meant something. Understanding who they were was essential for their longevity. Now, for many U2 fans, there is just as much anticipation for what’s next as their legacy builds upon their storied past, even while refusing to stay there.
Of course, comparing bands and basketball teams might seem like apples and oranges, but I think there’s a lesson here as fans wait in expectation for Jazz 5.0 to debut this fall. For so long, the Jazz’s identity has been rightfully shaped by John, Karl, and Coach Sloan.
These three giants of Jazz lore are most responsible for the imprint of this team’s international identity. This is to be expected, considering the length of their run together in Jazz uniforms. They moved beyond the status of being among the NBA’s best at their respective crafts and became treasured members of the community. As a result, any comparisons of other Jazz players and coaches (past, present and future) will almost always be made against these three. That has its draw backs. I remember Andre Miller once commenting that playing in Utah after John’s departure wasn’t ideal. Who could blame him? As Jazz 5.0 takes shape, the temptation for the fan base will be to hope Favors and/or Kanter will be just like Karl, or the next future PG will play just like John. That expectation will inevitably lead to disappointment. However, in what ways can these players embody what made John and Karl great while still remaining true to their talents when wearing Jazz colors? That prospect, as a fan, is exciting to think about.
Identity can be a difficult thing to create when one has already been identified for you. Abandoning the past altogether, especially given all of the Jazz’s success, is not the answer. How should the past and present coalesce to determine the Jazz’s future identity? One of the concepts surrounding identity is the idea of sameness over time. For U2, that sameness is embodied by the four men who make up the band. For the Jazz, though, players, coaches and upper management change over time. Identity then, is shaped largely by principles that make the franchise unique. For example, Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey have both reiterated the principle within the organization: the coach is king. There are other traits Jazz fans have come to expect from their team’s brand of basketball: effort, precision, toughness and consistency.
Another part of the Jazz’s identity is its loyal fan base. It has been described by those outside the Jazz community as intelligent, passionate and faithful. LeBron James was once given a standing ovation by the Jazz faithful at the ESA, and it’s that same appreciation for great basketball that causes Jazz fans to boo him now. As Jazz fans prepare for a summer of what they hope to be exciting changes, a few things are clear:
As long as the Miller family runs this franchise, Jazz fans can count on two things: the ultimate goal will always to capture that elusive championship and secondly, they’ll never sacrifice who they are to do it. Who knows, as Jazz 5.0 carves out its own identity with a little help from the old guard, this franchise might finally find what its been looking for.