Since they moved from New Orleans in 1979, the Jazz have always had a peculiar, almost sheepish relationship with the nickname that made the trip with them. They know Salt Lake City has very little connection with jazz music, but they also know the nickname works on other levels -- that it distills the improvisational fluidity of basketball, and carries historical cachet.
"The Jazz name is never going away," says Ben Barnes, the team's art director. "It is our identity here. But it has always been hard to fit Utah and jazz together."
That's why the Jazz got more excited than perhaps any other franchise when they learned two years ago that Nike, as part of its new partnership with the NBA, would design four new jerseys for each team. The final one, the so-called city edition, would give every franchise the chance to venture far out of the box.
They knew right away they wanted to use the fourth jersey to shove the "jazz" name into the background -- and in the end, out of the art entirely -- and honor something more true to Utah. Nike's designers initially pitched ideas centering on Utahns' reputation for industriousness, and the primacy of the honeybee.
"They were good ideas," says Steve Starks, Jazz president. "People would have liked them. But we challenged Nike. This was an opportunity for us to be really aggressive. Let's push. Let's be unique." Any bee-themed art might tread too closely on the territory of the Charlotte Hornets, anyway.
Nike came back with motifs based on Utah's spectacular nature. The Jazz perked up, with one reservation, Barnes recalls: "Stay away from the mountains. We've been there." (Utah made back-to-back Finals in the late 1990s wearing blue-and-white jerseys featuring snow-capped mountains.)
The alternative was obvious: referencing the red, rocky vistas of southern Utah and the state's five national parks.
It was a gamble. The colors are garish, totally outside the Jazz's normal scheme. Swing from your shoetops, and you might end up with a monstrosity like Minnesota's new blinding neon yellow jerseys. "There is a lot going on," Barnes says of the new Utah jersey, laughing. "It is bold."
The result is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen -- rippling gradations of orange and red with a matching court design that includes the famous Delicate Arch:
It is beautiful -- a home run, courage rewarded.
The Jazz considered the court essential -- the piece that ties everything together. They loved the final jerseys, but were worried that fans -- especially those outside of Utah -- wouldn't understand what they represented without another visual cue.
Almost by accident, the hot colors of this new jersey make for a nice complement to the icy mountain jerseys of the John Stockton-Karl Malone heyday. "Internally, we've been calling them fire and ice," Starks says.
The whole ensemble could have easily ended up hideous, or even worse -- boring. Nike experimented with solid orange and red jerseys instead of the final striped versions, but everyone wanted to push the boundaries further. The solid jerseys looked too much like maroon uniforms the Cleveland Cavaliers and Arizona State University wear, Starks says.
They talked about coloring the traditional painted area of the court with the same striping as the uniforms, but found it too noisy. Players wearing the striped uniforms would become camouflaged running through the paint, Starks says. (The Rockets ran into this problem during the regrettably gaudy 1990s, when they painted large swatches of their court blue and hosted teams with blue road uniforms. Former NBA commissioner David Stern fumed when he saw the blue-on-blue look on television, league officials have said.)
They decided to leave the paint empty, and shift the gradations to the edges of the court -- a perfect compromise. The shaded Delicate Arch would then serve as the on-court stand-in for the red rocks theme. The team initially wanted a giant arch -- "absolutely massive," Starks says, chuckling -- that would rise from the sideline all the way to midcourt, and stretch almost from the tip of one 3-point arc to the other. Their original conception was bigger than NBA regulations allow.
"We had to tone it down a bit," Barnes says.
They experimented with shading a larger arch inside each of the 3-point arcs, as the Nuggets have done with pickax patterns over the past few seasons.
That cluttered the court. They settled on the sideline area. The color was a challenge. Make it too dark, and it would be distracting. Make it too light, and it would be hard to see both on television and from certain seats inside the arena -- an issue for both Denver (with those axes) and Cleveland, with the city skyline shaded along the near sideline.
They struck the right balance with this muted brownish-orange. Even the state government is happy. About a decade ago, the state's Office of Tourism surveyed people from outside Utah and found a lot of them didn't realize Delicate Arch and other famous natural landmarks were in Utah, says David Williams, associate managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism. "They just assumed the images we showed them were of something in Arizona and New Mexico," Williams says.
The wordmark on both the floor and the jerseys reads only "Utah." There is no mention of jazz. That is intentional. The new look is a reminder that the team belongs to the entire state, and not just the Salt Lake City area where it plays, Starks and Barnes say.
The very best touch of all reinforces that: the jagged, swerving lines marking the trim from the shoulders to the waist on each side of the jersey trace the highway routes from Salt Lake City to Moab (on the right side) and from Salt Lake to St. George (on the left).
The team put in a ton of research -- maps laid out on table and everything -- to make sure they got those routes right, down to every twist and turn.
They plopped a new logo onto the court in opposite corners -- a reddish-orange outline of the state of Utah with a basketball drawn inside. A white version gets the coveted belt buckle spot on the jerseys. A glowing golden Delicate Arch -- an awesome touch -- is hidden underneath the flap of the shorts.
The Jazz are bracing for a big reaction. They are optimistic it will be mostly positive, but they know any big change meets with some resistance. When the Jazz released their new "statement uniforms" -- a yellow-gold uni with a Jazz note in the middle -- some traditionalists lobbied against it. "There was a lot of, 'What are you doing? It's awful!'" Barnes says. "And now everyone thinks it's the greatest uniform." (Some players have asked if they can wear that one for every game, Barnes and Starks say. Under league rules, they can't.)
The team will wear the new orange-red duds for the first time on Jan. 30, in a game against Golden State, and then in eight additional games. It is unclear how often they might be able to wear them in the playoffs, should the Jazz make it.
This was a large undertaking. Utah is one of just three teams that introduced a new court to match its city edition look. New courts run around $125,000, and sometimes more, industry sources say. The intent is for teams to unveil a new city edition jersey each year, but the Jazz are talking to Nike and the league about using this look again next season.
They are also already at work on the next city edition, regardless of when they debut it. It will celebrate another part of the state -- and likely another set of natural elements.
"We like to say Mother Nature played favorites with Utah," Starks says.