How black Utah Jazz players have embraced Salt Lake City
From barbershops, to churches to soul food restaurants, here’s how players past and present made themselves at home
After catching a rare sight of a black man pumping gas in Salt Lake City in 1980, Utah Jazz guard Darrell Griffith felt the need to approach his fellow “brotha.”
The only black people who the then-rookie guard regularly saw after coming to the city were his own Jazz teammates. At the time, Salt Lake City had a 1.5 percent black population. While Griffith hoped that the man had the blueprint for black male survival in Utah, those visions of grandeur ended like a missed layup.
“I went to this gas station-store over by my motel to get a soft drink and I see this black guy pull up in a black Cadillac Seville,” Griffith told The Undefeated. “I went up to him to ask him where the black population was. I told him, ‘Hey, I’m just getting in town and I’m playing ball for the Jazz. I just want to know where the brothas are at?’ He said, ‘Man, I was just getting off the expressway to get some gas. I’m from California. Good luck with that one.’ ”
Of the 30 NBA teams, there isn’t a market that seems less conducive to an African-American player than Salt Lake City, the home of the two-time Western Conference champion Jazz.
Salt Lake City’s population has always been predominantly white. In 2016, the city was 75 percent white and 2 percent black. Utah itself was a mere 1.6 percent black in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While the lack of black residents is a real issue for the black players on the Jazz past and present, once they figured out their surroundings and met people, they loved playing there.
“I never had any problems. The people always treated me nice,” said former Jazz forward-center Thurl Bailey, an African-American who converted to Mormonism.
“There are a lot of great people out there. They try to help you as much as they can,” said Jazz forward-center Derrick Favors. “Everybody speaks to you. Everybody smiles. Everybody says hello. I’ve never witnessed any kind of [racism] out there. It’s a great place.”
The Undefeated recently spent time in Salt Lake City to investigate what it is like to be black playing for the Jazz and got the rundown on one of the NBA’s most unique cities from its culture, entertainment, and so much more.
WELCOME TO SALT LAKE, BROTHA…
The Jazz have not had a reputation for landing major free agents in their history since arriving to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1980. Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone, 2017 NBA All-Star Gordon Hayward and defensive standout center Rudy Gobert were draft picks as well as other notable former players like Bailey, Paul Millsap, Deron Williams, Bryon Russell and Mark Eaton. Favors, starting point guard George Hill and reserve forward Boris Diaw came from trades.
For most of the team’s black newcomers, there was some worry upon arrival.
“I come from a community that was predominantly African-American,” said Griffith, a black Louisville, Kentucky, native who starred at the University of Louisville. “I was used to black women. It was totally different for me. It was different.
“The scenic part of Salt Lake City is absolutely beautiful. It snows a lot. But, it was a beautiful city.”
For Favors and Millsap, both black, their nervousness stemmed from a lack of knowledge about Utah.
“It was a big culture change. I was in the New York [area] first,” said Favors, an Atlanta native who was traded by the New Jersey Nets to the Jazz in February 2011. “To get traded to Utah, that was a big culture change. A lot of people in Atlanta heard of Utah, but they don’t know nothing about Utah. It was a big culture change and a big change for me in general …
“I was like, Utah? I didn’t know anything about Utah. What was out there or what to do out there. I didn’t know about the culture or the people. I didn’t know anything about Utah.”
“Before I went, I knew nothing about Salt Lake City,” said Millsap, a second-round pick of the Jazz in 2006 who’s now with the Atlanta Hawks. “I didn’t even know where it was on a map. I remember getting out there and people greeting me. It was an amazing time.”
Russell and former Jazz center Jarron Collins didn’t complain about being drafted by the Jazz. Without guaranteed contracts, they were more worried about making it in the NBA than about the city.
“When I first got there is when my school [Long Beach State] went out there to play Utah State,” Russell, the 45th overall pick in the second round of the 1993 NBA draft, said. “I was like, ‘Man, I hope I never come out there again. There was nothing to do out here.’ The next thing I knew, ‘The Jazz draft Bryon Russell with the 43rd pick.’ I was jumping for joy. I forget every word I said. I was like, ‘I’m happy as hell to be out here.’ ”
Collins, the Jazz’s 52nd overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft out of Stanford, said: “I didn’t see things as race. I was excited for the opportunity to be in the NBA and live out my dream. I had an opportunity to play with Karl Malone, play with John Stockton, play for coach Jerry Sloan. I was ready to go and excited through the roof.
“My experience was a little difference because I was a second-round pick. I had to go make the team. It was all about opportunity.”
Dominique Wilkins was actually drafted by the then-cash strapped Jazz with the second overall pick in 1982, but didn’t want to come to Salt Lake City. The Hall of Famer was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for John Drew, Freeman Williams and $1 million and became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and biggest star. Twenty years ago, Dallas Mavericks guard Derek Harper also turned down a chance to be traded to the Jazz team that went to the 1997 NBA Finals.
“There was a Utah deal, but you go live in Utah,” he told ESPN. “Nothing against Utah or their team, but I don’t want to live there.”
Utah has had some respected past free agent signees in Rickey Green, Raja Bell, Jeff Wilkins, John Starks, Antoine Carr and Howard Eisley, but no grand slams. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul never considered the Jazz in free agency. The Jazz’s most notable free agent signee is arguably Carlos Boozer, an African-American who signed in July 2004 and was a 2007 NBA All-Star. Utah also got a surprising free agent signee last summer in seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson.
“It didn’t bother me that there wasn’t a lot to do. I’m from Little Rock [Arkansas],” Johnson said. “There is not much for me to do there. I’m slow-paced. I was fine with that. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve lived in some great places around the country. I didn’t think it would be a good deal for me.
“I didn’t really know about Park City. I didn’t know it snowed that much. I was in New York with some tough snow winters. For me, it has been fun. I tell them. You have to come out here and see it for yourself, honestly. For my close friends, family, because it’s different from anywhere else I’ve been or played.”
But no one is more familiar with being a black pro player or living in Utah than Ron Boone.
Boone was traded from the ABA Dallas Chaparrals to the Utah Stars in January 1971. The four-time ABA All-Star was a member of the Stars’ 1971 ABA championship team and was on the team when it folded in 1975. Boone also played for the Jazz from 1979-81 and serves as their television color analyst. The Omaha, Nebraska, native said that he was prepared for Utah after playing college ball in Iowa and Idaho and he still lives there in the off-season.
“We don’t have the ghetto. If you’re a player and you have a problem with living here, look at the NBA schedule,” Boone, 70, said. “Out of the season, how many days are you in town? If you’re a professional basketball player, you want to be a professional basketball player. You can dedicate yourself to being that player in a city like this for the short period of time you’re going to be here.”
But Boone certainly is very sensitive to any black player who finds it difficult to live and work in lily-white Salt Lake City.
“What I don’t like from people here, especially white people, is when they say they don’t understand why blacks don’t want to come here to play. They don’t have any right to speak on that,” Boone said.
WHERE’S THE SOUL FOOD?
While there might not be many options, if Jazz players in Salt Lake City looked hard for soul food, they could find it.
The most legendary of all the soul food restaurants to open in the city was Mama’s Southern Plantation. Jazz team members and visiting NBA teams were regulars. The restaurant, which once had several locations, is now closed.
“I used to go to Southern Plantation. That was the spot,” Bailey said. “When other NBA teams would come in, they would go to Southern Plantation. It was like home. It was like how mama made it. It was the closest thing.”
Griffith said he ate at Mama’s Southern Plantation regularly while playing with the Jazz from 1980-91 and was so serious about his meal that he often brought his own ingredients there.
“It was really good,” Griffith said. “It was so good that when they ran out of sweet potato I would go back in the kitchen and ask, ‘What are y’all missing? Y’all missing some greens and sweet potatoes?’ I would go to the [grocery store] and get some greens and sweet potatoes for them to cook it.
“We all went there after practice for breakfast. It kind of reminded me of my mom’s cooking.”
Like Mama’s Southern Plantation, numerous soul food restaurants have opened, come and gone in Salt Lake City due to lack of patrons and financial backing. The co-owner of SoCo Restaurant, in downtown Salt Lake City, has even had to explain the fare to predominantly white patrons who had never heard of many of the items on the menu. One patron also called Salt Lake City’s health department after eating catfish for the first time because they thought it didn’t taste right, restaurant co-owner Andrew Dasenbrock said.
“We have to explain everything,” Dasenbrock said. “People are asking, ‘What’s hush puppies? What’s hopping john?’ ‘What are grits?’ These are actual questions I get from about 50 percent of the tables. We are going to change our menu into a two-panel to make it slightly easier …
“When people order catfish, we have to ask them if they’ve had catfish. They were sending it back after one bite saying that the fish went bad. The fish isn’t bad. It’s catfish. It has a very distinct flavor. I don’t know if they were expecting halibut or trout or what. They’ve never had catfish in their life and then one bite later they are telling us our food is bad.”
Dasenbrock said one Mormon family came to eat at SoCo in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday although their food selection was rather racially questionable.
“A white family of four came in after they searched on the internet for the best fried chicken in Salt Lake City. They ordered four fried chicken dinners in honor of Dr. King,” Dasenbrock, who is Finnish, said.
SoCo opened in July 2016 and it’s a drive of less than five minutes from where the Jazz play at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“We’ve had players in there, but we try to make them comfortable by not staring. We kind of treat them like everyone else,” Dasenbrock said. “It’s a personal thing to me. We want them to sit and eat without harassing them.”
Recently, the restaurant closed due to “complicated business reasons.” Dasenbrock said he has turned his focus to opening a downtown brewery called Kiitos that may end up having some Southern fare.
“This town is lacking culture. It really is. This coming from the whitest of white people. My family is from Finland,” Dasenbrock said. “You can hit a rock in this town and hit nothing but white people. Not that it is a bad thing, but a difference of opinions will make this society a better place.”
Johnson hails from a town where Southern food and barbecue are a big deal. But for the 16-year NBA veteran, getting some oxtails, yams and hot water corn bread aren’t a necessity for him in Salt Lake City.
“When you get my age, you stay away from that Southern cooking because you have to stay light on your feet,” he said.
“I haven’t had none of that other than when my mom comes to town,” Johnson said.
“If you want some soul food, you probably got to call moms to cook it for you,” Favors said.
Hill has enjoyed having a chef during his career, but has had a hard time finding the right one in his first season in Utah.
“I’ve had probably four chefs already,” Hill said. “What you’re so used to, you don’t find that. I like my food seasoned a lot. They don’t do that there. They are stingy with the salt and seasoning. The cultures are totally different than where I came from.”
THe Black Church
Believe it or not, Salt Lake City has had a black Baptist church since the late 1890s.
In June 1898, a building located in the back of a white church called First Baptist Church was used as a place of worship for black Baptists with a full-time reverend. According to the Salt Lake Herald newspaper, the Calvary Baptist Church moved into an old frame downtown building and was described as the “little colored house of worship in the alley.” In 1921, the Calvary Baptist Church was incorporated by the state of Utah under the leadership of Rev. George Hart. France A. Davis became the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in 1974 and has been presiding ever since. The church celebrated its 109th anniversary by dedicating a new church in 2011.
Davis said the church is the best place for black Jazz players or any African-American looking to connect with others like them.
“They have to introduce themselves to people who are African-American. There is no physical location where African-Americans are. The church is the gathering place. Once they find it, then I think they will have a good sense that this is a good place to be,” Davis said.
Davis is a renown local African-American community activist who has also served as a chaplain for the old ABA Dallas Stars and the Jazz. He said several of the former and current Jazz players and their family members have been members of Calvary Baptist Church, but it’s not the only one.
“I go to Calvary Baptist Church. It’s very much like the one I grew up with in Nebraska,” Boone said. “We have a few white members, but it is majority black. None of the players go there now. [Jazz guard] Alec Burks’ mom and dad go to our church when they are in town. Paul Millsap’s family was a member of our church when he was here. Paul’s family still gives out scholarships.
“We have a very good membership at a very nice church. It’s not like it’s a church with holes in the ceiling. It’s a church that looks brand-new that was built about 10-15 years ago.”
Millsap, who played for the Jazz from 2006-13, said that Calvary Baptist Church meant a lot to his family.
“It was a place we could go every Sunday, Wednesdays to get away,” Millsap said. “It was like an extended family. They treated us like family and welcomed us in. They’ve been great. They still keep in touch to this day.”
THE BLACK MORMON
Bailey spent a lot of time in the Baptist church while growing up in Bladensburg, Maryland. The former North Carolina State star arrived in Salt Lake City in 1983 after being drafted seventh overall that year by the Jazz. While it was a “culture shock” living in Salt Lake City not seeing anyone who looked like him, Bailey quickly made friends who were white and Mormon in Salt Lake City.
“I would drive to practice and every now and then I’d see a black person,” Bailey said. “I’d pull up to a light and see a black person. I’d wave at them. And then the next day I’d see the same black people on the same route. I didn’t really get to know them, but the point was there were very few.
“I never had any problems. The people always treated me nice. There was no outward prejudice. Maybe some of it was that sometimes when people see a high-profile person or celebrity, they don’t see color. But I don’t think that was the case here. Maybe it was the Mormon culture.”
Bailey started learning about the Mormon faith.
“It wasn’t like it was shoved in my face. It wasn’t like I met missionaries. I would ask them to tell me about their church,” Bailey said. “I would tell them how I was raised. So what’s the difference? ‘We still use the Bible, but there is another book, The Book of Mormon.’ I had a lot of questions; there is this thing called the priesthood. At a certain point, African-Americans couldn’t hold that priesthood. I was very curious about it. I was introduced by being in the culture.”
Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker is a Latter-day Saint and said he grew up in a diverse Mormon church.
“I had a good church growing up,” Parker said. “They were very liberal. There were black people all around. If you have a good church, multicultural … it made it a lot easier to identify with certain people.”
Bailey had two sons and a daughter with his first wife, whom he divorced. In 1989, he began dating Sindi Southwick, a white Mormon woman in Salt Lake City. They adapted to the cultural differences and attended Mormon and Baptist churches. Since Bailey wasn’t a Latter-day Saint, they couldn’t get married in a Mormon church. They got married in 1994 in Las Vegas.
Southwick’s family disowned her for marrying a black man, Thurl Bailey said.
“There were things that happened from a personal standpoint where I wasn’t totally accepted by her family,” Bailey, who has three children with his wife, said. “Now I had kind of crossed that line. She was disowned. It was a tough period. A really tough period. She had to make a choice and she chose me. That told me something about her right there.
“I knew she was raised in a great home. I also knew having an ultimatum thrown at you by your family, that’s a tough thing to do, especially when you’re Mormon. It was the thing that brought us a lot closer.”
Bailey decided to become a Mormon while playing basketball in Italy for Pallacanestro Cantu in Cantu, Italy, during the 1995-96 season while his wife was back in Utah. He said his decision to become a Mormon was completely his own.
“I was in kind of at a crossroads of my life,” Thurl Bailey said. “I knew my basketball career was coming to an end. I had a failed marriage that produced kids. I was always a God-fearing man. I prayed a lot. A lot was personal reasons. I was doing some soul-searching. I was trying to figure out what God had in store for me.
“My mom wasn’t totally thrilled about it. My dad said to me, ‘Son, are you happy?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘I’m happy for you.’ Then he said, ‘When you come home I want to know a little bit more about it.’ ”
Longtime Jazz scout David Fredman was working for the franchise when it moved to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1980. And there is one question that he has heard from black players more than anything upon arrival.
“The worst thing I heard was them trying to find a haircut. Once they got that squared away they were OK,” Fredman said.
If you ask any current or ex-Jazz player who their barber was in Salt Lake City, the answer usually is followed by a smile and a name.
“I have a barber named Joseph. I ran across him on my Instagram page. He sent me a bunch of pictures on how he cut. He told me to give him a try and the first cut is on him. I went out there to see if everything was fine. I liked the way he cut,” Hill said.
“They had black barbers out there,” said Russell. “I had a guy named John Lopez. He cut my hair and my boy Freddy Rollins.”
“We had one black barber and his name was Billy. He cut everybody’s hair,” said Griffith.
There are a handful of black barbershops in the Salt Lake City area today. Perhaps the most popular is Brickyard Barbers in the nearby suburb of Murray. The shop’s past Jazz clientele include Malone, Bailey, Raja Bell and Ronnie Price. Current Jazz players Gobert, Johnson and Dante Exum, assistant coach Johnnie Bryant and Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Tony Jones get cut there now. Brickyard Barbers co-owner Romone Vaughn said that he often trims up visiting NBA players, including former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant in his hotel room.
“When they come in here for the first time, they are surprised to see this many black people,” Vaughn said. “And then they are surprised we could give them a good haircut. They get skeptical that there is a black barber in Utah, but we’re pretty established now. When the new players come to town, they give them a heads-up and the coaches, too.
“We are good friends with Ronnie Price and when Raja Bell was here we were good friends with him. Karl would come and spend hours sitting here talking. He would end up paying for everybody’s haircut because he’d be in the chair talking so much that we couldn’t cut his hair. The barbershop is like a social club for them.”
Entertainment oFF THE COURT
Griffith recalls coming to Salt Lake City in 1980 with very little to do for entertainment. There were no radio stations playing black music. He got his cassettes when he went on road trips. The cable on the television didn’t have BET. He recalls calling his mom in excitement when The Arsenio Hall Show started being shown on television in Salt Lake City.
“You just adapted. I went to a lot of movies,” Griffith said. “There was nothing on TV. Nothing on cable program. Sometimes I would go to the movies saying, ‘This movie comes on at 2 and goes off at 4:20,’ then go to the next one. I’d go to two movies in a row. That’s why I’m a movie buff until this day. My family gives me movie coupons for Christmas.
Dating was also very hard for Griffith. While playing for the Jazz during the 1979-80 season, Hall of Famer Bernard King had five felony forcible sexual-assault charges in Salt Lake City. According to writer Peter Richmond, King pleaded guilty to one count of attempted forcible sexual assault. Griffith arrived in the aftermath of King’s charges, which made dating challenging as a black man in a predominantly white city.
“Single life there was tough, man. Really tough, man,” Griffith said. “You had to suck it up. It was different. Especially, with the situation that happened with Bernard King when he was out there. You were really just real cautious of doing anything, dating or anything.
“I come from a community that was predominantly African-American. I was used to black women. It was totally different for me.”
Russell was very bored with the social scene in Salt Lake City, but wasn’t comfortable doing anything about it until he became established as a starter with the team. So around 1997, the nine-year Jazz forward began bringing comedy shows, concerts and parties to Salt Lake City.
He said his first concert was a sold-out one for R&B artist Jaheim. He also had a comedy show that included Jamie Foxx as the headliner.
“I brought chocolate to ‘White City.’ I put on concerts,” Russell said. “I put on events. I had people saying, ‘Well, damn, Utah is not bad at all.’ It was about having fun while you were playing there and having a great atmosphere. We had a ball. Everyone was looking forward to the next one.
“Karl came out to the concerts and the comedy shows. All of the players used to come to my shows. Even John Stockton came to my shows. No, I’m lying. He didn’t come. But all the brothas were there.”
Today, there is much more hip and hip-hop entertainment to choose from.
The hip-hop radio station U-92 is hosting upcoming concerts with the soul singer Kehlani, rapper T.I. and a rap concert called “Mount Kushmore” with Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Cypress Hill and Flatbush Zombies. Ariana Grande, Chance the Rapper, Young Jeezy, D.J. Quik, E-40, Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey have upcoming concerts in the Salt Lake City area, too. There are a couple of bars and restaurants where you can hear hip-hop now, such as the popular Moose Lounge downtown.
“There are places to go out on the weekends. There is a few that play hip-hop. You see more black people there. It just depends on what you like. As long as I like the music and the girls, I’m OK,” Gobert said.
HOME SWEET HOME
Salt Lake City will never be like Atlanta or Washington, D.C. It will never have a club scene like New York City or Los Angeles. It will never have a restaurant scene like New Orleans or Chicago or San Francisco either. And with its snow and cold winters, Salt Lake City will never have the warmth of Miami or Houston. But the city has its strengths.
“You have to come out here and see it for yourself, honestly. For my close friends, family, because it’s different from anywhere else I’ve been or played. To see this experience is great since the Jazz is the only professional team around here,” Johnson said.
“The fans are phenomenal,” said Hill. “They’ve embraced me with open arms and act like I’ve been here for 10 years when I’ve only been here for a couple of months. That has been a great blessing for me.”
“It was a good fit for me as far as basketball and the city,” said Diaw. “I like the mountains. It’s a nice state overall. Park City is right there and the nice parks. It was exciting.”
“Friends were skeptical about coming,” said Favors, who lives with his girlfriend and two children. “They were like, ‘I don’t want to come to no Utah.’ Once they come out and visit Utah, they ask me if they can come out two to three times a summer.
“I told my mom when I bought my house that I was trying to stay out here year-round. She said, ‘Go for it and see if you like it.’ I tried it and fell in love with it. I bought my house.”