Salt Lake City hosts entertaining basketball weekend

CHRIS ARNESON | Evergreen columnist

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I spent an action packed 48 hours in Salt Lake City, Utah, over MLK weekend, taking in three basketball games in two days. This is a story about love, hate, adventure, dread and basketball, but mostly basketball.

Upon arriving at the Salt Lake City International Airport a little before 4 p.m. local time on Friday afternoon, I was surprised to spot a few members of the UCLA men’s basketball squad. Not sure at the time if I was going to attempt to catch the Utah-UCLA matchup the following day, I saw this as force majeure and bought a $15 ticket on Seat Geek later that night.

After checking in at the hotel, I ventured into the mean streets of Salt Lake toward Vivint Smart Home Arena, the home of the Utah Jazz, which was located just over a mile away. The Jazz were hosting the Detroit Pistons, who were coming off the second night of a back-to-back on ESPN, an exciting Friday night for the city.

The Jazz resembled Red Robin waiters or a champion intramural volleyball team in their navy blue t-shirt jerseys. In a rare occurrence, Jazz Bear, the team mascot, was sitting out the game due to sickness, though the bear proved to be worth the wait for the subsequent game. Although Detroit jumped out to an early lead, Utah would go on to crush the Pistons 110-77, led by forward Rodney Hood’s seven three-pointers.

The loudest moment of the night came at the end of the third quarter, when wily veteran forward Joe Johnson drained a double clutch jumper at the buzzer from beyond half court. In another impressive feat, ESPN announcer Doris Burke not only announced the game as the color analyst but also ran across the court to conduct end-of-quarter coach interviews.

On my way to the Jon M. Huntsman Arena on the campus of the University of Utah, I stopped by the Trolley Square Mall for lunch. One of the homes of the imminent Sundance Film Festival, the setting would foreshadow the dramatics of the upcoming Pac-12 tilt.

The 15,000 seat arena was at capacity for the enormous matchup against the No. 4 (now No. 3 ) team in the country in the UCLA Bruins. Player introductions were a spectacle as the arena lights dimmed, and red light sabers dotted the crowd.

Lonzo Ball, the UCLA freshman phenom guard, is destined to be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft and proved why on Saturday afternoon at Utah. While Ball packed the box score with 17 points, eight assists, six rebounds and five steals, his smoothness was even more riveting to witness in person. One particular play stands out, in which a Utah player tried streaking past Ball who was standing like a mannequin and used his body to steal the ball before taking it to the rack for the electric finish.

Utah had a good chance to pull off the big upset at home, which would have resulted in a court storming and would have rustled some feathers in Bristol. The Utes didn’t have enough firepower down the stretch and couldn’t hold off the high octane Bruins offense, falling 83-82 in a nail biter.

In the final basketball game of the weekend, I returned to Vivint Smart Home Arena for a second night to watch the Jazz take on the Orlando Magic. The Magic’s windshield wiper style of play worked on Utah’s tired legs for a while, as they put up an impressive 42 points in the first quarter. Elfrid Payton, the blooming Orlando guard, had a signature throw down in traffic early on and flirted with a triple double.

Though the action on the court was enthralling and the Jazz pulled away late, the most notable event of the night was the baby race. While the actual race lasted only about 20 seconds, the memory will live on forever in the minds of those lucky enough to witness babies crawl across midcourt.

We came to watch large men soar, attempting to toss a ball through a hoop, but five years from now, all we will remember will be five babies crawling across center court. We’ll probably laugh, too.