A couple years ago I went on one of the best trips of my entire life with some of my best friends in the world. We didn’t go to NYC, or the beach, or anywhere abroad. It wasn’t even to popular destination spots like Colorado or the Grand Canyon. We went to…..Utah. This wasn’t some sort of point at the map and that’s where you go kind of things. No, our trip to Utah was completely intentional. And for me, it was more than a decade in the making. How about a little backstory?
When I was 11 or 12 I absolutely loved basketball. Most afternoons after school I could be found outside shooting hoops (unfortunately that didn’t translate to the actual court). I tried to watch as many NBA games as I could and would play basketball video games as often as possible. And every morning of the week I would watch SportsCenter. It didn’t matter how many times I saw the same highlights. I couldn’t get enough.
Now, if you’ve ever watched SportsCenter you’d know that they constantly run game scores and stats along the bottom. There was one name in particular that always stood out: Andrei Kirilenko. It seemed like I was seeing his name along the bottom just about every morning. His numbers were always insane. He not only scored but he rebounded, assisted, got steals, and blocked a ton of shots. He did a little of everything. Basically he was the player I wanted to be. There’s also one other little detail about him that I noticed: he played for the Utah Jazz. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Utah Jazz at 11 years old. But Kirilenko made me pay attention to them. Whenever they played on national TV, which wasn’t often, I made sure to watch. And they were pretty good! They weren’t one of the premier teams in the league like the LA Lakers or the Boston Celtics but they were competitive. I liked that.
At 12 years old I was starting to think that I needed a favorite NBA team. But even at a young age I didn’t want to be a bandwagoner. That meant no allegiance toward any of the big market teams. Goodbye LA, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, etc. I also wasn’t about to just pick one of the worst teams in the league. What I was looking for was a small market team that was pretty consistently competitive. If I could find a team that no one else followed, even better. There just so happened to be a team that fit all that criteria that I had been paying close attention to: the Utah Jazz.
Once I committed to the Jazz there was no going back. I was in 100%. I followed every one of their games, I watched them every time they were on TV, and I even asked for Jazz stuff for Christmas. In fact, one Christmas I got tickets to go see them play in Memphis. That’s still one of the happiest moments of my life. And for another Christmas I got tickets to go see them play in Oklahoma City. They were one of my teams, just as much as the Cardinals and Blues. And yet for a few years my mom still asked if I liked them or if it was just a phase. No, it certainly wasn’t a phase. I loved them so much that it became my dream to see them play in Salt Lake City. This was a dream that I thought I’d fulfill sometime in my adult life. Little did I know it would be just around the corner.
My senior year of college my friend Jacob approached me with this wild idea: we should take a road trip to Utah to see a Jazz game. Ummmm, YES! Of course I loved that idea! We started gauging interest of some other friends and I immediately started dreaming about the whole thing. But in the back of my mind I figured it wouldn’t happen. Yeah, it would be amazing, but what are the odds of it actually happening? But the idea never really died down. We got a few other guys on board, Danny, Joe, and Kevin, and we gradually developed a plan. We did research on hotels, we looked up things to do in Utah, and I flipped through the schedule. We found a chunk of time that worked for all five of us, and guess what, there just so happened to be a home game during that stretch. Next thing I know we have a hotel booked and I bought the tickets online for the January 2, 2016, game against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was happening!
At that point Kirilenko was long gone. That was okay, I had already found a new favorite player a few years earlier. Gordon Hayward. He became one of my favorite college players when he took Butler to the championship game against Duke. You might remember him as the guy that just barely missed a full court shot to win the game at the buzzer. When I found out the Jazz had drafted him I was over the moon. Granted, it took him a few seasons to find playing time and develop into a really good player. But he was my favorite player through it all. At my high school senior lock in I won an Amazon gift card. I used it to buy a Hayward jersey. I had seen him play in Oklahoma City but at that point he was just a bench guy. When I was going to see him in Utah he was on the verge of becoming a star in the league, a guy people noticed. I couldn’t believe it.
Jacob, Danny, Joe, Kevin, and I piled into the car and were on our way. We had 23 hours of driving ahead of us. Thankfully, we were smart enough to realize that was ridiculous and luckily Jacob had some family that lived in Colorado that would be more than willing to let us crash with them for a night. He failed to mention that their house was in the mountains. I’ll tell you what, there isn’t much of a better way to wake up than to look out the window and see nothing but beautiful mountains. We were about to take off when one of his family members asked us what we had planned for the day. We said were just going to head to Salt Lake City and get settled in our hotel. They told us we had to check out Arches National Park. I had done some research into that park and figured it was too far out of our way. It turns out it was only a 30 minute detour off the highway. And so we decided to check it out! That was Spontaneous Decision #1.
To say it was a good idea to stop by Arches would be a massive understatement. The landscape of this park was breathtaking. I had seen mountains but this was something totally different. It was landmarks I’d never seen in my life. It’s so hard to put it into words. You would think we were in the desert if not for the snow on the ground. It was so cool. We spent a few hours there hiking and climbing and just taking it all in. How often do we get to see something like this? And to think, we would’ve completely missed it if we had followed my advice.
We eventually make our way into Salt Lake City and get settled into our hotel. I think the moment it really hit me that this was actually happening was when I saw the first Jazz billboard. I got goosebumps. It was just like we see Cardinals or Blues billboards in St. Louis. I realized that I was now in a city that loved the Jazz just as much as I do. That’s an indescribable feeling. Driving into town and looking in every direction and seeing mountains is something everyone should experience. I was in heaven.
We had a few days until the game, so we had plenty of time to explore. Our first stop was obviously the arena where the Jazz play.
I had to go into the team store inside and load up on Jazz gear. I did not hold back. I think the people working there were confused why I was getting so much stuff. They probably don’t expect many Jazz fans to come from outside of Utah, so most people don’t go in and buy stuff in bulk.
The rest of that day we explored downtown. We saw the Mormon Temple and went inside the lobby area. We obviously weren’t allowed inside the actual temple but it was really cool to get a little bit of insight into another religion. I know Utah gets a lot of flack for being very predominantly Mormon but I have a lot of respect for people who aren’t afraid to follow what they believe in. Joe also wanted to check out the museum downtown, so that was our next stop. There wasn’t a whole lot there, so we did some research on other museums in the city. We found one that was only about 2 miles away, and it was an outdoor museum, so that seemed pretty cool. For whatever reason we collectively thought that 2 miles would be an easy walk. We ended up walking halfway across the city only to find out that this museum was literally in someone’s backyard. And the art was…interesting.
It may have taken us quite some time to get there and I may not have understood the art but I’m so glad we went. That’s definitely one of my favorite stories from the trip. The outdoor art museum was Spontaneous Decision #2.
The next day we had plans to go see the Great Salt Lake (we were in Salt Lake City, after all). It turns out there’s not a whole lot to see. We probably went to the wrong part of the lake but it wasn’t super interesting. That was the only disappointment of the entire week. The sights we saw were absolutely breathtaking. One of my favorite moments was when we decided to go hiking up a mountain. This was Spontaneous Decision #3.
Whenever we weren’t sightseeing or doing anything exciting we were just in the hotel room playing Madden. That in and of itself was a highlight because we had an ongoing Madden tournament. But there was one day in particular that we had nothing planned. We were content to just hang out in the hotel that afternoon and recoup from what had been a pretty busy week up to that point. So there we were lounging around when Joe chimes in and says that there’s a hiking spot on one of the mountains only about 15 minutes away. We hadn’t done much hiking up to that point and we all agreed that a good hike would be fun. That’s about all the thought we put into it. So we all pack into the car, not really sure what exactly we were up against.
We park and get out of our car and immediately realize that we are totally unprepared. The first people we see are wearing big heavy coats, snowshoes, and have ski poles. We’re all wearing hoodies, tennis shoes, and jeans. I think our Missouri license plate said it all. We get to the trail head, and while it wasn’t quite a straight 90 degree angle, it was pretty close. And it was pure snow. I thought there was no way we’d all get up without at least one of us sliding down. We could have easily seen that, said nope, and gone back to our comfortable hotel room. But we decided to go for it. What came after was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
When we first embarked on our hike we were pretty much entirely surrounded by trees, so there wasn’t much a view yet. But we kept going up and up, all while Joe was afraid a bear was going to jump out at any second. We finally got to a spot with an overlook and….wow.
None of the pictures I have from that hike even remotely do it justice. I was in absolute awe of the nature I was seeing in front of me. Now, I’ve been hiking in the Rockies before, so it’s not like this was my first time in the mountains. But for whatever reason I was stopped in my tracks. It was in that moment that I was admiring God’s beautiful creation that it truly hit me how special this trip was. Here I was with four of my best friends in the world, experiencing so many amazing things. I realized how lucky I was to be there. You see, we had just graduated that past spring, so we didn’t see each other nearly as often as we used to. Jacob was in Colorado, Joe was in Kentucky, Kevin was soon to be in Atlanta, and before too long Danny would be in Omaha. I appreciated just how beautiful this was, to be sharing in this trip, this whole experience, with these guys. The reason we were there in the first place was because I like the Jazz. We could’ve gone on a road trip anywhere in the country, but Jacob suggested Utah because of me. I finally began to understand just how important Joe, Danny, Jacob, and Kevin were to me. For the first time in a really long time I was truly living in the present. For months I had been looking forward to the game. But seeing the snow capped mountains surrounding me prompted me to appreciate what’s right there in front of me. That’s a moment I’ll never forget. And again, I could’ve missed this had we decided to hang back and play video games.
One of our other stops during the trip was Park City, Utah. Park City is where a lot of the Olympic events were held when the Winter Olympics were in Salt Lake City. It’s also where a lot of current Olympic athletes train.
There was also a little “village” not too far from the training complex. I really enjoyed it because it reminded me a lot of Main Street in St. Charles during Christmas season. I love seeing little places like that.
Now, to the whole purpose for this entire trip…THE JAZZ GAME. At this point I had already bought a Hayward shirt, a Favors shirt, an Exum shirt, a Jazz beanie, and a Jazz hat. Yeah, I was excited. I had enough Jazz gear that everyone had something to wear to the game. It’s so hard to describe just exactly what I was feeling. I said earlier, this game was over a decade in the making.
Walking into the arena and getting my ticket scanned gave me goosebumps. This was it. Naturally we got there early so that we could walk through the arena. It was everything I could have hoped for and then some. Just seeing pictures of the players I had spent so many hours watching and knowing I was about to see them with my own eyes was an incredible feeling.
I’ll spare you and won’t give a detailed play-by-play of the game. Long story short the Jazz won in overtime! The game itself was everything I hoped it would be. The game I had been wanting to experience had finally happened and I couldn’t have been any happier. I have a tendency to get overly excited about things that are about to happen that they oftentimes don’t live up to expectations. Luckily the game was even better than I could have imagined. I was able to stay in the moment and enjoy every second. Honestly I don’t know if that would’ve been the case if not for my experience in the mountain. If I hadn’t been able to stop and appreciate being in the present I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do so during the game.
After the unbelievably amazing week we had, it was finally time to head home. This time we weren’t planning on stopping anywhere on the way. We decided to do the entire 23 hours straight. While that was definitely rough it was 100% worth it. On the way home I had time to reflect on everything that had just happened.
For me, the trip will always be defined by the game. But it’s also defined by the spontaneity. It seemed like every day we did something unexpected. And those wound up being some of my best memories from that week. The trip, more importantly, will be defined by my ability to live in the moment. Like I said earlier, I struggle with that. On this particular trip I learned how moving and powerful it can be to truly disconnect and be present in the moment, especially in regards to the people you’re with.
Speaking of those people, they deserve another shout out. Danny, Kevin, Jacob, and Joe made that week what it was. Sure, I could’ve flown out to Utah and gone to a game and had a good time. But those four guys made it a week I’ll never forget. In one of my previous posts I talked about how special it is to have people in your life who support and encourage the things you’re passionate about. These four guys didn’t make fun of my love for the Jazz. Instead they decided to drive 23 hours and wear Jazz shirts to make me happy. Those are special friends.
I’m very happy to say I’m still a diehard Jazz fan. Hayward left in free agency this summer. That was tough to swallow. But it’s okay because the Jazz drafted this rookie named Donovan Mitchell who’s turned about to be pretty darn good (that’s an extreme understatement). Mitchell may or may not be the background on my phone. Every game, especially every home game, holds a little something more for me now. Every time I see the word Utah I’m reminded of the incredible week I had there. Every time I see that arena I think of my dream coming true. Yeah, people laugh at me when I tell them I’m a Jazz fan. I know it seems random (because it is) and I know it seems strange. But for me, it feels so normal. I wish I could go back in time and tell 12 year old Drew that deciding to follow the Jazz would be one of the best decisions of his life.