SALT LAKE CITY — Lorne Sleem grew up in England. The main sport there — as we all know — is soccer, or football as they call it. But Sleem found himself attached to another sport: basketball. He worked as a water boy where he would come into contact with NBA players who were playing overseas.

Soon enough — like any young fan — Sleem chose a very specific team to celebrate across the pond: the Utah Jazz.

Why the Jazz? His family had a lot of friends in Utah, so they’d come visit, catch a game, the works.

“So Utah ended up becoming like a team that made sense for me to root for,” he said.

His family is from Utah. His wife, actually, is from Utah, too. So now, he sees himself as a “full Jazz fan.”

Recently, the Utah Jazz became a fan of Sleem, too. So much so that they commissioned him to develop a unique jacket for the team as a part of a recent campaign to celebrate the team and the social justice stances.

A jacket design from Lorne Sleem.
A jacket design from Lorne Sleem. | Matt De Nesnera (Larry H. Miller S&E)

The Utah Jazz recognize the moment. As the NBA teams battled down in the NBA bubble, the Jazz organization puts its focus on another area: the local art scene in Salt Lake City. A theme was created — one called “We Are With You,” which focused on the community’s support for the Utah Jazz, who were playing thousands of miles away in Orlando.

The organization asked local artists to create original works to help support the team from far away. Seven artists were picked. And then came the art — music, graphic designs, animation and more.

But now — with the Jazz’s playoff run over and the team resting in the offseason — local art has become more than just a way for the fans to cheer on the team from miles away. It has morphed into a symbol of the modern issues of our time. Racial injustice, inequality and police violence permeate through Salt Lake City, and art displays point to all of those issues.

And the Utah Jazz is embracing that art scene.

A part of something bigger

David Young, a creative director with the Utah Jazz, recently told the Deseret News that the team has worked to put an emphasis on the local arts scene. Game day action comes naturally, but the art speaks to the long-term community impact of the team, he said.

Embracing local arts became even more important during the NBA playoffs, which have put an emphasis on social issues and racial injustice and questions about whether or not to play because of the injustice. That’s why we see the “Black Lives Matter” slogan on the court. And why players have phrases like “Love Us” and “Say Her Name” printed on the back of their jerseys down in Orlando.

Stateside, the Utah Jazz wanted people to know they stand with the players.

“This is a unique circumstance where we’re thousands of miles away from them, so we sort of flipped that on its head,” Young said. “We are with them and we can be with them still.”

“We are a part of something bigger,” he said.

It’s not just the playoffs. It wasn’t just the Utah Jazz making a run. It was part of the “whole circumstance that we’re all living in basketball,” Young said.

So the team reached out to local artists for ideas. They received some submissions during the first eight games of the NBA bubble. They decided to keep it going through the playoffs.

“I’ve wanted this effort to engage our local community, our local creative community and all the diverse talent that we have in Salt Lake City,” he said.

One of those artists was Sleem. He was asked to create a jacket — one that honored the Utah Jazz and the Beehive State. So he made it, using actual salt from the Great Salt Lake to bleach the design.

Working with the players

The Utah Jazz organization has long embraced local art in the Salt Lake City area. In November 2018, the team helped commission a mural outside of Valter’s by South African artist Karabo Poppy.

In that same month, a mural on the exterior of Zions Bank — done by local artist Trent Call — was commissioned as well. The mural highlighted Utah Jazz history in celebration of the team’s 40 seasons in the Beehive State.

And who could forget the mural of Donovan Mitchell that hangs at The Gateway? There’s even talk of adding a City Edition mural down in St. George.

Artists Chuck Landvatter and Jared Smith work on a painting of Donovan Mitchell, of the Utah Jazz, prior to an event where the pedestrian bridge spanning 100 South at The Gateway in Salt Lake City was named after Mitchell on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

This isn’t just a team office initiative. The players have become actively involved in the process, too, Young said.

Rudy Gobert worked with commissioned artists during the creative process to create pieces for the Utah Jazz. In fact, he worked with Sleem on the jacket piece.

The jacket is unique in that it includes multiple phrases that the team used for their games down in Orlando.

“They mentioned something about using the phrases that the players have been using on their jerseys,” Sleem said. “And so, I lent more towards that, and wanted to create something that unified all that calls and systemic racism and promote social justice — the things that they have written on the jerseys. I wanted to make something that took all those jerseys and there’s like one place, like a statement piece that says we are with you, with your fight (for) racial equality.”

That’s because basketball players don’t just play basketball. They’re artists. They embrace drama. They embrace the world around them.

They’re embracing the moment, too.

“I think there’s a real strong connection,” said Young, of the Utah Jazz. “Basketball doesn’t seem like it’s just a sport anymore. It brings in a lot of different people. It’s a cultural thing that transcends, you know, it gets into music, art, fashion. Players have expressed, you know, that they like it, they like they like art, they feel like they’re artists in their own own regard, in terms of what they’re doing out on the drama that is the basketball game. A real life drama, out there on the court. They feel the same emotions as an artist.”