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Utah Jewish pride ‘a distraction’ at Jazz game

By Jacob Gurvis

When Kyrie Irving’s Dallas Mavericks came to Salt Lake City on New Year’s Day to face the Utah Jazz, Rabbi Avremi Zippel knew he had to be there.

L-r: Rabbis Avremi Zippel, Chaim Zippel, Moshe Nigri and Benny Zippel at an NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks, Jan. 1, 2024. (Courtesy)

Zippel, his brother Chaim, their father Benny and their friend Moshe Nigri are all Chabad rabbis in Utah; Chaim Zippel is based in Lehi, and the others in Salt Lake City. 

A huge Jazz fan, Avremi wanted to send a message to Irving, the NBA star who was suspended in November, 2022 after he promoted an anti-Semitic documentary.

The episode still stung Zippel, so the quartet of rabbis secured courtside seats and held up identical signs reading, “I’m a Jew and I’m proud,” with a Star of David replacing the “o” in “proud.”

An arena guard snapped the rabbis’ picture and Jazz owner Ryan Smith greeted them. At first, Zippel said, the signs did not appear to upset anyone — including Irving, who complimented the message and showed the rabbis his Star of David tattoo.

“He comes by, he looks at the sign, and he says, ‘Nice. I’m a Jew, too,’” Zippel told the Salt Lake Tribune, adding that Irving’s response bothered him. Irving, who isn’t Jewish, may have been echoing the Black Hebrew Israelite claim that African Americans are the true Jews. But Zippel said he wished Irving a happy new year and moved on.

Moments later, according to Zippel, Irving’s tone changed: As the Dallas guard dribbled the ball up the court, he yelled to the rabbis, “Don’t gotta bring something like that to the game.”

During the next timeout, a security guard approached Zippel’s group and checked their tickets. Then another guard told them to put the signs down, according to Zippel. At halftime, a Jazz staffer told them that Irving had complained to security.

On Jan. 3, after Zippel’s account of the exchange garnered national attention, a representative for Irving denied the whole episode.

But Zippel said there were “two or three dozen people who watched the interaction,” plus video footage that can be seen from the game. A statement released by the Jazz, he noted, also acknowledges that the interaction took place.

Zippel added, “We obviously did not take down those signs of our own volition.”

The previous day, the Jazz said that Zippel’s signs violated the policies of the team’s arena, the Delta Center, meant to ensure that “games can be played without distraction and disruption . . . if a sign becomes distracting or sparks an interaction with a player, we will ask them to remove it.”

The statement added, “The issue was the disruptive interaction caused by usage of the signs, not the content of the signs.”

Zippel said he had checked the arena’s regulations before the game and did not think that his group had violated any rules.

“The Jazz seemed to fully acknowledge that we said nothing to Kyrie, [but that] Kyrie walked over, saw the sign, and chose to comment on it,” Zippel told the Tribune. “This idea that if you have signage that sparks interaction with a player, we’re going to ask you to take down that sign, I’m curious where that precedent leads to . . . how broadly that can be applied?”

Zippel said that prior to last week, his relationship with the Jazz had been “overwhelmingly positive.” Chabad of Utah hosts an annual Chanukah event at a Jazz game. “What has happened on [Jan. 1] and since [Jan. 1] is highly unusual for the organization,” he said.



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