'It's almost part of the religion'

Originally Published: October 27, 2003
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

Mark Bigelow was a sophomore when he strolled into the opposing arena that night a few years ago, unsure of the reception he and his BYU basketball teammates might receive. A good hint came two hours before tipoff, when the student section was crammed with fanatical young faces.

"They know everything about you," says Bigelow. "Your personal life, who you dated the night before, the names of your parents. They're holding up signs of your phone number. It's crazy, wild, out of control."

He isn't talking about Duke.

There are good Mormons, rogue Mormons, drunk Mormons, polygamy Mormons. But one thing they all have in common is basketball
Rick Majerus,
Utah head coach

Or Kansas.

Or North Carolina.

Or Kentucky.

Rather, those zealous fans of Utah State.

"I don't think anyone outside the state has a clue about the passion for basketball here," said Bigelow, a preseason all-Mountain West Conference selection this season. ""No idea."

The name Utah is derived from a Native American tribe and means people of the mountains. You can make an argument they are also the people of pull-up jumpers and crash-the-glass rebounds.

The NCAA Tournament arrived last March and four of the state's Division I teams found themselves celebrating on Selection Sunday: BYU and Utah of the Mountain West, Utah State of the Big West, and Weber State of the Big Sky all earned bids.

If it is a mystery to those who reside outside towns like Provo, Logan, Salt Lake and Ogden as to why basketball is so universally accepted in Utah, it is instead as much a way of life as snow storms for those who live there.

"I was born and raised in Indiana and coached high school ball there," says Weber State coach Joe Cravens, whose team won 17 straight last season en route to its 26-5 record. "And I can easily compare that state with Utah in terms of how much people really care about the game. There are outstanding players and coaches here."

Examining the reasons for basketball hysteria in the beehive state:

Utah Fans
Whether it's in Salt Lake City cheering the Utes ...

  • Mormons make up over 70 percent of the more than 2 million people in Utah and in every house of worship you will find a gymnasium. The zeal of weekly church league games is stuff of legend.Mormons don't grow up with basketball; they are born to it.

    "It's almost part of the religion," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "There are good Mormons, rogue Mormons, drunk Mormons, polygamy Mormons. But one thing they all have in common is basketball ... This didn't happen overnight. This has been a good basketball state for a long time."

  • It is one of the best one-two threats in NBA history, so successful that first names are not required to define its influence: Stockton-to-Malone. The Jazz have offered Utah its professional basketball franchise since 1979 and there is no question the presence of two certain Hall of Famers for so many years helped increase the game's popularity even more.

  • In a word, weather. "During the winter, there are only two things to do," says Bigelow. "Ski and play basketball. When it's that cold, you want to be inside."

  • In another word, pride. BYU and Utah are members of the same conference, but Utah State and Weber State reside in lesser ranked leagues. The underdog role only intensifies the rivalry mood.

    "When we play at Utah State this season, the intensity will be just the same or more and the game will be just as difficult as when we play Oklahoma State and North Carolina State," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland, whose team is favored to win the Mountain West. "It's just how those (in-state) games are."

    Utah State Fans
    ... or in Logan, cheering the Aggies, the fans of Utah love their basketball teams.

    Stew Morrill knows basketball in Utah as well as anyone. He was born and raised in Provo and has now built Utah State into a consistent Big West power, a team that won 20 or more four straight seasons. He knows the kind of homecourt advantage his team enjoys inside the Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum (capacity: 10,270, including some 4,000 maniac students who stand the entire game).

    "Our students set the tone for the entire arena," said Morrill. "Sometimes, they go right to the point of crossing the line, but I'd rather have them right up to the line than the other direction. If you're going to have a good homecourt advantage, you need some rowdiness.

    "As long as I can remember, this has been a basketball state. It has always been something that is important to the assemblage."

    There will be no less anticipation this season. BYU and Utah are considered the Mountain West's best teams by a good margin; Utah State is expected to sit among the Big West contenders along with UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside; and Weber State is picked by most to repeat as champion in the Big Sky.

    "When you get to league, it's almost a letdown some years after playing the (in-state) games," said Cravens. "They can wear you out emotionally. They are very, very hard-fought games with great atmosphere."

    He doesn't coach in Durham.

    Or Lawrence.

    Or Chapel Hill.

    Or Lexington.

    He speaks of basketball in Utah.

    Believe it.

    Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.