Moments after the University of Utah earned its first Final Four appearance since 1966, a couple dozen reporters stood outside the Ute locker room last weekend at the Anaheim Pond, waiting for interviews.
"So," joked a writer from a national publication, "Utah's taking over the world."Shucks. What can we say?
One thing you have to admit about the place that used to self-deprecatingly call itself "A Pretty, Great State": It's on a roll. We have the MVP Mailman and his little Irish buddy. We have the Human Laugh Machine, Rick Majerus. We don't have any Leonardos, but we do have the two most boyishly handsome middle-aged Bobs in the world - Urich and Redford. American skiing's most famous star, Picabo Street, adores the place and has vowed to return for the 2002 Games. We have Park City and the Salt Flats and Delicate Arch . . . and doesn't everyone want a mountain to look at every morning? Even the Great Salt Lake is gaining respect. Now they're doing boat tours around Antelope Island, complete with dinner. The economy is thriving, unemployment is shockingly low and Utah is enjoying unprecedented publicity.
"With the Jazz going to the NBA Finals last year, everyone was pulling for them," said Boston Herald sports writer Mark Murphy. "They're one team everyone likes. And then Utah has (Rick) Majerus. How can you not like him? So is Utah on a roll? It's definitely looking that way."
The Utes' trip to San Antonio to play North Carolina today is the latest in a string of occurrences and events that have put Utah in the national spotlight. Fifteen months ago, BYU won the biggest bowl game any local team has played in - the Cotton Bowl - and finished fifth in the national rankings. Last summer, the Jazz made it to the NBA Finals for the first time in history. The way they're playing, another run to the Finals isn't a wild notion. Now the Utes are in the Final Four, and Utahns are lapping it up like so much Snelgrove's ice cream.
While Utah has periodically had big events before, such as the NBA All-Star Game in 1993 and the Final Four in 1979, it has never been in the news so often. When Salt Lake City was named host of the 2002 Winter Games three years ago, things escalated. For perhaps the first time in history, someone besides Utahns agreed: This is the place. In an era in which altitude is the ultimate high, the Wasatch Front has become a recreational destination.
These days, there are fewer Osmond jokes and more rave reviews. This week David Letterman made several references to Majerus and the Utes. Each time he mentioned Utah, a rowdy portion of the studio audience broke into cheers.
"I see a lot more things to do in Salt Lake City than I used to," said Toronto Star writer Chris Young. "In December I was there with the (Toronto) Raptors and I noticed all the new restaurants and a couple of new bars. I guess it's the Olympics thing."
He continued, "I was there for a week (during the NBA Finals) last summer, and it was delightful. Utah used to be nothing but a punch line. Now I think people are treating it with a little more respect, especially since the Olympics."
Thus, the events are rolling in, and Utah's status is on the rise. Between now and 2002, every major Olympic winter sports event will hold a championship in Utah, beginning with the U.S. Figure Skating Championships next January. The Outdoor Retailers convention makes an annual stop, bringing 15,000 people with it. In the non-sports department, in June the Southern Baptist convention and 20,000 fervent believers will be believing in Utah, as well.
Even Brian Williams - the Detroit center who insists the most exciting things to do in Salt Lake are playing bingo and square dancing - apologized, saying he was "extending the olive branch."
There is, of course, one problem with all this prosperity: It could end quickly. In 1991, Minneapolis was the epitome of sports success and fame. It hosted the Stanley Cup Finals, U.S. Open, World Series, Super Bowl and Final Four in a 12-month span. Now the North Stars have left town, the Twins are on the brink of leaving and the Vikings have new ownership. The Timberwolves nearly left two years ago.
But for now, Utahns are enjoying the moment. We're cruising down the freeway with the top down. Like Majerus, we're grabbing for the gusto, enjoying the moment. Is it all going to end? Naaah. Pass the Cheese Whiz.