(JTA) — When Kyrie Irving’s Dallas Mavericks came to Salt Lake City on Monday to face the Utah Jazz, Rabbi Avremi Zippel knew he had to be there.
Zippel, his brother Chaim, their father Benny and their friend Moshe Nigri — all of whom attended Monday night’s matchup — are Chabad rabbis who work at the Hasidic movement’s Utah outpost in Salt Lake City. Avremi is a huge Jazz fan, and he wanted to send a message to Irving, the NBA star who was suspended in November 2022 after he promoted an antisemitic documentary that denied the Holocaust and initially refused to apologize. He later apologized following an eight-game suspension.
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.”
“Some of the things that Kyrie said about the Jewish community and about Holocaust denial were vile and disgusting,” Zippel told The Salt Lake Tribune.
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 Tribune, adding that Irving’s response bothered him. Irving — who isn’t Jewish but has said he has Jewish relatives — 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.
But 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’s account. At halftime, a Jazz staffer told them that Irving had complained to security. (Reached by JTA, the Mavericks declined to comment.)
On Wednesday, after Zippel’s account of the exchange garnered national attention, a representative for Irving denied the whole episode — claiming that the All-Star neither complained about the signs nor interacted with the rabbis.
Reached by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Thursday, Zippel said Irving’s denial is “a lie that is debunked by the two to 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.”
On Tuesday, the Jazz said in a statement 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. No matter where someone is in the arena, 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. And he disputed that his signs had caused any disruption.
“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. “And so 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; I’m curious where that goes, how broadly that can be applied?”
Zippel wrote in a post on X that “there was one person, in a building of 18,000+, that was triggered” by his signs.
“Why that bothers him so, to the point that it sparks an interaction, should be the real question anyone is asking,” he wrote.
The Jazz, who celebrate home victories by playing “Hava Nagila” over the arena’s loudspeakers, defeated the Mavericks 127-90. Irving, whose team recently changed Jewish owners — from Mark Cuban to Miriam Adelson — scored 14 points.
Zippel told JTA that prior to Monday, his relationship with the Jazz had been “overwhelmingly positive.” He said his Chabad center has orchestrated Hanukkah celebrations at Jazz games for years, including one last month.
He said, “What has happened on Monday and since Monday is highly unusual for the organization.”