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Utah Jazz Scholarship program makes every win a little more significant

With each victory, the Jazz provide a Utah high school student from an underrepresented group with a full college scholarship

SALT LAKE CITY — Last May, William Gustave nervously awaited potentially life-altering news when his cellphone suddenly vibrated with a FaceTime call from a number he didn’t recognize. Gustave answered anyway and was shocked to see NBA All-Star Donovan Mitchell telling him the news that the Utah Jazz had awarded him a full college scholarship to a university of his choice in the state.

“I had to call and let you know. I wanted to be the first to congratulate you,” Mitchell told Gustave.

Screams of joy followed for the first-generation college student who now attends the University of Utah as a freshman, thanks to the Utah Jazz Scholarship program.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my friend or someone is calling me,’ and I picked up and it was Donovan Mitchell on my phone,” Gustave, 19, said. “It was the craziest thing ever. I see him on the phone and he’s telling me that I got the scholarship and I started screaming and yelling. I couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t finish his sentence without me yelling and screaming throughout the house.

“My mom came upstairs asking what was going on. To this day it is still hard to believe that Donovan Mitchell called me to tell me that I won a scholarship. It was just an amazing experience.”

Before the 2020-21 season, Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith pledged to give a full college scholarship to a Utah high school student from an underrepresented group to a public university in the state for every win in the preseason, regular season and postseason. The winners of the college scholarships have primarily been teenagers of color who need financial assistance in the predominantly white state.

The Smiths, billionaires who live in Provo, Utah, and who bought the team in October 2020, determined that giving back through education could have a great impact. According to DATA USA, the enrolled student population at the University of Utah in 2019 was 64.9% white, 11.7% Hispanic or Latino, 5.7% Asian, 4.9% two or more races and 1.2% Black. The Smiths also learned there was a major gap between the number of students from ethnically diverse groups in Utah high schools and the number of those students who go on to postsecondary education, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

By helping more disadvantaged students of color get into Utah universities, the Smiths determined that the Jazz are not only aiding the scholarship winners but helping the schools become more diverse.

“One of the very first things we sat down with was, ‘What are we going to do to make community impact?’ ” said Ryan Smith, a co-founder of Qualtrics, an experience management company. “And then, with social justice, ‘How are we going to go try to help Utah?’ And we came up with four or five segments, and one of those segments was education. And we just kept going back to education. It’s the blaring gap where everything goes back to education. If I look at both me and my wife’s lives, we met at school, everything we have started from that education.

“It wasn’t as much what we were just learning in class. It was the experience, the responsibility, the creativity, it was such a pivotal moment of your life. And so, we broke that down and we said, ‘OK, there’s a couple parts that are really hard with education. No. 1, if someone doesn’t have resources or mentorship or this, even if you had good grades, how do you get in the university system?’”

The criteria to win the Utah Jazz Scholarship includes: being a Utah high school graduate who is a person of color and was admitted to Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University, Weber State University, University of Utah, Utah State University or Utah Valley University. Preference is given to those with demonstrated financial need and who are first-generation college students. The first 30 recipients of the scholarship enrolled as freshmen at six Utah universities in the fall of 2021.

“It was really cool to be able to impact lives,” Mitchell said. “Typically, when you hear of these scholarships, it is a one-year thing. This is all four years, room and board, books. That to me is inspiring and what we all stand for. For Ryan to come in and make that the first [charitable] thing that he has done with this group is pretty special.

“We all feel it through it all the season. We want to play well because we are changing lives.”

Ryan Smith (left) and his wife, Ashley Smith (right), were committed to giving back to the Utah community when they purchased the team in 2020.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

During the 2020-21 NBA season, the Jazz earned three preseason wins, six postseason wins and an NBA-best 52 regular-season wins to bring the scholarship total to 61. The Jazz say hundreds of students applied for the scholarship with recipients chosen by 10,000 Degrees, a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area that has supported students from low-income backgrounds through college for more than 40 years.

Each of the 30 Utah Jazz Scholarship recipients this school year demonstrated financial need and 90% will be first-generation college students. Fifty-three percent of the recipients are female. The remaining 31 scholarships from last season will be given for the 2022-23 school year.

Players from the Jazz enjoyed calling several of the recipients to let them know they were part of the first class of the Utah Jazz Scholarship.

“I was able to call [Gustave] and let him know,” Mitchell said. “That might have been the coolest part. A lot of the kids are getting these scholarships are first- or maybe second-generation going to college. To see their family freak out from seeing not only their favorite basketball player on the screen, but to share that life-changing moment with them is pretty dope.

“They were shocked that I was on the phone. They were probably like, ‘Who the hell is calling me from this number?’ But after I told them what was going on, there was a moment of shock. They can’t believe it’s happening. I know the feeling when you work your whole life for something and then it works out. For me, it would be like [NBA] draft night.”

Gustave is a native of Tanzania who lived in a refugee camp before his family moved to Utah. After being motivated by an influential eighth grade teacher, he became interested in possibly becoming an architect or involved in computer science. The West Jordan, Utah, resident graduated from Kearns High School on the honor roll and with a 3.6 GPA.

Gustave was accepted to the University of Utah with the Jazz footing the bill.

“Ever since I was little, my goal has been to go to college,” Gustave said. “My whole family wanted someone to get to college and finish school and get a good education. We weren’t rich, so having a scholarship to help me do that has been the greatest blessing. It’s truly the biggest thing that could happen to us and my parents were really happy, my whole family was really happy and proud of me. I was too, it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me …

“I don’t know where I would be without it. I am superhappy and I cannot wait to accomplish my goals.”

Ryan and Ashley Smith hosted several of last year’s scholarship recipients at the Qualtrics headquarters for a Jazz-Heat watch party and dinner on Nov. 6, 2021. The Smiths spoke one-on-one with the students and gave them a motivational speech. They also ate a buffet dinner and dessert and watched the Jazz’s 118-115 loss to Miami from the Qualtrics theater room.

The Smiths get emotional when they reflect on learning firsthand how the scholarship program is changing perhaps generations of lives.

“We brought them all together to watch a game because they’re now all separated all over the state with six different schools,” Ryan Smith said. “We had a long conversation together about, ‘You guys are the first class. You got to be successful. You have to be successful. We all need you. All the other generations need you to be successful. Let’s go help each other. Stay as a group. You are the very first class of Jazz Scholars.’

“And after we left, I’ll never forget my wife turning to me going, ‘That’s the most impactful thing I’ve been a part of. We’re doing this.’ ”

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and his wife pledged to give a full-ride college scholarship to a Utah high school student a Utah public university for every Jazz win … even the preseason.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

The inaugural Utah Jazz Scholarship class keeps in touch on a group text, and 10,000 Degrees also keeps tabs on all the scholarship winners during their first year of college. One CEO of a health care provider told Ryan Smith he will hire any college graduate from the program involved in health care.

Following the Jazz’s 111-85 home win over the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 9, the Jazz stated in a graphic on their Twitter account: “36 WINS… 36 SCHOLARSHIPS” and added, “the best part of winning.”

“After a preseason win, [then-Jazz forward] Joe Ingles asked in front of everyone in the locker room, ‘Does that count for the scholarship?’ ” Ryan Smith said. “And I was like, ‘A win’s a win. A win’s a win.’ ”

It’s uncertain how long the Smiths will continue to run the program, but for the current and future recipients, who will at least surpass 100, the Jazz hope they can affect the state for many years to come.

“For future recipients, they have another resource to look forward to and apply for,” Gustave said. “I have siblings and friends who really could use a scholarship like this. It’s a really wonderful thing. I will definitely be telling them to apply.”

Said Ashley Smith: “If one win is going to help one kid and his future generation, it’s really cool to be a part of that. And, it’s just important to us.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.