Even to those who don't keep track of such things—and Frank Layden does, to the very last cent—the Utah Jazz' win over the Houston Rockets in the fifth and final game of their first-round NBA playoff series Sunday was remarkable in one aspect. The Jazz won with five players who cost management only $806,000 a year. That's $494,000 less than what Houston pays Ralph Sampson, and only 26 Gs more than what they pay Akeem Olajuwon.
Layden is Utah's penny-pinching general manager. He has the third-smallest payroll in the NBA, and is known around the league as one of the most vocal proponents of fiscal sobriety. But he doubles as the Utah coach, and as the game in Houston's Summit wound down, Layden wasn't going with an austerity lineup just to prove a point. He had a game to win, and he was mindful of two things: that 7'4" Mark Eaton, his center and defensive linchpin, was through for the day, having gone down late in the first half with a hyperextension of the right knee; and that Houston coach Bill Fitch, who studies film like a habitué of some Left Bank cinematheque, had drummed into his Rockets every nuance and gesture of the Jazz offense.
So, with less than 10 minutes left and the Rockets leading 77-73, Layden told his players to relax and play their game. Layden likes to hand out calling cards inscribed with the late Brian Piccolo's credo, "You can't quit. It's a league rule." But Utah had shot a miserable 27.5% in the first half, and Eaton had just emerged from the locker room in street clothes. A change was in order. "The Rockets were moving along with us in stereo," Utah's Rich Kelley explained later. "Frank just junked our offense and told us to run the passing game. They didn't know where we were going because we didn't know."
"Passing game" is dignified hoopspeak for "schoolyard ball." You pass, cut and take the first good shot. With a curious collection of cut-rate talent—meet John Stockton ($125,000 per year), Fred Roberts ($86,000), Thurl Bailey ($235,000), Billy Paultz ($150,000) and Kelley ($210,000)—the Jazz passed and cut the very foundations out from under Twin Towers Sampson and Olajuwon with a 104-97 victory that moved them into the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
When Utah's victory was complete—the Jazz played the entire final quarter without star guards Rickey Green and Darrell Griffith, and most of it without star forward Adrian Dantley—Layden would field a congratulatory phone message from his neighbor Sharlene Wells, a.k.a. Miss America.
So why play the Fire-Sale Five? Layden, an Irish Catholic, probably just had a good feeling about Stockton, a 6'1" rookie from Gonzaga who shares his coach's lineage and has a father who runs a bar. Surely Layden knew that Bailey, the 6'11" former North Carolina State forward, had helped end Sampson's college career (in the 1983 NCAA West Regional), and Olajuwon's penultimate college season (in the 1983 NCAA title game), on sour notes. Maybe he figured that the state of Utah's own Roberts, a 6'10" forward who, two seasons ago, was traded for a coach, would play as coolly as if this were just another game of ward ball, which is Mormon for CYO. But anyone would have been hard-pressed to imagine Paultz, who's 6'11" and 36, and Kelley, who's 7 feet and 32, neutralizing colts like the 6'11" Olajuwon and the 7'4" Sampson.
On Sunday, however, while Bailey (20 points) lofted soft jumpers over 6'8" Rodney McCray, while Roberts scored inside and out and while Stockton ran down loose balls—including a crucial one in the last minute with Utah nursing a 96-93 lead—Paultz and Kelley would not be moved. Their teammates call them the American Towers, after the apartment building in Salt Lake City where they share digs. "A variety of folks drop by at a variety of hours," Kelley says. "It's big and sparsely furnished, with rented everything. If we could have rented silverware, we would have."
When you're as peripatetic as Kelley and Paultz, you tend to rent. Between them they have changed teams 10 times—but they've also played for 25 seasons and in 20 playoffs. In 39 minutes of Game 5, almost all in the second half, they delivered 13 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Some 15 years ago, as a postseason rookie on the ABA New York Nets, Paultz was schooled by the Utah Stars' Zelmo Beatty. He hasn't missed a playoff since, and on Sunday, when it counted, he tutored the rookie Olajuwon.
For the Jazz, the victory was a stirring moment in the most soap-operatic year in their misbegotten 11-year history. High-scoring forward John Drew had been waived in December after suffering a relapse of his cocaine dependency, and the team's status in Utah had been uncertain until Larry Miller, a Salt Lake City automobile dealer, stepped forward last month to buy 50% of the team.
But more than anything else, Utah's victory vindicated Layden's fiercely principled frugality. He and Dantley had been locked in a bitter dispute after Dantley held out through all of training camp and the first six games of the regular season, for the purpose of getting his $515,000-a-year contract renegotiated. Layden accused Dantley and his agent, David Falk, of holding the franchise "hostage." He stripped Dantley of his captaincy, and said that their relationship would "never be the same again."
The club eventually gave in, granting Dantley a three-year extension at $900,000 a season. But Layden didn't begin the reconciliation process until after the All-Star break. "I can't condone what he did, but I wouldn't be so vocal or demonstrative again," says Layden, who eventually restored Dantley to co-captain along with Griffith. "I just alienated myself from a star player. We're both intelligent professionals with the same goals in mind. Adrian's playing now like he's trying to make up for what he did."
Dantley had scored 34 points in Utah's 115-101 Game 1 victory, though he and all the Jazz were stifled in Game 2, a 122-96 Houston blowout. (Layden, reasoning that "they weren't listening to me," invited Utah Sen. Jake Garn, fresh from his Discovery space shuttle mission, to the Jazz locker room at the intermission, evidently figuring Garn knew something about the workings of Rockets.) Dantley squeezed off a crucial last-minute 20-footer in Utah's 112-104 victory in Game 3, and moments later alertly left his man, Lewis Lloyd, to tie up Sampson for a jump ball. Dantley's play was typical of the Jazz game plan of defending Sampson and Olajuwon by sending smaller people down to help out. "We don't have the good weakside rebounding you need to front people," Layden says, "and there's no sense in fronting when we have Mark Eaton."
Fans at the Salt Palace post a large black "B" behind one basket each time Eaton, who won the league's shot-blocking championship over Olajuwon by a more than two-to-one margin, swats away a shot. Seven Bs hung from the mezzanine facade at halftime of Game 4, after Eaton staked the Jazz to a 49-38 halftime lead. The Rockets, in turn, out-scored their hosts 26-4 in one stretch of the third quarter, and led 94-83 with 1:19 remaining.
But Griffith lobbed home three straight three-point shots within 25 dizzying seconds, and only Olajuwon's block of Stockton's drive as time ran out—this after Olajuwon had foolishly shot instead of holding the ball moments earlier—preserved Houston's 96-94 win. "I realize I should just hold ball," Akeem said afterward. "But I shoot it, so I have to make up for it." Said Fitch, who was at once seething and relieved to be going home with the series tied, "The last two minutes were a nightmare. We can't have this attitude that the good Lord always takes care of the devil Irishman." Especially when devil Irishmen are coaching both sides.
Olajuwon did finish a spectacular series with 32 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in Game 5. But he may have connected on one shot too many when, with 6:44 left, he dealt Paultz a sucker punch to the face. Olajuwon would say later that Paultz had pushed him "six times" and gone unpunished for it. The officials, preoccupied with a Sampson dunk at the time, missed the face job. But instead of retaliating, Paultz asked Akeem, "Is that the best you've got?"
It evidently was. "Billy knew he had more license to muscle Akeem after that, because the refs knew they'd missed something," Kelley said. "All of a sudden you could feel Houston getting tighter. They'd take turnarounds from 12 feet out instead of eight. If there's one thing Billy and I know how to do, it's lean on people."
From their passing game, the Jazz began to go right where Houston had been all series: the offensive boards. Roberts made one of Utah's three fourth-quarter tip-ins and played until he lost a contact lens with 1:48 remaining. Meanwhile, the Jazz continued to sink their foul shots. "That's where we snuck up on them," said Paultz. The Game 5 free-throw figures—28-of-32 for the Jazz, 15-of-30 for the Rockets—were representative of the series. Over the five games, Dantley alone made 53 free throws, including six in the final 16 seconds of the final game.
"That team on the floor was our green team with Captain Kelley!" Layden yelled in the locker room. "It beats our first team regularly!
"The good Lord helped me out," Layden went on. "He made the contact lens fall out of Roberts' eye so I got to put Dantley in."
Which only goes to show that He does indeed take care of the devil Irishman. And that you've got to forgive. It's a league rule.