Just as one can't always see the forest for the trees, there are times in the NBA when the distracting clutter of streaks, hype, records and tantrums obscures some fundamental movement in the firmament. That's how it was last week for the Utah Jazz, a team awash in anticipatory hoopla concerning guard John Stockton's imminent seizure of the NBA career assist record. Fifty-four times in four Jazz victories, Stockton found the open man for a score—via bounce pass, touch pass, baseball pass, lob pass—everything but arterial bypass. By week's end Stockton, the self-effacing tavernkeeper's son from Spokane, had passed Oscar Robertson and moved into second place on the all-time assists list, a mere 25 shy of Magic Johnson's 9.921.
But even more was happening. Last Thursday night the Jazz took a 10-game winning streak and a 14-game road winning streak into the Tacoma Dome against the Seattle SuperSonics, who were defending their own 10-game victory string and a run of 17 consecutive home wins. To almost everyone's surprise, the Sonics—who matched up well with Utah tree for tree, but sometimes fell short in the forest department—crumpled under a fourth-quarter assault by the Jazz's bench players and lost 120-108. The victory inched Utah, which will play its next away game this Thursday against the Houston Rockets, to within one win of the NBA record 16-game road streak of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. The streak helped the Jazz build a 15-4 road record at week's end, the league's best, which augurs well for Utah because in 11 of the last 14 seasons the team with the best record away from home has gone to the NBA Finals.
All the fuss over the streak prompted Jazz coach Jerry Sloan to loosen his tie and say, "So what? Nobody cares."
That was not precisely true. In the long NBA winter, fans and pundits allow themselves to care moderately about all sorts of ephemeral events. On Jan. 20 the Jazz celebrated forward Karl Malone's 20,000th point, which came on a free throw at Salt Lake City's Delta Center. ("It's a nice bump in the road," said the Mailman. "I'll stop for a second and look at the bump, but I won't get out of the car.") Next, on Jan. 25, the 10-millionth fan in the franchise's 21-year history passed through the turnstiles; that same day Sloan signed a two-year contract extension.
Then you get a genuine milestone, like Stockton's assists record, and the man of the hour smiles shyly and says, "I think it will mean something later on. Right now, I just want to play."
Malone, having benefited from nine-plus seasons of Stockton's largesse, feared that his teammate's achievement would be undervalued. "What's amazing to me," the Mailman said after last week's 130-88 hammering in Salt Lake City of a bone-weary Sacramento King team, "is when you talk about great guards in history, his name never comes up. And I don't understand that."
Actually Stockton's name does get mentioned with the likes of Johnson, Robertson, Isiah Thomas (fourth on the career assists list) and Maurice Cheeks (fifth). Before taking on Utah last week, Seattle coach George Karl said, "Stockton is, right now, as good as any point guard that has played the game." But Stockton is the only one among the top five who has not won an NBA title.
So what was most compelling last week was not the steady accumulation of Stockton's assist total, but the accumulation of evidence that the Jazz, the whole team, might be for real. With Saturday night's 111-94 home victory over the New Jersey Nets, Utah finished the week atop the Midwest Division, 5 Vi games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and six in front of the defending champion Rockets. Most preseason forecasts had the Jazz chasing both those teams to the playoffs and maybe bowing out in the first round. Twenty thousand points, the cynics noted, is a good time to trade in your 31-year-old Malone on a new model, and surely the 32-year-old Stockton's odometer is ready to flip over to straight zeroes. But the Malone-Stockton machine has purred through the early schedule.
"Have Karl and John showed any signs of slowing down?" Utah forward Adam Keefe asked at a practice last week—and then answered his own question with a shake of his head. "I played with Dominique Wilkins at Atlanta, and with him 1 saw signs of slowing down. But these guys are playing better and better."
Still, Stockton and Malone have never been able to drag the Jazz closer to the NBA title than the Western Conference finals. What buoys Utah's hopes this time around is a supporting cast more formidable than the journeymen of yore. Maturing David Benoit gives Sloan a swift, slashing small forward. John Crotty supplies a reliable backup to the durable Stockton (who has only missed four games as a pro). And eight-year veteran Jeff Hornacek, an undersized (6'4") shooting guard acquired last year from the Philadelphia 76ers, provides the outside threat—at week's end he was averaging 17.6 points a game.
Horny, as Hornacek is known even in straitlaced Utah, has exploited the new, drawn-in three-point line to punish defenders who linger in Stockton's passing lanes. From Dec. 30 to Jan. 11 he tied Scott Wedman's NBA record by hitting 11 consecutive three-point attempts; in November he had set a league record by making eight straight in a game against Seattle. "But to label him as just a three-point shooter would be unfair to him," says Stockton. "He's mentally tough, and he makes big plays."
Equally important, if less heralded, was the acquisition of much-traveled, 33-year-old forward Antoine (Big Dog) Carr, who signed as a free agent on Oct. 29. In Carr, a powerful post-up man with frantic moves around the blocks and a decent medium-range jumper, the Jazz has a slightly older and balder version of Malone. And the most surprising contributor has been the 6'9" Keefe, who in two seasons with the Hawks did not prosper as a strong forward among the strong egos of Atlanta. Sloan is remaking Keefe as a small forward, and when Benoit missed 11 games with an ankle injury, Keefe filled in impressively. In last week's game against Seattle, Keefe came off the bench in the third quarter and down the stretch scored 16 points while grabbing seven rebounds.
The best evidence that this Jazz team is more than three guys watching a clinic by Stockton and Malone is Utah's 8-0 record since Jan. 13—the day solid starting center Felton Spencer went down for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon. Last week Sloan juggled his lineup around former Dallas Maverick stalwart James Donaldson, who at age 37 was playing recreational basketball in Seattle when the Jazz signed him to a 10-day contract (since renewed). Donaldson, a 7'2" court-clogger, seems to have misplaced all his fast-twitch fibers, but he fit in immediately. Sloan started him against Dallas on Jan. 23 and Sacramento two days later, with Carr and Benoit backing him up. Whether such tactics will work against powerful and agile centers like Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and San Antonio's David Robinson is questionable, and Jazz doubters are already reciting the mantra of past seasons: one player away.
"Well, you're never really one player away," Stockton says, "because you have to give up something to get something." This deep into the season, that is something Scott Layden, Utah's director of basketball operations, is reluctant to do for fear of disrupting the NBA's most harmonious roster. To a man these Jazz players paint their team portrait in shades of rose and peach. "It's like the old Celtics," says Keefe. "Nobody plays for statistics or for their contracts."
No one frets over the roster dilemma more than Sloan does. When asked before a recent practice if he feared another 50-plus-win season with no championship ring, he recalled his own career as an All-Star guard for the Chicago Bulls. "We won 50 games a year, three years in a row, and we never won a championship," he said. Almost savagely, he added, "It doesn't mean we're not going to do it."
At this point Sloan's is just a voice in the wilderness. But to watch his Jazz last week was to wonder if an old-fashioned, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts basketball team might still be capable of winning it all. In the second quarter against Seattle, on a night when Malone seemed a step slower than All-Star forward Shawn Kemp (who is six years the Mailman's junior), Stockton fed Malone on one of those perfect pick-and-rolls they have executed countless times. Malone's dunk shook the basket and reminded the Sonics that you can, as the Mailman says, "be from the old school and get it done."
Sloan may be right: The world will little note nor long remember that the Jazz won 15 straight road games, or even more. But basketball purists care about the way Utah did it, because basketball played right—the way the Jazz has been playing it of late—is its own reward.