At first the Wasatch Range commands your attention. The
mountains rise steeply along the eastern side of Salt Lake City,
cutting a jagged line into the sky and taking your breath away
with their splendor. But as time passes and you get used to
seeing them towering just ahead or looming over your shoulder,
you begin to take them for granted. Eventually their permanence
dulls their magnificence. So perhaps it was inevitable, after
having played in the shadow of those mountains for so long, that
the Utah Jazz would be viewed similarly: rock-solid and
impressive yet with a tendency to fade into the background.
During this regular season, Utah cast a shadow over the rest of
the Western Conference, finishing with a 64-18 record, the best
in the franchise's 23-year history and second best in the NBA
this season, to the Chicago Bulls' 69-13. In fact, in the last
nine years the Jazz has won at least 51 games in every season
but one (1992-93, when it slipped to 47-35), amassed three
Midwest Division titles and made three trips to the conference
finals but still hasn't hung up an NBA championship banner.
Strange thing about mountains: No matter how high they are, they
never touch the sky.
That would seem to be a maddening pattern, one that would cause
a team to break apart by erosion, through free-agent departures
or by design, with wholesale firings and trades, but the key
players and the management in Utah have stayed the course. The
Jazz's two future Hall of Famers, forward Karl Malone and point
guard John Stockton, are in their 12th season together in Utah.
("Someday," says Jazz play-by-play broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley,
"people in this town are going to be meeting at the corner of
Stockton and Malone.") As always they are surrounded by an able
supporting cast that is a smooth blend of experience--this
season that would be three-point threat Jeff Hornacek and
veteran inside banger Antoine Carr--and youth, most notably
underrated fourth-year small forward Bryon Russell and energetic
rookie swingman Shandon Anderson.
With Malone, 33, having the finest season of his remarkable
career, Utah this week enters its first-round playoff series
against the Los Angeles Clippers with perhaps the best chance it
has ever had to reach the NBA Finals. In addition to having
earned home court advantage through the Western Conference
finals with its superb regular-season record, the Jazz won three
out of four games against the Seattle SuperSonics and the Los
Angeles Lakers, the conference's second and fourth seeds,
respectively, and split four games with the No. 3 seed, the
Houston Rockets. The Jazz also beat all of them on the road.
(Utah won twice in Seattle.) But Utah's confidence has to be
tempered by the knowledge that the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon and
the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal have taken advantage of the Jazz's
weakness at center, where second-year man Greg Ostertag is the
starter. Olajuwon averaged 30.3 points against Utah, including
games of 38 and 41 points, and O'Neal had 39 points and 13
rebounds in the Lakers' 100-98 home victory over the Jazz on
April 27, 1997
If the 7'2", 279-pound Ostertag remains unable to prevent
Olajuwon and O'Neal from dominating the interior, the Jazz will
play center by committee, calling on the 6'9" Carr and 6'11"
Greg Foster. "We don't need our guys to outplay the other
centers, just contain them," says Malone. On the perimeter the
emergence of the 6'6" Anderson has made a big difference for
Utah, which starts a small backcourt in the 6'1" Stockton and
the 6'4" Hornacek. Anderson can help defend against bigger, more
athletic guards such as the Rockets' Clyde Drexler and the
Lakers' Eddie Jones.
Aside from post defense, the main criticism of the Jazz this
year--as always--has been that its offense is too predictable: A
team that can stop Stockton and Malone from scoring at will on
the pick-and-roll can beat Utah. But those two venerable masters
perform that pas de deux with dozens of subtle variations, and
such a reliable half-court offense is essential in the playoffs.
Add Hornacek's and Russell's outside shooting, and the Jazz has
enough offensive weapons to beat anyone. Utah is certainly on
the short list of teams with a realistic shot of denying the
Bulls their fifth league championship in seven years.
But even if Utah fails again, you can be sure that the Jazz will
be back next season with virtually the same roster. After that
disappointing 1992-93 regular season and a first-round playoff
loss to the SuperSonics, Jazz team president Frank Layden, owner
Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan met to discuss whether the
time had come to reload for the future by trading Malone or
Stockton for younger players and/or draft choices. They decided
that they wanted both players to finish their careers in Utah,
even if it meant going through the kind of decline the Boston
Celtics were beginning to experience as a result of not trading
any of their aging stars while they still had value. "We want to
have statues of John and Karl outside the Delta Center someday,"
says Layden. "You'll never see us panic or make changes just to
make changes. We do things differently here. We know who we are."
More important, they are comfortable with who they are--a team
built in the image of its community. The Jazz cultivates a
wholesome, conservative persona to the point of not pursuing
talented players who, in management's estimation, don't fit that
profile. Layden has said many times, for example, that he would
not have flamboyant forward Dennis Rodman on his team even if it
would guarantee Utah a championship. "We are not a team that
will do absolutely anything to win the title," Layden says.
"That may sound strange, but as badly as we want a championship,
we want to do it with players we can be proud of and root for
without any reservations."
"Sometimes you get the feeling Utah wants to win a championship
without getting its hands dirty," says one NBA general manager.
Clearly, Utah has chosen to travel a different path from the
rest of the league. What this postseason may prove is whether
that road can ever lead to the top of the mountain.
On the desk in Frank Layden's office there is a small replica of
Ebbets Field, a manifestation of his undying love for the old
Brooklyn Dodgers, his hometown team. If you wanted to be
heartless, you could remind him that it was those Dodgers who
popularized the phrase "Wait till next year." Layden's respect
for the Dodgers organization is so great that when he was named
Jazz general manager in 1979, he visited the team's offices in
Los Angeles, as well as the Dallas Cowboys' complex. He used
those two front offices as models for reconstructing his team.
"One thing I learned from them is that you may not always be
able to get the best players, but you can get the best of
everything else," he says. "The best ushers, the best
secretaries, the best trainers--everything that gives your
organization the feeling of being first class." Spill a soda in
the Delta Center, and a staffer will be there in a flash to mop
it up. Go to a Jazz practice, and you will find that every
player has his shirt tucked in his shorts at all times. "That's
the rule in games, so why not do it in practice?" Layden says.
Those in the Jazz organization don't mind in the least that they
are decidedly uncool, blissfully out of step with the hip, urban
culture that pervades the NBA. You will find no Armani suits or
Gucci loafers in the Utah locker room, only jeans, T-shirts and
sweat suits. "We have a dress code here," Malone says with a
laugh. "If your slacks are too nice, it's a $25 fine." In an era
when star athletes come with vast retinues, neither Malone nor
Stockton even bothered to use an agent to negotiate his current
contract. After games at the Delta Center, Jazz players do not
slip behind the wheel of a Porsche or climb into the back of a
limousine and head for the nightclub district. "That's because
there is no nightclub district," says Carr. "You have to be a
little bit of a country boy to play here. You have to trade in
the Mercedes for something with four-wheel drive. You go home to
your family at night. You get up early to go fishing instead of
staying out late nightclubbing. It's just different here."
The fans and some players revel in that difference. It is part
of the reason many Utah players, including Ron Boone (a standout
on the Utah Stars of the ABA) and center Mark Eaton (a Jazz
player from 1982-83 through 1993-94), choose to stick around
after they retire. But they also realize that Salt Lake City is
probably the least favorite stop on the itinerary of many NBA
players. It angered Utah and its fans, but did not shock them,
when Derek Harper of the lowly Dallas Mavericks refused a trade
to the Jazz in February. "You go live in Utah," said the
35-year-old Harper when a reporter asked him why he turned down
"When I was in the league," says former NBA player Mike Glenn,
now a television analyst for the Atlanta Hawks and CNN, "coaches
used to threaten players with a trade to Utah."
Many African-American players are particularly uncomfortable in
Salt Lake City, whose population is less than 2% black. "Look, I
don't want to be booed the way Harper [who is black] is going to
be booed in Utah from now on, but how could you blame him?" says
one African-American player. "Salt Lake City is, like, culture
shock if you're a black player. Getting a haircut, shopping for
clothes, finding a nightspot you like, all those things become a
But some blacks who have played for Utah defend Salt Lake City.
"There are black churches and other places here where black
people get together if that's what you're looking for," says
Boone. "If you have an open mind and are willing to deal with
people on a personal level regardless of their race, there's no
reason you should have a problem living in Utah."
Malone agrees. "When I first came to Utah, I looked around and
said, 'Oh, my goodness, what have I done?' But now I love it
here," he says. "If you're waiting for an R&B concert, it will
get here. It's just that you might have to go to a couple of
country music concerts while you're waiting."
The uniqueness of the franchise goes much deeper. The Jazz does
not fine players, because "taking money out of someone's pocket
is barbaric," says the elder Layden. "Besides that, it's not
effective" in this era of highly paid players. Utah does not
fire coaches, at least not very often; only one, Tom Nissalke,
has been dismissed since the team moved from New Orleans in
1979. Sloan, who is in his ninth season as Jazz coach, in
February signed a one-year extension carrying him through the
1998-99 season, but his job is more secure than that. "It's safe
to say that Jerry is going to be the coach here for as long as
he wants regardless of his record," says Layden.
Businesslike and unpretentious, Sloan demands an honest day's
work from his players. Longtime followers of the Jazz knew
better than to ask him if he would reduce Malone's and
Stockton's playing time after Utah clinched the best record in
the West. "Players get paid to play, not to rest," he says. "If
someone's driven 200 miles to watch us play and paid a bunch of
money for tickets, we're not giving him his money's worth if
Karl and John are sitting on the bench."
As usual, no one would have asked for a refund after watching
Malone and Stockton this season. Even though Stockton's
nine-year streak as the NBA's assist leader was ended by the
Indiana Pacers' Mark Jackson, he has looked like his old self in
running the offense with uncanny efficiency. Malone has simply
outdone himself. Second in the league in scoring with a 27.4
average and tied for 10th in rebounding with 9.9 per game,
Malone had one stretch during the second half of the season in
which he outscored the opposing power forward in 26 consecutive
games. His performance has made him a cofavorite, with Michael
Jordan, for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award, and it has
given the Jazz credibility in its bid to unseat Chicago. "To
beat the Bulls you have to have a superstar playing at the top
of his game," says Denver Nuggets coach Dick Motta. "I think
this year Utah has that in Karl."
Malone acknowledges that Utah's run of success will be in danger
within a few years. "I think after John and I, and Hornacek and
Big Dog [Carr] leave, they're going to have a hard time getting
players to come here," he says. "I like to tease our owner by
pointing to some of these young guys with shorts down to their
ankles and 12 tattoos and telling him, 'You're going to be
paying someone like that $100 million someday.' Larry just
shakes his head and says, 'I'll sell the team first.' When we
go, it's going to be the end of an era."
Whether that era includes a championship or not, you get the
feeling the Jazz personnel will be at peace with themselves.
Reaching the top of the mountain can be wonderful, but sometimes
the climb, even if it ultimately falls short, can be just as