It probably wouldn't surprise anyone that the same weekend the
Utah Jazz hosted the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the
NBA Western Conference semifinals, thousands of Boy Scouts from
across the state were also in Salt Lake City, for an annual
gathering called Scout-O-Rama. The Scouts and the Jazz, it
seems, have been cut from the same cloth. They're both about as
controversial as Wonder Bread. They share the same
goody-two-shoes reputation. And while one group dreams of
becoming Eagle Scouts, the other imagines an even rarer
achievement: winning the NBA championship.
But if any of the Scouts made their way to the Delta Center on
Sunday to watch the Jazz play L.A. and then compare citizenship
badges with Utah players, they would have been shocked right out
of their neckerchiefs. The Jazz, the No. 1 seed in the Western
Conference, bullied the tired, No. 4-seeded Lakers 93-77 to take
a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, which was to resume
Tuesday night in Salt Lake City. It was just one game, but it
was enough to demonstrate that Utah has a nasty streak and a
strong supporting cast behind future Hall of Famers Karl Malone
and John Stockton--two crucial elements needed to win the
franchise's first NBA title. Eight players scored eight or more
points for the Jazz, which improved to 28-2 since March 2 and to
41-3 this season at the Delta Center.
Malone, who cruised to the game on a custom-painted Harley with
a studded leather seat, let fly early with his elbows and his
mouth. With a minute left in the first quarter and Utah leading
26-23, Malone drew a technical (and was one choice syllable from
an ejection-causing second T) when he used phrases not found in
the Scout Oath to argue a noncall by referee Eddie F. Rush. Jazz
coach Jerry Sloan and forward Antoine (Big Dog) Carr were also
whistled for technicals in the first 15 minutes of play, and
during that span Utah guard Jeff Hornacek, a finalist for the
NBA's Sportsmanship Award, tripped, elbowed and trash-talked his
way through the L.A. roster. Lakers versus the Quakers this
"I don't mind taking the T and spending the $500," said a
laughing Malone after the game, referring to the automatic fine
he incurred. "If I have something to say, I'll say it." Violent
behavior and naughty language? These days the Mailman is acting
less like a Cub Scout and more like a true member of the postal
May 11, 1997
"I think people throughout the league do look at us a certain
way, like we're nice guys who don't like contact or who shy away
from playing physical," added Malone, who continued his
MVP-caliber play with 23 points and 13 rebounds (10 of them
defensive). "Well, we've got several guys on this team who can
get after it and love to do the physical banging that this time
of the year is all about. We like it so much now, some might
even call us dirty."
This new nastiness was honed during the five-day layoff the Jazz
had after sweeping the Los Angeles Clippers in the best-of-five
conference quarterfinals. In contrast, the Lakers had just 40
hours off after eliminating the Portland Trail Blazers 95-91 in
their Game 4 last Friday night. After flying from Portland and
arriving in Salt Lake City early Saturday, the L.A. players and
coaches convened to begin preparing for Utah, but the meeting,
which included watching game videos and discussing strategy, was
not exactly a scholarly cram session. "They were feeling their
oats," said Los Angeles coach Del Harris of his players'
friskiness at the meeting. "They weren't shooting paper wads or
pulling pigtails or anything, but the concentration wasn't like
it had been...."
To salvage the meeting, Harris tried breaking the slap-happy
Lakers into smaller groups. That didn't work. The L.A. players
were still unfocused when they gathered for practice a few hours
later. Instead of shooting around to warm up, forward-center
Elden Campbell, who had scored 27 points in 36 minutes in the
deciding win over Portland, sat under a basket and played with
an electrician's power drill.
The Jazz, meanwhile, had been working on other kinds of drills.
During Utah's respite Sloan cranked up his practices to a level
several players said was the most physical they had ever seen in
Utah. Sloan occasionally skipped offensive work altogether to
run trapping drills along with one-on-one and three-on-two
scrimmages that had tempers bubbling. The pent-up emotions were
uncorked Sunday, when the Jazz allowed just nine field goals in
the second half and held the Lakers to 34.2% shooting overall.
The daily scrums were interspersed with strategic sessions so
the Jazz could be prepared (remember the Boy Scout motto) for
Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal. The 7'1", 312-pound Shaq
had averaged 33 points against the Trail Blazers and so
dominated Portland's big men that the 7'3" Arvydas Sabonis
fought back tears in Game 3 and the 6'11" Chris Dudley was
reduced to aimlessly hacking away at O'Neal. "I'm used to how
things are going to be called," said Shaq on Saturday, referring
to the referees' tolerance of physical play against him. "I
always get two arms in the back, which is illegal, or I get the
knee in the ass, which is illegal, or the elbow in the ribs,
which is illegal. And then when I touch someone with one finger,
I get whistled. But with guys like Dudley and Sabonis, I don't
have to plow through them. It's easy--they're so slow I can just
go around 'em."
That strategy changed Sunday when Shaq met up with second-year
Utah center Greg Ostertag, a 1995 Kansas alumnus who is now
taking graduate courses in physical education at Karl Malone U.
The once soft Ostertag, who is 7'2" and 279 pounds, no longer
has a body resembling that of Fred Flintstone, a likeness of
whom is tattooed on Ostertag's right calf. After having been a
nonfactor in the series against the Clippers, Ostertag held
O'Neal to 17 points. Not that the experience was pleasant. "It
felt as if I was getting hit by a truck," said Ostertag.
The Jazz's strategy against Shaq Diesel begins with bruising
defense by Ostertag but involves everyone in the Utah
frontcourt. The goal is simple, says Jazz forward Chris Morris:
"Make Shaq pass the ball. That's all we're concentrating on."
Like most other teams, Utah doubled down whenever Shaq got the
ball in the paint. But while most teams send whichever defender
is closest to O'Neal to do the double-teaming, the Jazz sent
only big men. Therefore, instead of being able to swat away or
pivot past a 6'2", 180-pound guard, Shaq had to deal with
Ostertag plus another large body, such as the 6'9", 275-pound
Carr and the rest of Utah's bench, which Sloan has called the
Jazz's deepest and most talented ever, outscored their Los
Angeles counterparts 33-9 behind nine points from Morris and
eight each from guards Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley.
"Having our bench step up is a relief," said Malone after
playing 39 minutes. "Now I can come out of the game during the
playoffs and not have to look over at Coach and say, 'Hey, you
better get me back in there.' And we need the bench to play like
that every game, because the Lakers are bigger than we are at
every position, they're more athletic than we are, and they're a
better rebounding team. So if the bench doesn't come out and do
it again, we could get our butts kicked in the next game."
With Malone sitting down and the score tied at 29 early in the
second quarter, Morris, Utah's only visible malcontent, who got
kicked off the bench during a game in February for bickering
with Sloan, went in and nailed a 20-footer and a pair of
three-pointers that sparked a 21-6 run leading to a 52-40 Utah
advantage at halftime. When the Lakers cut the margin to 59-53
in the third, Ostertag took a charge from Los Angeles forward
Robert Horry, and Jazz forward Bryon Russell hit a pair of
jumpers during a 5-1 run to halt the rally. Out of gas, the
Lakers never cut the lead below nine in the fourth quarter.
With 2:26 left, Stockton, the NBA's alltime leader in steals and
assists, picked off a pass and shuffled it to Malone, who went
in for a monster dunk that made the score 86-72. While the rest
of the Delta Center crowd chanted "MVP! MVP!" one fan behind the
Utah basket stood and held up a sign that, in anticipation of
the NBA Finals pitting the Jazz against the Chicago Bulls, read
I WANNA PARTY WITH DENNIS RODMAN IN UTAH!
"Maybe some things are different this year," said Stockton after
the game. "But are a deep bench and intensity keys to a
championship team? I don't know, I haven't been on one yet. I
hope I'll be able to answer that question for you before too
Stockton then apologized for cutting off his conversation before
bolting through the exit as if he were on a fast break. Because
of the game, he explained, he had missed the First Communion of
one of his children and was now in a hurry to get home to see
how everything went at church.
At this rate, the Jazz may never shake its Boy Scout image.