It's a well-known fact that little ever changes with the Jazz,
the most stable family unit since the Huxtables. For years Utah
has had mostly the same personnel, no one suffered serious
injury, and everyone got along beautifully.
This year has already been different. Last season's NBA MVP,
forward Karl Malone, had no sooner arrived at training camp than
he ripped several teammates for being out of shape, implying
that Utah's winning of the Western Conference title for the
first time last season had made them complacent. Although Malone
didn't name names, 7'2" center Greg Ostertag, a 280-pounder last
season who appeared to have ballooned over the summer, was
clearly one of his targets.
The stir caused by the Mailman's words was nothing compared to
that which greeted point guard John Stockton's operation on Oct.
13 to repair cartilage damage in his left knee. He will need at
least until December to recuperate. Utahans reacted to the loss
of Stockton with the mixture of shock and horror usually
reserved for assassinations of heads of state. Fans flooded
radio shows with calls, and after the surgery The Salt Lake
Tribune ran two front-page stories with news and analysis of the
injury. It's little wonder that everyone was so stunned:
Stockton had played in 609 consecutive regular-season games, the
third-longest streak among active players, and he had missed
four games in his 13-year career. Although he now knows he's not
indestructible, Stockton apparently still has considerable faith
in his recuperative powers. Less than 24 hours after his
operation he told Malone, "I'll see you in two weeks."
That's clearly a more optimistic than realistic estimate of the
time Stockton will miss, which means that Utah's two remaining
point guards, four-year veteran Howard Eisley and rookie Jacque
Vaughn, must assume prominent roles. A good sign for the Jazz
may be that the soft-spoken Eisley and the unflappable Vaughn
seem to be the people least overwhelmed by Stockton's absence.
Vaughn's reaction to becoming part of the rotation on a
championship contender: "I'm going to have to put in some extra
time at practice."
Eisley, the new No. 1 point guard, is even more understated than
his understudy. "I just have to play the way I always do," he
says. Eisley wasn't quite as nonchalant about Utah's decision to
draft Vaughn in June; he concedes that he was "shocked" by the
news. But vice president of basketball operations Scott Layden
assured him the move didn't indicate that the Jazz lacked
confidence in him. Eisley, who was a free agent, obviously
believed Layden, because he turned down a more lucrative offer
from the Clippers to re-sign with Utah on Aug. 14 for $4 million
over three years.
Coach Jerry Sloan knows Eisley won't execute pick-and-rolls with
Malone quite as deftly as does Stockton, but he believes Eisley
can keep the Jazz afloat until Stockton returns. "The
expectations that people will have are that he's got to be John
Stockton, but we have to be patient with him," Sloan says. "If
our other players will have confidence in him and work with him
the way we think they will, then Howard will do a good job for
us. We can't expect him to go out and be Stockton and get 12 or
14 assists for us every night."
What Sloan can expect are steady contributions from other
players, the type of consistent performance that is a Jazz
hallmark. Malone shows no signs of complacency after his MVP
season. (One day during the off-season, Nuggets coach Bill
Hanzlik brought four of his rookies who were playing in a Utah
summer league to watch Malone work out, in hopes of giving them
an example of the dedication needed to succeed as a pro.) Like
Eisley, guard Jeff Hornacek and forwards Shandon Anderson,
Antoine Carr and Bryon Russell could have left as free agents
but instead re-signed. Together they give Eisley and Vaughn a
solid cast to lean on until Stockton's return. The regular
season may not be as smooth a journey as the Jazz are used to,
but they should reach the same destination as they did last
year, the NBA Finals.