The final speaker at the final press conference of the Western
Conference finals was Los Angeles Lakers coach Del Harris. He
was wearing a black double-breasted suit and a white shirt and a
black tie, and he looked for all the world like a well-dressed
funeral director who had arrived to console the bereaved. His
words and disposition did nothing to change the image.
Late Sunday afternoon, no more than 20 minutes after the last
Laker Girl had done her last cartwheel of the season, after the
Great Western Forum crowd had groaned its last groan, after the
Utah Jazz had swept--swept!--his team, Harris spoke in a gentle
voice. He was philosophical. "There are some lessons you only
can learn by failure," he said. "Your dad can tell you certain
things, but until you have the experience yourself, you don't
The suit, the tie, the words--it was as if Harris had prepared
in advance for this final appraisal, which followed Utah's 96-92
series-clinching victory. Things had fallen apart that much. In
nine days and four games, his high-flying Lakers had been
exploited, exposed, dominated. That was the word: dominated. It
had happened in front of his eyes. No warnings to his players
had worked. No subtle changes in strategy. No fatherly advice.
"We're all the same way," Harris continued in that same voice.
"We have to experience for ourselves. There's not a single
person here who didn't touch that stove at least once. We all
May 31, 1998
Touch the stove and what happens? Touch it four times and what
happens? You go home with your Shaquille O'Neal and your Kobe
Bryant and your Eddie Jones and your Nick Van Exel. You go home
with your highest-scoring offense in the NBA, your high-wire
act, your basketball team of the future.
"To be successful you have to go through disappointment," Harris
went on. "Read all the great biographies. They tell about people
who failed all the time, who got knocked down and got back up.
No one has a free ride to success. Look at the Utah Jazz. Ten
years ago, they were the ones who got flushed."
He looked at his audience--20 sportswriters spread across maybe
100 folding chairs because the rest of the media pack had moved
along to talk to other heads. Was anybody listening? Harris
looked tired. There was no doubt about who had gotten flushed
A sweep. Who had figured a sweep? It all had a certain logic
now, the virtues of experience and ambition stacked against
youth and not as much ambition, but wasn't it only two or three
weeks ago that Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl called Shaq
"the best player in the NBA right now"? Weren't the fuses being
lit for that grand L.A.-Chicago Finals that was going to cut
across the sky and all demographics, the show of shows?
A sweep? One of the five most stunning playoff routs ever (box,
page 41)? "The only time I ever thought about a sweep, I thought
about us sweeping them," Lakers reserve forward Corie Blount
said, speaking for the statistical majority. "I thought about
Chicago and a sweep, but I couldn't see the Bulls sweeping us,
either. I couldn't see anybody sweeping this team."
This wasn't so much a sweep as a deconstruction of the wildly
hyped Lakers, piece by gaudy piece. Substance 4, Style 0. From
the first afternoon in Salt Lake City--when L.A. was still
caught up in the buzz of its five-game semifinals win over the
Sonics and was routed by Utah 112-77--this was one of those
old-time basketball morality plays. High school coaches will be
blabbing about this series for the next decade.
The Jazz players were the worker ants, the eager students,
finishing off every cut, diving for every loose ball, all that
good stuff, running that pick-and-roll as if they were giving a
summer clinic for fat rich kids. The Utah offense started with
that basic move, spelled out first in hieroglyphics on the wall
of an Egyptian tomb: 36-year-old John Stockton passing the ball
to 34-year-old Karl Malone and Malone passing back and rolling
to the basket. Everyone else was available to help. Everyone did
help, roles defined, shooters shooting, rebounders rebounding,
nobody deviating in times of stress. The bench seemed to run
"The way it's been in the past, teams would go out there to stop
Karl and John and figure they would stop the Jazz," Malone said
during the series. "Well, that's not the case now. We've got
some other guys who can put a hurt on you."
One minute Bryon Russell would be hitting a three-pointer--"I've
always said a guy could make a nice career for himself playing
that number 3 spot with me and John," Malone said--and the next
minute Chris Morris would be hitting that shot, or Shandon
Anderson would. Or Howard Eisley would be taking Stockton's
place at point guard with the same deadpan expression, the same
textbook offense. Or Greg Ostertag would be battling Shaq for a
rebound. Or Greg Foster would. Or Antoine Carr. The old system
worked as well as it ever has.
"What's the best thing about this team?" Jazz coach Jerry Sloan
"We've all been together for a long time," he said. "There's no
volatility here. Nothing's changed. I've been here. The players
have been here."
The Jazz, not the Lakers, knew how to win games at the end.
("You learn that over the years," Malone said. "You get the ball
into the hands of the people who can shoot the fouls, who know
what to do. If you don't do that, guys sometimes do strange
things.") The Jazz knew how to draw the foul, make the free
throw, use the erratic playoff refereeing to their advantage.
("I've never taken an acting class in my life," Blount said,
"but after seeing this, I'm signing up this summer.") The Jazz
"Because of the way they play, it's like the project guys going
to play against a bunch of guys who set pick-and-rolls, who do
the little things, while the project guys always want to do the
fancy behind-the-back dribbles and do the spectacular plays,"
Van Exel said between Game 3 and Game 4, explaining the
situation as well as anyone. "Maybe it's the age. We feel that
if we go out there and just lace up the shoes and run around and
do the dunks, we can win. But it's not like that."
The most important game was Game 3, last Friday night. That's
when the series arrived at the Forum, the Lakers still believing
that the momentum would change because they would play at home,
win two and go on from there. They never had a chance.
Malone had preached the virtues of winning the third game
because, he said, "we always have trouble with that game. We
have to do what Chicago always does, take care of business as
fast as we can." So the Jazz played its best game. It shot 52%
from the floor, made 7 of 11 three-pointers, hit 24 of 29 from
the free throw line. Ten guys contributed to Utah's 109-98 win.
Russell had 17 points. Anderson had 13. Morris, coming off the
bench and firing, had 15 points and seven rebounds.
Los Angeles, tighter and tighter, was reduced to an offense of
Shaq and more Shaq. He scored 39 points, but take away his
17-for-30 shooting and the Lakers were 18 for 55. The Forum was
half empty by the time the game ended.
"There aren't any secrets to what we do," Utah guard Jeff
Hornacek said. "We do the same things against everybody. We play
the Lakers, we all guard down against Shaq, and then we run out
at the three-point shooters. Maybe, because it's the playoffs,
we run out a little faster, but that didn't matter. They were
missing those shots. That was the big thing."
L.A.'s grim situation was covered in a letter written by point
guard Derek Fisher to his teammates on the night before Game 4.
What had gone wrong? Everything. Fisher had things he wanted to
say, frustrations he felt but hadn't known how to get them
across. After a talk with Shaq, he wrote his letter by hand, ran
it through a copying machine more than 20 times and handed it
out to his coaches and teammates in the locker room on Sunday
"Since the conference finals started WE have played
inconsistent," he wrote in part. "WE have allowed OUR opponent
to play harder than US. We have allowed OUR opponent come into
OUR home and beat US. At times, WE just haven't come to play!
"NOW is the time for US to do what WE have done before. WE must
not give in. WE must not allow the peripheral opponent to divide
US. WE must stick together and believe in one another. WE must
persevere and play OUR best basketball...."
The letter didn't help enough. The Lakers' effort was better in
Game 4, especially in the second half, but the plot lines
already were drawn. Again, Shaq was left to handle most of the
offense, and he scored 38 points. Again the Jazz got help from
different places. Hornacek, previously quiet, had 15 points.
Ostertag had 11. Malone had a workmanlike 32. Each team shot 33
free throws. Utah hit 30. L.A. hit 22. That was the game right
"It got so you'd think about anything," Van Exel said at the
end. "You know what I noticed? We'd always come out early after
a timeout. Every time. We'd be standing around, waiting. They'd
all still be in the huddle. What were they doing? What was that
all about? What were they saying?"
"We were resting," Sloan said. "That's all. I don't say much in
the huddle. We just stay there to get more rest. We have some
The old guys were the answer. The old guys, the experience. Old
Guys 4, Young Guys 0. Now Malone and Stockton would be off for
at least one more week of rest before returning to a Finals that
for once in recent years might be competitive. The Lakers were
left to consider their lessons. Shaq said, "Guys have to step
up. If they don't want to play, then they need to ask for a
trade. If they don't want to play, then get off my team."
Forward Robert Horry was admiring "the unity" Utah has. Blount
was considering those acting lessons.
The important questions for Los Angeles will be addressed in the
upcoming weeks or months. Will there be big changes? Will
executive vice president Jerry West leave, and will his
replacement look for a new direction? Will Harris survive a
surprise playoff exit like this? Will deals be made, free agents
signed? Will these Lakers have a chance to grow? Or will there
be a rush for a different fertilizer?
Harris hopes the situation stays the same. He pointed no farther
than the visiting locker room to find support for his case. "How
long did it take their guys to get where they are?" he asked.
"How many of these situations did they go through? They're 35
and 36, and they've made it. We're 25 and 26, and we're right
next to them now. We're going to be there a lot sooner than they
He sounded hopeful. He sounded tired. He still looked like a
THREE FOR THE SHOW
While the Jazz got increased offense from three young role
players in the West finals, production by three young Lakers
mainstays slipped compared with their regular-season numbers.
REGULAR SEASON CONFERENCE FINALS
PLAYER, POSITION PTS. FG PCT. PTS. FG PCT.
Bryon Russell, F 9.0 .430 11.3 .519
Shandon Anderson, F 8.3 .538 8.3 .583
Howard Eisley, G 7.7 .441 7.8 .542
Eddie Jones, G-F 16.9 .484 15.0 .412
Kobe Bryant, G 15.4 .428 10.0 .367
Nick Van Exel, G 13.8 .419 9.0 .238