Being a Utah Jazz fan is starting to feel like being one of those monks that lit themselves on fire to protest Vietnam (isn’t that what’s on the cover of Rage Against The machine’s first album? – well one of those); it is a painful exercise that feels righteous. The Jazz are on the eve of destruction – a possible sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, an excellent (I won’t say great) team led by Kobe Bryant (Diet MJ) and Pau Gasol (the principle in the single biggest case of collusion I have ever seen in the NBA – as a recap The Lakers obtained Pau Gasol, a/k/a “The Big Llama” (my nickname) – a top 20 NBA player and one of the two most skilled low post scorers in the league – after Tim Duncan, from former Laker great Jerry West, then GM of the Memphis Grizzlies, who passed on basically getting every good player in the Chicago Bulls’ possession at the time, to accept, essentially, Kwame Brown’s expiring contract and Javaris Crittendon – now known as the Wyatt Earp to Gilbert Arenas’ Doc Holliday.).
But I digress.
This post is about the bittersweet joy of rooting for the Jazz. The truth is the Jazz should lose to the LA Lakers. The Lakers have the second best player on Earth right now, and terrific big men, which is the weakness for the Jazz defensively (with the exception of Michael Jordan it always has been). The Jazz counter with one lottery pick on their roster, two other first rounders (one of which, Kosta Koufus, is a project) and then a boatload of second round picks and NBDL refugees.
But that is the greatness of the Utah Jazz franchise. People snicker and try to insult the Jazz franchise by making derogatory comments about Mormonism or the politics of the state of Utah, but to me there is no more inspiring and “only in America” embodying franchise in sports than the Utah Jazz.
Their legends are Karl Malone and John Stockton, two somewhat overlooked players when they entered the league, became Hall of Famers through sheer work ethic and basketball intelligence (and large hands in Stockton’s case and broad shoulders in Malone’s case). The almost never missed games, they played hard and they excelled at the game. The fact that they never won a championship is very bittersweet, but unlike other franchises, they never really gave Jazz fans reason to lose interest. They provided great basketball and great effort for almost two decades.
After Stockton and Malone’s departures for retirement the Jazz endured a short dark period. In fact the most remarkable season as a Jazz fan for me may have been when the Jazz missed the playoffs by a game or two with a record of 42-40 in the 2003-04 season with a starting lineup of… brace yourself…
And the player with the next highest number of starts was Jarron Collins
In other words, in what should have been the dark days for the Utah Jazz with a starting lineup of one versatile, non-scoring all star (Kirilenko), a solid 6th man type player (Harpring), a serviceable point guard (Arroyo), an underachieving soon-to-be journeyman (Stephenson) and two big men who had no business in the NBA (especially the atrocious Collins) the Jazz still delivered a season that came down to the last game of the season. And in traditional Jazz style, it ended with a loss.
But the dark times gave the rare opportunity to the Jazz for a franchise-changing pick, with which they took Deron Williams, who has blossomed into the best point guard in the NBA (which I have been mocked for claiming for the last 3 years because I thought unlike most point guards he was both a playmaker and a system manager and thus I found the completeness of his game, not necessarily his stats, made him the best). Along with him came the rare free agent coup for the Jazz in Carlos Boozer (though like any omen in good fiction, the fact that Boozer screwed over the blind former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers has come back to bite them in Greek tragedy form since Boozer is exceptional against every team in the league except the one team that prevents them from chasing a championship – the Lakers).
Well now the Jazz have found themselves down 3-0 to the defending champion Lakers, but no one will confuse this with an Atlanta Hawks/Orlando Magic 3-0 series. The Jazz have played tough, made adjustments and had late game leads in two of the three games. Unlike previous seasons, at least one of these games should have been a blowout. And watching guys like Paul Millsap and Wesley Matthews, the former a second round pick, the latter an undrafted rookie, play so balls out tough that it almost feels like it really is “how they play the game” that makes it a joy to watch.
The bottom line is the Jazz will not win this series with the Lakers. If they get swept then it will be the most competitivve sweep in NBA history. But I will have no problem tuning in to watch the Jazz next year because as a basketball fan I love the way the Jazz play. Throughout my life I have had people tell me that the Jazz are “boring.” Those have to be people who enjoy the dunks and the flash of the NBA, but do not love the sport of basketball. To watch the Jazz play the game is like watching a hoops symphony. The execution, the timing, the effort and the way players who play for the Jazz accept roles and work hard at them are all beautiful to watch. And the architect of all this is Coach Jerry Sloan.
In 1998 when the Jazz lost their second consecutive finals to the Chicago Bulls I was crushed. The guy who made me feel better was Jerry Sloan. When he came to the press conference after Michael Jordan’s game winning shot he had such a matter of fact, “we’ll be back next year and don’t expect me to cry over this” attitude that I figured if Sloan could bounce back, I surely could. And watching the Jazz play for Sloan’s tenure (over two decades – the most tenured coach in pro sports) has been a pleasure. He takes players with high effort and high basketball intelligence and toughness and makes them good NBA players. Watching Williams or Boozer blossom is not as big a thrill as seeing guys like Millsap. Matthews, Ronnie Price and Kyle Korver reach their max with Utah. The Utah Jazz is the ultimate American meritocracy – if you can play the game and you work hard, you can have a successful career for Jerry Sloan and be appreciated by the fans.
But Jerry Sloan has not won a Coach of the Year (seriously 2003-04 should have been his) and the Jazz have not won a title. Therefore the franchise and its players do not get the respect they deserve. And every year I get to hear from my friends who either shift loyalties from week to week or, in the case of Knick fans, sit quietly waiting for their team to purchase big name talent (looks like their wait is finally over this Summer).
I obviously want the Jazz to win a title, but the truth is they have made my life as a fan really enjoyable. They always put a good product, not just in talent, but in work ethic and execution out on the court. I am honestly scared of the day Jerry Sloan decides to retire because I think that he may be the most valuable player of all to the Utah Jazz. His system and his culture may be a bigger imprint on the Jazz franchise than any one player they’ve ever had. A championship would be great, in fact it is part of my top two things I would like to see (along with a Guns N Roses reunion) in popular culture, but the kind of sustained excellence of the Utah Jazz, and the character in which they achieved such sustained quality may be even rarer than a championship.
But since I still want them to win a title and I don’t want to end this on too sentimental or gushy a moment – here are some things the Jazz must do.
1) Get a bona fide 6’10″+ center who can be a shot blocking and defensive force. Cole Aldridge may be the only player in the draft who may be able do this (and he may be right around where the Jazz draft). I’d avoid Greg Monroe if I’m the Jazz because his passing skills make him an enticing big man for the Jazz, but he will not be a defensive force and the beating his Georgetown team took from Ohio U makes me think he won’t help bring additional winning intensity to the Jazz. As far as free agents Brendan Haywood is a free agent this season and I think the Jazz would be wise to see if he is the kind of character that could thrive in Utah. However, if the Jazz have a chance at Evan Turner then you take him. That is the only way I change this approach.
2) Try to keep Boozer, but not too hard. The bad news – if we lose Boozer, Millsap fills in fine, but we lose Millsap off the bench so overall win total will be down 5-6. The good news is that if that money goes to decent center play then we have a better chance against the Lakers. Pick your poison – slightly worse against the rest of the league or better against the Lakers.
3) Re-sign Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver. Hard working people and the women of Utah will not forgive you otherwise.
4) Play as well and as hard as in 2009-10 and good hings will probably happen. Until you lose. Then look forward to 2011-12. You know the drill.