The End of the Utah Jazz
This week the Utah Jazz, my favorite sports team for so many reasons (explained in a hilarious, poor audio quality mini special I recorded in Utah in February of this year), hired Will Hardy to be their next head coach. Coach Hardy went to Williams College where he played basketball. I also went to Williams College and practiced a lot of basketball (most of my college career was as a quad and biceps model in garbage time of games), graduating 7 years before Hardy did. So this week started as an exciting and hopeful one, but today that hope came crashing down as the Jazz traded franchise centerpiece and 3 time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, to the Minnesota Timberwolves for several first round picks and some players.
People have been telling me the Jazz got a great haul. But before I dig a lot deeper – let’s examine that assertion. The T-Wolves seem to be planning on title contention and making all those picks in the mid 20s – there will be no ZIon Williamson or Jayson Tatum in the Jazz’ draft future, unless they suck all on their own (without Gobert, this Jazz team actually has 1980s Doug Moe-Denver Nuggets defensive potential). But OK – let’s just accept for the sake of argument that Danny Ainge and the Jazz have made the decision to rebuild around Donovan Mitchell and this was a stellar haul for Gobert (in addition to the first round pick for Royce O’Neale). Best case scenario the Jazz are title contenders in 4 years? No guarantee of a title of course, but perhaps after they rebuild they will be even better than the best of the Gobert-Mitchell years. But if they don’t win a title (and even if they do) it will have cost them, to quote Thanos, “everything.”
I grew up in NYC so liking the Jazz was not logical and certainly not geographical. But I was drawn to the stats in The Sporting News (you used to wait once a week for a sports newspaper that your older brother subscribed to to see stats – welcome to pre-Internet!) and underneath the name Michael Jordan every week in the scoring leaders was “Karl Malone – UTA” and above Magic Johnson on the assists column was always “John Stockton-UTA.” This piqued my 8 year old curiosity and the way the two of them operated as a tandem was particularly enjoyable to a tall, bi-racial child whose Black father and white mother argued frequently. From 4th grade until today (I am currently wearing a Rudy Gobert Jazz jersey) I could be found in purple or purple adjacent attire – looking like a hoops-obsessed Barney or Grimace on a weight training program.
The Malone-Stockton years were great and I don’t know one Jazz fan who would trade Malone or Stockton (*clears throat* as players – without subsequent knowledge of past and future off the court activities) for an early 90s rebuild to see if they could topple the Lakers, Celtics or Bulls. The Jazz had relevance, high quality play and an identity thanks to Malone, Stockton and Coach Jerry Sloan. They lost to Jordan, which delights Jazz haters, but for Jordan’s GOAT status to mean anything to Jordan fans, it requires acknowledging that Malone and Stockton are all time great players, otherwise, how does defeating them twice enhance MJ’s legacy?
After Malone and Stockton, Andrei Kirilenko and Sloan kept me interested in the Jazz. They even won 42 games in the 2003-04 season with a starting lineup of: Carlos Arroyo, Gordon Giricek, Matt Harpring, Kirilenko and Greg Ostertag. That is literally a squad that should tank unintentionally and instead they missed out on the playoffs by a single game, if my memory serves me correctly. Their lack of talent caught up the next year which would lead to the Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer era – a time of brief, surprising success that was shattered with the retirement of Sloan. So the Jazz were forced into a rebuild… which they did expeditiously. It seemed the franchise always was in a hurry to get good. To be relevant. To give their fans a product worth cheering for. So they drafted Gordon Hayward (and made several other egregious draft errors – taking Enes Kanter and Alec Burks at 3 and 12 when Klay Thomson and Kawhi Leonard were available at 11 and 15 stands out to me) and Rudy Gobert and were back to being a 50 win team quickly after being terrible. They could never do it via free agency, but yet they managed to do it nonetheless. Hayward ditched the team on the precipice of being a top tier team, but then Donovan Mitchell arrived and that led us to the inchoate success of the Gobert-Mitchell era.
The playoffs have been frustrating and inconsistent recently, but 15 months ago the Jazz had the best record in the league. Mitchell is 25 and Gobert is 30. Malone and Stockton did not reach the finals until their 12th/13th seasons. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas legend, lost in a finals in 2006, won and MVP the next year, but was bounced from the playoffs in Round 1 (this would be the type of shame that might have ended his time in Dallas had social media been then what is is now), but he stayed and in year 12 (I think) he won a title against the Big 3 of Miami.
But contrast that with Giannis who won a title at 25 years old last season. Had they lost on a Kevin Durant 3 pointer or lost to the Suns, their coach might have been fired and the speculation that maybe Giannis was not “that guy” would have been in full force… for a 25 year old 2x MVP. It is insanity (a hint of it was delivered to Jayson Tatum after his finals performance this year). Like with our politics, social media has had an irredeemably and perhaps irreversible negative impact on sports. So now, the Jazz had to “blow it up” because two stars in their prime hit a rough patch.
But to many people reading this you may be thinking “it’s a business” or “if the Jazz want to win this is how it’s done,” but being a fan used to mean more than just that. Now you have superstars ring shopping, cheapening their careers and the value of the ring. I have no geographic or family ties to Utah. So the team and its culture are the only things that keep me so dedicated as a fan. Being able to watch the development of Gobert and Mitchell is part of what endears them to fans like me. Yes, the uniform matters, but seeing their growth and talent in that uniform is an x factor that cannot be quantified merely by wins and losses. Gobert roasted Hayward when he ditched the Jazz for the Celtics and now he has been dealt away with the same level of mercenary disloyalty. The Jazz that won 42 games with Kirilenko and a G league roster is why I root for the Jazz. Because, at the risk of sounding corny, doing it the “right way” still counts. Or it should. And the fact that Rudy and Donovan might both compete for titles in the next 3-5 years leads me to ask the obvious “why not try and keep them together?” Maybe they needed their Hornacek and Sloan, instead of the franchise needing a new Malone and/or Stockton.
A good friend told me something many years ago that I reference from time to time. He had said (this was at least 10 years ago) that with the rise of the Kardashians, monetizing everything they possibly could, young people no longer registered “selling out” as a negative. Survey responders did not even really register the concept. And I think that mindset has really taken hold to an absurd degree. After Hamilton made Lin Manuel Miranda 9 figures his next stop? American Express pitchman. After Watchmen, Regina King endorsing Wells Fargo. And a mere month after seeing Paperboi mock woke capitalism on Atlanta, I saw the actor who plays Paperboi doing a Tulsa Massacre ad for Citibank. I know people have been selling out forever, but it was not as common as it is today (American actors had to do their commercials in Asia so as to not tarnish their image). These are just the examples that popped into my head while writing this, but it seems that the ends justify the means to truly absurd degrees (all the way to a recent White House occupant that declared “They’re not here to hurt me”). A championship. Money. Power. Followers on tik tok. The list goes on and on. It is not that this is occurring that is alarming – it is that it is becoming the default expectation and not the negative exception.
So seeing the Jazz go into this mode, selling off an all time great in his prime is normal for our time. I get that. But what makes you think a bi-racial kid from NYC being a die hard Utah Jazz fan for 35 years considered “normal” his number one criterion for supporting a team? Maybe the Jazz will get really good. Maybe they will win a title. But it will have cost them more than just Rudy Gobert. And whatever that cost is, they can now never get it back.