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Can Nice Guys Finish First?

Even with its playoff hopes high, the Jazz would rather forgo a title than abandon its old-fashioned principles

By Phil Taylor

Sports Illustrated FlashbackAt first the Wasatch Range commands your attention. The mountains rise steeply along the eastern side of Salt Lake City, cutting a jagged line into the sky and taking your breath away with their splendor. But as time passes and you get used to seeing them towering just ahead or looming over your shoulder, you begin to take them for granted. Eventually their permanence dulls their magnificence. So perhaps it was inevitable, after having played in the shadow of those mountains for so long, that the Utah Jazz would be viewed similarly: rock-solid and impressive yet with a tendency to fade into the background.

During this regular season, Utah cast a shadow over the rest of the Western Conference, finishing with a 64-18 record, the best in the franchise's 23-year history and second best in the NBA this season, to the Chicago Bulls' 69-13. In fact, in the last nine years the Jazz has won at least 51 games in every season but one (1992-93, when it slipped to 47-35), amassed three Midwest Division titles and made three trips to the conference finals but still hasn't hung up an NBA championship banner. Strange thing about mountains: No matter how high they are, they never touch the sky.

That would seem to be a maddening pattern, one that would cause a team to break apart by erosion, through free-agent departures or by design, with wholesale firings and trades, but the key players and the management in Utah have stayed the course. The Jazz's two future Hall of Famers, forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton, are in their 12th season together in Utah. ("Someday," says Jazz play-by-play broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley, "people in this town are going to be meeting at the corner of Stockton and Malone.") As always they are surrounded by an able supporting cast that is a smooth blend of experience -- this season that would be three-point threat Jeff Hornacek and veteran inside banger Antoine Carr -- and youth, most notably underrated fourth-year small forward Bryon Russell and energetic rookie swingman Shandon Anderson.

With Malone, 33, having the finest season of his remarkable career, Utah this week enters its first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers with perhaps the best chance it has ever had to reach the NBA Finals. In addition to having earned home court advantage through the Western Conference finals with its superb regular-season record, the Jazz won three out of four games against the Seattle SuperSonics and the Los Angeles Lakers, the conference's second and fourth seeds, respectively, and split four games with the No. 3 seed, the Houston Rockets. The Jazz also beat all of them on the road. (Utah won twice in Seattle.) But Utah's confidence has to be tempered by the knowledge that the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon and the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal have taken advantage of the Jazz's weakness at center, where second-year man Greg Ostertag is the starter. Olajuwon averaged 30.3 points against Utah, including games of 38 and 41 points, and O'Neal had 39 points and 13 rebounds in the Lakers' 100-98 home victory over the Jazz on April 13.

If the 7'2", 279-pound Ostertag remains unable to prevent Olajuwon and O'Neal from dominating the interior, the Jazz will play center by committee, calling on the 6'9" Carr and 6'11" Greg Foster. "We don't need our guys to outplay the other centers, just contain them," says Malone. On the perimeter the emergence of the 6'6" Anderson has made a big difference for Utah, which starts a small backcourt in the 6'1" Stockton and the 6'4" Hornacek. Anderson can help defend against bigger, more athletic guards such as the Rockets' Clyde Drexler and the Lakers' Eddie Jones.

Aside from post defense, the main criticism of the Jazz this year -- as always -- has been that its offense is too predictable: A team that can stop Stockton and Malone from scoring at will on the pick-and-roll can beat Utah. But those two venerable masters perform that pas de deux with dozens of subtle variations, and such a reliable half-court offense is essential in the playoffs. Add Hornacek's and Russell's outside shooting, and the Jazz has enough offensive weapons to beat anyone. Utah is certainly on the short list of teams with a realistic shot of denying the Bulls their fifth league championship in seven years.

But even if Utah fails again, you can be sure that the Jazz will be back next season with virtually the same roster. After that disappointing 1992-93 regular season and a first-round playoff loss to the SuperSonics, Jazz team president Frank Layden, owner Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan met to discuss whether the time had come to reload for the future by trading Malone or Stockton for younger players and/or draft choices. They decided that they wanted both players to finish their careers in Utah, even if it meant going through the kind of decline the Boston Celtics were beginning to experience as a result of not trading any of their aging stars while they still had value. "We want to have statues of John and Karl outside the Delta Center someday," says Layden. "You'll never see us panic or make changes just to make changes. We do things differently here. We know who we are."

More important, they are comfortable with who they are -- a team built in the image of its community. The Jazz cultivates a wholesome, conservative persona to the point of not pursuing talented players who, in management's estimation, don't fit that profile. Layden has said many times, for example, that he would not have flamboyant forward Dennis Rodman on his team even if it would guarantee Utah a championship. "We are not a team that will do absolutely anything to win the title," Layden says. "That may sound strange, but as badly as we want a championship, we want to do it with players we can be proud of and root for without any reservations."

"Sometimes you get the feeling Utah wants to win a championship without getting its hands dirty," says one NBA general manager. Clearly, Utah has chosen to travel a different path from the rest of the league. What this postseason may prove is whether that road can ever lead to the top of the mountain.

On the desk in Frank Layden's office there is a small replica of Ebbets Field, a manifestation of his undying love for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, his hometown team. If you wanted to be heartless, you could remind him that it was those Dodgers who popularized the phrase "Wait till next year." Layden's respect for the Dodgers organization is so great that when he was named Jazz general manager in 1979, he visited the team's offices in Los Angeles, as well as the Dallas Cowboys' complex. He used those two front offices as models for reconstructing his team.

"One thing I learned from them is that you may not always be able to get the best players, but you can get the best of everything else," he says. "The best ushers, the best secretaries, the best trainers -- everything that gives your organization the feeling of being first class." Spill a soda in the Delta Center, and a staffer will be there in a flash to mop it up. Go to a Jazz practice, and you will find that every player has his shirt tucked in his shorts at all times. "That's the rule in games, so why not do it in practice?" Layden says.

Those in the Jazz organization don't mind in the least that they are decidedly uncool, blissfully out of step with the hip, urban culture that pervades the NBA. You will find no Armani suits or Gucci loafers in the Utah locker room, only jeans, T-shirts and sweat suits. "We have a dress code here," Malone says with a laugh. "If your slacks are too nice, it's a $25 fine." In an era when star athletes come with vast retinues, neither Malone nor Stockton even bothered to use an agent to negotiate his current contract. After games at the Delta Center, Jazz players do not slip behind the wheel of a Porsche or climb into the back of a limousine and head for the nightclub district. "That's because there is no nightclub district," says Carr. "You have to be a little bit of a country boy to play here. You have to trade in the Mercedes for something with four-wheel drive. You go home to your family at night. You get up early to go fishing instead of staying out late nightclubbing. It's just different here."

The fans and some players revel in that difference. It is part of the reason many Utah players, including Ron Boone (a standout on the Utah Stars of the ABA) and center Mark Eaton (a Jazz player from 1982-83 through 1993-94), choose to stick around after they retire. But they also realize that Salt Lake City is probably the least favorite stop on the itinerary of many NBA players. It angered Utah and its fans, but did not shock them, when Derek Harper of the lowly Dallas Mavericks refused a trade to the Jazz in February. "You go live in Utah," said the 35-year-old Harper when a reporter asked him why he turned down the deal.

"When I was in the league," says former NBA player Mike Glenn, now a television analyst for the Atlanta Hawks and CNN, "coaches used to threaten players with a trade to Utah."

Many African-American players are particularly uncomfortable in Salt Lake City, whose population is less than 2% black. "Look, I don't want to be booed the way Harper [who is black] is going to be booed in Utah from now on, but how could you blame him?" says one African-American player. "Salt Lake City is, like, culture shock if you're a black player. Getting a haircut, shopping for clothes, finding a nightspot you like, all those things become a problem."

But some blacks who have played for Utah defend Salt Lake City. "There are black churches and other places here where black people get together if that's what you're looking for," says Boone. "If you have an open mind and are willing to deal with people on a personal level regardless of their race, there's no reason you should have a problem living in Utah."

Malone agrees. "When I first came to Utah, I looked around and said, 'Oh, my goodness, what have I done?' But now I love it here," he says. "If you're waiting for an R&B concert, it will get here. It's just that you might have to go to a couple of country music concerts while you're waiting."

The uniqueness of the franchise goes much deeper. The Jazz does not fine players, because "taking money out of someone's pocket is barbaric," says the elder Layden. "Besides that, it's not effective" in this era of highly paid players. Utah does not fire coaches, at least not very often; only one, Tom Nissalke, has been dismissed since the team moved from New Orleans in 1979. Sloan, who is in his ninth season as Jazz coach, in February signed a one-year extension carrying him through the 1998-99 season, but his job is more secure than that. "It's safe to say that Jerry is going to be the coach here for as long as he wants regardless of his record," says Layden.

Businesslike and unpretentious, Sloan demands an honest day's work from his players. Longtime followers of the Jazz knew better than to ask him if he would reduce Malone's and Stockton's playing time after Utah clinched the best record in the West. "Players get paid to play, not to rest," he says. "If someone's driven 200 miles to watch us play and paid a bunch of money for tickets, we're not giving him his money's worth if Karl and John are sitting on the bench."

As usual, no one would have asked for a refund after watching Malone and Stockton this season. Even though Stockton's nine-year streak as the NBA's assist leader was ended by the Indiana Pacers' Mark Jackson, he has looked like his old self in running the offense with uncanny efficiency. Malone has simply outdone himself. Second in the league in scoring with a 27.4 average and tied for 10th in rebounding with 9.9 per game, Malone had one stretch during the second half of the season in which he outscored the opposing power forward in 26 consecutive games. His performance has made him a cofavorite, with Michael Jordan, for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award, and it has given the Jazz credibility in its bid to unseat Chicago. "To beat the Bulls you have to have a superstar playing at the top of his game," says Denver Nuggets coach Dick Motta. "I think this year Utah has that in Karl."

Malone acknowledges that Utah's run of success will be in danger within a few years. "I think after John and I, and Hornacek and Big Dog [Carr] leave, they're going to have a hard time getting players to come here," he says. "I like to tease our owner by pointing to some of these young guys with shorts down to their ankles and 12 tattoos and telling him, 'You're going to be paying someone like that $100 million someday.' Larry just shakes his head and says, 'I'll sell the team first.' When we go, it's going to be the end of an era."

Whether that era includes a championship or not, you get the feeling the Jazz personnel will be at peace with themselves. Reaching the top of the mountain can be wonderful, but sometimes the climb, even if it ultimately falls short, can be just as exhilarating.

Issue date: April 28, 1997


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