At 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 mauled. 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 Lay-den, 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.