It probably wouldn't surprise anyone that the same weekend the Utah Jazz hosted the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the NBA Western Conference semifinals, thousands of Boy Scouts from across the state were also in Salt Lake City, for an annual gathering called Scout-O-Rama. The Scouts and the Jazz, it seems, have been cut from the same cloth. They're both about as controversial as Wonder Bread. They share the same goody-two-shoes reputation. And while one group dreams of becoming Eagle Scouts, the other imagines an even rarer achievement: winning the NBA championship.
But if any of the Scouts made their way to the Delta Center on Sunday to watch the Jazz play L.A. and then compare citizenship badges with Utah players, they would have been shocked right out of their neckerchiefs. The Jazz, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, bullied the tired, No. 4-seeded Lakers 93-77 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, which was to resume Tuesday night in Salt Lake City. It was just one game, but it was enough to demonstrate that Utah has a nasty streak and a strong supporting cast behind future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton—two crucial elements needed to win the franchise's first NBA title. Eight players scored eight or more points for the Jazz, which improved to 28-2 since March 2 and to 41-3 this season at the Delta Center.
Malone, who cruised to the game on a custom-painted Harley with a studded leather seat, let fly early with his elbows and his mouth. With a minute left in the first quarter and Utah leading 26-23, Malone drew a technical (and was one choice syllable from an ejection-causing second T) when he used phrases not found in the Scout Oath to argue a non-call by referee Eddie F. Rush. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and forward Antoine (Big Dog) Carr were also whistled for technicals in the first 15 minutes of play, and during that span Utah guard Jeff Hornacek, a finalist for the NBA's Sportsmanship Award, tripped, elbowed and trash-talked his way through the L.A. roster. Lakers versus the Quakers this wasn't.
"I don't mind taking the T and spending the $500," said a laughing Malone after the game, referring to the automatic fine he incurred. "If I have something to say, I'll say it." Violent behavior and naughty language? These days the Mailman is acting less like a Cub Scout and more like a true member of the postal service.
"I think people throughout the league do look at us a certain way, like we're nice guys who don't like contact or who shy away from playing physical," added Malone, who continued his MVP-caliber play with 23 points and 13 rebounds (10 of them defensive). "Well, we've got several guys on this team who can get after it and love to do the physical banging that this time of the year is all about. We like it so much now, some might even call us dirty."
This new nastiness was honed during the five-day layoff the Jazz had after sweeping the Los Angeles Clippers in the best-of-five conference quarterfinals. In contrast, the Lakers had just 40 hours off after eliminating the Portland Trail Blazers 95-91 in their Game 4 last Friday night. After flying from Portland and arriving in Salt Lake City early Saturday, the L.A. players and coaches convened to begin preparing for Utah, but the meeting, which included watching game videos and discussing strategy, was not exactly a scholarly cram session. "They were feeling their oats," said Los Angeles coach Del Harris of his players' friskiness at the meeting. "They weren't shooting paper wads or pulling pigtails or anything, but the concentration wasn't like it had been...."
To salvage the meeting, Harris tried breaking the slap-happy Lakers into smaller groups. That didn't work. The L.A. players were still unfocused when they gathered for practice a few hours later. Instead of shooting around to warm up, forward- center Elden Campbell, who had scored 27 points in 36 minutes in the deciding win over Portland, sat under a basket and played with an electrician's power drill.
The Jazz, meanwhile, had been working on other kinds of drills. During Utah's respite Sloan cranked up his practices to a level several players said was the most physical they had ever seen in Utah. Sloan occasionally skipped offensive work altogether to run trapping drills along with one-on-one and three-on-two scrimmages that had tempers bubbling. The pent-up emotions were uncorked Sunday, when the Jazz allowed just nine field goals in the second half and held the Lakers to 34.2% shooting overall.
The daily scrums were interspersed with strategic sessions so the Jazz could be prepared (remember the Boy Scout motto) for Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal. The 7'1", 312-pound Shaq had averaged 33 points against the Trail Blazers and so dominated Portland's big men that the 7'3" Arvydas Sabonis fought back tears in Game 3 and the 6'11" Chris Dudley was reduced to aimlessly hacking away at O'Neal. "I'm used to how things are going to be called," said Shaq on Saturday, referring to the referees' tolerance of physical play against him. "I always get two arms in the back, which is illegal, or I get the knee in the ass, which is illegal, or the elbow in the ribs, which is illegal. And then when I touch someone with one finger, I get whistled. But with guys like Dudley and Sabonis, I don't have to plow through them. It's easy—they're so slow I can just go around 'em."
That strategy changed Sunday when Shaq met up with second-year Utah center Greg Ostertag, a 1995 Kansas alumnus who is now taking graduate courses in physical education at Karl Malone U. The once soft Ostertag, who is 7'2" and 279 pounds, no longer has a body resembling that of Fred Flintstone, a likeness of whom is tattooed on Ostertag's right calf. After having been a nonfactor in the series against the Clippers, Ostertag held O'Neal to 17 points. Not that the experience was pleasant. "It felt as if I was getting hit by a truck," said Ostertag.