Even to those who don't keep track of such things—and Frank Layden does, to the very last cent—the Utah Jazz' win over the Houston Rockets in the fifth and final game of their first-round NBA playoff series Sunday was remarkable in one aspect. The Jazz won with five players who cost management only $806,000 a year. That's $494,000 less than what Houston pays Ralph Sampson, and only 26 Gs more than what they pay Akeem Olajuwon.
Layden is Utah's penny-pinching general manager. He has the third-smallest payroll in the NBA, and is known around the league as one of the most vocal proponents of fiscal sobriety. But he doubles as the Utah coach, and as the game in Houston's Summit wound down, Layden wasn't going with an austerity lineup just to prove a point. He had a game to win, and he was mindful of two things: that 7'4" Mark Eaton, his center and defensive linchpin, was through for the day, having gone down late in the first half with a hyperextension of the right knee; and that Houston coach Bill Fitch, who studies film like a habitu� of some Left Bank cinematheque, had drummed into his Rockets every nuance and gesture of the Jazz offense.
So, with less than 10 minutes left and the Rockets leading 77-73, Layden told his players to relax and play their game. Layden likes to hand out calling cards inscribed with the late Brian Piccolo's credo, "You can't quit. It's a league rule." But Utah had shot a miserable 27.5% in the first half, and Eaton had just emerged from the locker room in street clothes. A change was in order. "The Rockets were moving along with us in stereo," Utah's Rich Kelley explained later. "Frank just junked our offense and told us to run the passing game. They didn't know where we were going because we didn't know."
"Passing game" is dignified hoopspeak for "schoolyard ball." You pass, cut and take the first good shot. With a curious collection of cut-rate talent—meet John Stockton ($125,000 per year), Fred Roberts ($86,000), Thurl Bailey ($235,000), Billy Paultz ($150,000) and Kelley ($210,000)—the Jazz passed and cut the very foundations out from under Twin Towers Sampson and Olajuwon with a 104-97 victory that moved them into the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
When Utah's victory was complete—the Jazz played the entire final quarter without star guards Rickey Green and Darrell Griffith, and most of it without star forward Adrian Dantley—Layden would field a congratulatory phone message from his neighbor Sharlene Wells, a.k.a. Miss America.
So why play the Fire-Sale Five? Layden, an Irish Catholic, probably just had a good feeling about Stockton, a 6'1" rookie from Gonzaga who shares his coach's lineage and has a father who runs a bar. Surely Layden knew that Bailey, the 6'11" former North Carolina State forward, had helped end Sampson's college career (in the 1983 NCAA West Regional), and Olajuwon's penultimate college season (in the 1983 NCAA title game), on sour notes. Maybe he figured that the state of Utah's own Roberts, a 6'10" forward who, two seasons ago, was traded for a coach, would play as coolly as if this were just another game of ward ball, which is Mormon for CYO. But anyone would have been hard-pressed to imagine Paultz, who's 6'11" and 36, and Kelley, who's 7 feet and 32, neutralizing colts like the 6'11" Olajuwon and the 7'4" Sampson.
On Sunday, however, while Bailey (20 points) lofted soft jumpers over 6'8" Rodney McCray, while Roberts scored inside and out and while Stockton ran down loose balls—including a crucial one in the last minute with Utah nursing a 96-93 lead—Paultz and Kelley would not be moved. Their teammates call them the American Towers, after the apartment building in Salt Lake City where they share digs. "A variety of folks drop by at a variety of hours," Kelley says. "It's big and sparsely furnished, with rented everything. If we could have rented silverware, we would have."
When you're as peripatetic as Kelley and Paultz, you tend to rent. Between them they have changed teams 10 times—but they've also played for 25 seasons and in 20 playoffs. In 39 minutes of Game 5, almost all in the second half, they delivered 13 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Some 15 years ago, as a postseason rookie on the ABA New York Nets, Paultz was schooled by the Utah Stars' Zelmo Beatty. He hasn't missed a playoff since, and on Sunday, when it counted, he tutored the rookie Olajuwon.
For the Jazz, the victory was a stirring moment in the most soap-operatic year in their misbegotten 11-year history. High-scoring forward John Drew had been waived in December after suffering a relapse of his cocaine dependency, and the team's status in Utah had been uncertain until Larry Miller, a Salt Lake City automobile dealer, stepped forward last month to buy 50% of the team.
But more than anything else, Utah's victory vindicated Layden's fiercely principled frugality. He and Dantley had been locked in a bitter dispute after Dantley held out through all of training camp and the first six games of the regular season, for the purpose of getting his $515,000-a-year contract renegotiated. Layden accused Dantley and his agent, David Falk, of holding the franchise "hostage." He stripped Dantley of his captaincy, and said that their relationship would "never be the same again."