It seems as though there is a lot to be discouraged about the Jazz lately. A season that begun with such hope, with such anticipation ... all has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
And yet, even as they lost to the freaking Wizards, I still watch the team. I still cheer for the few—the so very few things going right. I still hope for the future. I still like the players.
And I still wonder when—and if—a particular kind of magic will happen to our team again. The kind of magic that binds players to fans. In a strange twist, the kind of magic that relegates the greatest of players to the oddest of career achievements: sidebars to history.
My family is from St. Louis, and I grew up loving Cardinals baseball even before I knew that the sport of basketball existed. From there, I became obsessed with baseball. I wanted to know everything about the sport, from the 1900's to what was happening today.
And of course, I wanted to know everything about the Cardinals. I read everything I could about all their championship teams (second in MLB to the Yankees), their great players, their legends and myths ... I ached for it all. From Rogers Hornsby to Dizzy Dean to Stan the Man to Bob Gibson to the Wizard of Oz (and to Pujols today ... for at least one more season).
So it surprised me to find out, later, that the Cardinals received so little attention in my baseball history books. Dozens, even hundreds of pages detailed all the Yankees, Giants, Dodgers, and Mets teams. The careers of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, and Jackie are all spelled out, from beginning to end, usually over about 50 pages. And Mays, of course, disappears as soon as the Giants move to San Francisco.
For the rest, it's just sidebars. Sure an occasional player gets more ... usually Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. But it's all sidebars for the rest.
Hank Aaron first appears when the books hit 1973 — Hank's 713th home run. The previous 712 of them, the previous 20 seasons, the MVP, the batting titles, the home run titles, the near triple crowns, the world series victory and loss, his experiences as a teenage Negro Leaguer ... none of it was worth mentioning. He was a blip for about 7 months, and that was it.
Roberto Clemente, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Yaz, Johnny Bench, Campy, Pete Rose, Koufax, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson ... all sidebars. Standing with 100 more of them.
But that's better than some. Harmon Killebrew, apparently, didn't exist. Neither did Rod Carew or George Brett. Or Steve Carlton.
But, being a Cardinals fan, the one that kills me is Stan Musial. 22 seasons, 3,630 hits, 475 home runs (6th most in MLB at the time he retired), 20 consecutive All Star bids, seven batting titles, three MVP's (and 4-time runner up), four National League pennants and three World Series titles. Legendary kindness and decency. Gajillions of stories and anecdotes told by teammates and opponents. A statue outside Busch Stadium, the greatest star of the greatest baseball town in the United States.
Yup ... he gets a sidebar.
* * *
I talk about the Cardinals and Musial because we Jazz fans ought to relate. Fifty years from now, when some 12-year old kid picks up a history of the NBA, he'll read about Stockton, Malone, and Jerry Sloan in a sidebars. Or maybe a single sidebar for all three.
Yet two of those guys in that sidebar earned themselves statues, and perhaps the third will someday also. That's rarer than making an All-Star team, rarer than winning an NBA title, rarer even than being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
For twenty years Stockton and Malone played game after game after game. For twenty years they won the hearts of all of Utah. For twenty years they turned Salt Lake city from a town of disinterest into one of the greatest basketball towns in the United States. For twenty years they didn't just pass the Mom test ... reaching the point where even Mom had heard of them. No, they passed the Grandma LSAT ... getting my grandma to watch and live and die by every single game, to complain to me about when the Jazz played on national television because she was sure the guys at NBC were cheering for the other teams.
During the 1997 NBA finals my mom had to work late the day of a game. She rushed home, only to remember at the last second that we had nothing in the house for dinner. So she stopped at the store (15 minutes after tipoff) to get something quick and easy to bring home.
There was nobody in the store. Literally, nobody besides the cashiers, my mom, and one other guy from Chicago. I know this because he asked my mom why the store was devoid of human presence. He mentioned that Utah is odd, that he was from Chicago and he had never seen anything so desolate.
My mom said the obvious: the Jazz game had already started. The man looked confused. She said, "you know, the Jazz and the Bulls, the NBA finals ... everyone's watching the game. Don't you watch the games in Chicago?"
"Yeah," the man said, rolling his eyes at Utah's quaint backwardsness. "But people still go to the store."
* * *
Real history, I believe, is in the sidebars.
To really understand something ignore the 400 main pages, and look to the sidebars. Find those people, and then become a detective to recover the stories and tales the writers and editors and publishers were to dumb to understand were important.
Because the stories are there. They were real. And they will be real again when they are told again.
John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Jerry Sloan connected with Utah and Jazz fans in a unique way. It was strong. It was lasting. It was more tangible, more important, more real than anything those yuppies in New York could ever understand as they mindlessly clap for Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
Hell, our love for Jeff Hornacek, for Mark Eaton, for Big T Bailey are more tangible. Our relationship with AK is more tangible. Even Ostertag ... even that relationship was more real.
* * *
Fans elsewhere understand this, as well. Fans in Portland wax nostalgic about Drexler's Blazers. A team that, like the Jazz, was never quite good enough to win it all. But that didn't matter. Not really. That team still won the hearts of the city, a relationship formed that mattered, and the magic was there for those willing to look beyond the sidebars.
Houston fans understand. San Antonio fans understand—boy do they understand. As the world fawns over Kobe and LeBron, as they all forget who the best player of the 2000's really was, as they relegate Duncan's 4 titles to a sidebar, as they forget that Kobe and a crap platter didn't make the playoffs while Tim and a crap platter could still win 50 games and a first round playoff series ... yes, San Antonio fans may understand most of all.
Even some New York fans who are old enough to have felt the connection to Clyde, Reed, and Debusschere — they understand.
And there are more cities, teams, and players. Of course there are more.
* * *
I wonder how many players understand this. How many will understand this in the future. How many former players understand it now ... that the connection between a player, a team, a city, and the fans—that it is a truly magical thing. That it is a rarer accomplishment than any other in sports. That to be an All-Star, to be on Sports Center, to get the fame and endorsements ... even to reach the Hall of Fame — none of that is really the pinnacle of their profession.
The pinnacle is the connection that inspires the fans and owners to build statues for you. To inspire fans to wax nostalgic about you and your team 20 years later. There really is no greater accomplishment. That is an honor reserved for only the few.
* * *
I think about so many of today's stars, and it is sad how few are willing to take the highest achievement a professional athelete can attain, wad it up like a tissue and yesterday's gum, tossing it in the garbage on their way to consolation prizes—just because they happen to be wrapped in aluminum foil, and thus seem shiny.
LeBron had the shot to be one of the few. He threw it all away to hang out with his buddies in South Beach. Melo had the chance, but New York just seemed so much shinier. Deron didn't just have the chance—he was on his way, seemingly hell-bent on achieving it just two years ago ... but it's gone now.
There will be no statues for any of them now. Not anywhere. Perhaps some will receive less than even a sidebar.
* * *
To win the hearts of the fans, an athlete need not win a hundred championships. Not a dozen. Not even one.
And yet, it is rarer than winning a championship. And it is attainable only by striving to win a championship, by laying out everything one has to give, by being willing to give anything—anything to win ... even to give up shots to someone else, to give up an ego to a coach, to give up the personal accolades for the good of the team.
* * *
I watch our current Jazz team, even as it putters its way to a finish that is almost laughably awful.
I watch the team, and it's okay. The guys I believed in before are mostly gone—all having ultimately failed to be the players we hoped for. But there new guys, and I watch them ... hoping and wondering if any of them will win us over. The team stinks right now, but I like Al. I've always liked Millsap. AK's already won me over—not enough for a statue, but enough that I can tell my kids about how I watched him for 10 years. I don't want to spark a debate, but Raja is still a favorite. He's still a guy I'm glad I could cheer for.
I like the rookies: Gordon and Favors. And there's a chance for them to be special players. And who knows what will happen with the draft picks this year and the next.
There's always a chance.
And because we're talking about the Utah Jazz, we're talking about guys to become nothing more than sidebars one day.
Which is as it should be.
Because true glory, true victory, true history, true connections, truth itself ... these are the things we find in the sidebars.