NBA History: What's your Utah Jazz Story?

NBAE

It’s really late at night right now when I start to write this . . . post? This isn’t an article, and I’m pretty sure there’s no news in it. Furthermore, this isn’t researched based or something cool like a pie-chart. [Note 1: I don’t actually think pie-charts are cool.] What is this? I guess we can call this a story. And it’s really late right now to start writing one.

But let’s start anyway.

I’ve happily lived in world where the Utah Jazz mean more to me than the NBA does, they also meant more to me than basketball as a sport. Furthermore, I think it’s safe to say I love the Utah Jazz more than the concept of "sport" itself. And I’ve lived in this world for decades. It’s a happy little world. Back when the internet was first starting I found a way to communicate with other people in their happy little worlds. On message boards I’d read all the Jazz topics available, even bypassing larger national news in the NBA. I didn’t care about the rest of the world; I just cared about my Jazz world. I do not assume I wasn’t the only one who did this.

The love I have for the Jazz franchise wasn’t one of location (wasn’t born or raised in New Orleans or Utah) or convenience (it was hard to follow the team for the majority of my life following the team – just because I lived in places where reporting on the Utah Jazz did not seem like something important enough to do). But through these hardships and adversity I think the love that developed was one of honesty and hard work. I used to travel for miles to find that one newsstand that carried American newspapers and magazines to find the briefest of sports sections. I used to stay up late doing my homework to international news organizations on TV to hope to see a tiny standard definition scrawl of a 3rd quarter update on the team I loved.

I put in time and effort into this relationship, and the Jazz paid back handsomely with giving me hours and hours of entertainment and joy. I love the Utah Jazz. And as a young boy turning into a teenager I loved the Utah Jazz more than my first car, first girlfriend, and first paycheck put together. Things in my life started to get better when the things in the Jazz’ life started to improve as well. For one, I loved it when the NBA TV contract went from CBS to NBC. They had more affiliates and regions. They had more money. And they showed more games on TV, including Western Conference Games. (Back in the early to mid-80s you would really only get Eastern Conference GamesLakers games used to be played back on tape delay. Kids today don’t even know what that even means.) NBC did more than just show the games, from John Tesh’s catchy tune to producing Inside Stuff every Saturday Morning (CBS didn’t have an Inside Stuff type of show) it was hard not to have a stronger feeling with the NBA brand due to better production values and packaging.

It became easier to follow the team I loved, and the team was climbing the ladder.

When I joined the Jazz as the last bandwagon fan the franchise ever had (back in the ’87-88 season and playoffs) I was immediately treated to a great season that ended with a 7 game series in the second round of the playoffs. It was a hard fought, and lost, series to the Showtime Lakers led by countless Hall of Famers. The team made a lasting impression on me. But it took a few years of up and down (mostly down) seasons before they would surpass that starting point / origin moment for me. My first taste of "Jazz basketball" was of defense and ball movement, and winning 6 playoff games. The next three seasons the Jazz won 6 playoff games combined. I was getting a bit frustrated by the futility. It would have been easy to stop being a Jazz fan then and there. During this period of my life I was growing up in a country that, among sports fans, basketball fans were third class citizens. And within that group, being a Jazz fan was to ask for ridicule. "You like the Jazz? Why don’t you like the Knicks or Bulls? Are the Jazz even on TV? Shut up. They suck, they got swept by the San Francisco Warrior-Queers." (exact word for word quote from my childhood) [Note 2: This was back when the "worst" idea of a town reflected, or assimilated, the sports team that was based there. Like how all the people on the Jazz are LDS – oh wait, this isn’t even a "back when" moment. This is just real life. This stuff still happens, and it’s 2013.]

Despite being uncool and unpopular I stuck with the team I loved. In my first five seasons as a Jazz fan the Jazz went 176 and 29 at home (85.9% winning percentage), and I knew that once the team started to get home court in the first round we were very unlikely to get back to first round exit-ville. And that belief was validated by reality, Utah went to the Western Conference Finals when I was in my third year at a snooty boarding school. As we all know the Jazz would return again and again, ending up with 5 Western Conference Finals appearances in 7 seasons. Because my parents kept me in that snooty boarding school for so long (which starts at Elementary and goes till you finish high school) I got to experience all of it during some pretty formative periods of my life. And it was so damn fun to root for a team that played tough, never lost at home, and was so damn good.

They were so damn good that I started to color co-ordinate my #2 dress (for those rare occasions when we were allowed to not wear our #1 uniform) with if the team was playing at home or on the road. It was really a great time to be a fan. And I cannot stress it enough that back then we were learning a lot about the game by being Jazz fans. The team had talented stars that produced wins who would listen to a stubborn head coach who was more right than he was wrong. The ownership was strong and there was a franchise direction. The pace of the game favored our talents, and good basketball was played and cheered for. Lustfully.

That was the team I grew with. That was the type of team I could be proud of and helped justify all the personal hardships associated with even being a Jazz fan in a non-NBA country. We did not win any titles, but we just about came as close as any other team did during the Jordan years. There was some unfinished business there and I feel like we would have absolutely destroyed the Pacers or Knicks or whomever if we just made it back in 1999. It didn’t happen, and the Jazz that I was first attracted to started their slow descent from their zenith. [Note 3: I used to watch a lot of Jazz games on an old Zenith TV that had a built in 8-track player and record player in it.]

By the time the millennium passed and we all didn’t descend into a Y2K style dystopian road-warrior-esque world (not going to lie, I was worried for a bit) it became really easy to follow the team. Well, it was technologically easy – but we were stuck in no-mans land as a franchise. The team was still in win now mode with diminishing returns. When Calvin Booth sinks a series winning shot against you in a close out game on your home court it stings a little. What made it a little easier was that I had more things on my plate to worry about than just the Utah Jazz. Undergrad was a double major and a serious long distance relationship (which is so much work). There is a little bit of bitter irony that the last games of Stockton and Malone occurred when I was taking two semesters off of medical school to learn tropical medicine and do research in India. I would still wake up super early to "watch" the games (on the Yahoo! or ESPN web updates), every game, but now the local newspaper would have a picture John Stockton shooting a layup in the sports page. And again, I was living in India at this time. This was the end of the Jazz I fell in love with, and Utah playing at their worst. But now more than ever in my life before the world was watching them. And there were people all around the world falling in love with the NBA who had their first taste of the Jazz be the bitter taste of over the hill also or never-rans. First round exits and poor late game performance. This was the same franchise I loved, but I saw them through a lovers eyes. I had a hard time accepting that THIS team wasn’t still THE team I loved. Medical school went into overdrive then, and a year without a working computer made it really hard to blog. (I used to blog about the team starting back in undergrad) That was fine, I embraced the concept of following the team at a little more distance. I loved the Jazz and still rooted for them to win every game – even if every single person who was on the team when I started my fandom was now either retired or playing on the Lakers.

Rebuilding is tough. Is it as tough as living in four different countries in four years? I don’t know. But the Jazz rebuilt faster than I did during that same era of Jazz basketball. Since his rookie year I was in love with Andrei Kirilenko (I honestly had no choice, I was still primarily getting most of my information about the team from box scores – and few filled them up like he did), and he made being a Jazz fan worthwhile as well. I had survived the "Why are you a Jazz fan, no one knows about them" and "why are you a Jazz fan, they are unpopular and don’t win playoff games, and will never go to another NBA Finals ever again" eras. Andrei would help me and the millions of other Jazz fans through the post-Stockton and Malone years.

Our owner, Larry H. Miller, was driven to win; and the Utah front office was super aggressive and soon enough it wasn’t just Andrei and a bunch of no-bodies. We had a strong team again in no time, and went from our last first round exit of Stockton and Malone (2002-03) to our first Western Conference Finals without Stockton and Malone (2006-07) in four seasons. While that core did not last it did retain many of the same qualities and properties of the teams I fell in love with. They played hard. They were nearly invincible at home. They had great ball movement. The defense was lacking, but they replaced that with outside shooting firepower that previous Jazz clubs could only dream of (The center? Making game winning threes?). For fans who started seriously following the team during these days I can see how it could have made a high expectation origin point like it was for me. For fans who started seriously following the team a few seasons earlier, when we were bad, this was a sign of improvement. And for fans who were following the team from my era or older – this was like a welcome return to the good times we already had before.

For us old farts we watched a lot of good basketball in Utah. And good basketball was being played again.

The problem, though, of being an old fart is that we’ve watched a lot of good basketball in Utah and know when good basketball is not being played. I guess it’s the job of the PR department to consistently sell the product – but this rubbed a lot of fans with long term memories the wrong way. I remember being sold stars who produced. I remember a stubborn coach – but he was right more than he was wrong. I remember having a direction and forward momentum. I remember ball movement and defense. Over the last three seasons we haven’t seen much of those Jazzy qualities. We’re Post-Stockton and Malone. We’re also Post- Deron Williams / Carlos Boozer / Mehmet Okur / Andrei Kirilenko too. (And Post- Jerry Sloan) And I pity the new Jazz fans whose first taste of the Jazz is this over processed, high fructose corn syrup version. You guys are being fed poison, instead of being nourished on the Jazz nectar that we were raised on.

Guys like Al Jefferson and Mo Williams did not always produce, or help us get wins. Tyrone Corbin was stubborn and indignant while being coddled by state owned media. Our team had no positive momentum or a unified direction. There was no ball movement. There was little defense. And we were losing twice as many home games a season than we did when we were good. We still won a lot of home games, but it’s not 5 a season anymore. Teams looked at the schedule and altitude, and then our roster, and laughed. The crappy product at home resulted in crappy attendance. And despite not having a lot of overt power – it’s the Jazz fans who are the canaries in this mine shaft.

We spoke and the team re-organized itself from top/down. New general manager. New direction for franchise. Specific coaching instructions from the front office. New starters. Emphasis upon defense. Hopefully better results.

I know our blog was very critical over the last few years. That pissed some fans off. Some of the fans who were pissed off had only really fallen in love with the Jazz recently, and what they knew was based upon their individual experiences with the team and how well the team performed formed their idea of what a good Jazz season was like. But our website has a lot of readers, participants, and contributors who are older Jazz fans. We would be doing the continued history and story of the Jazz a disservice by glossing over the negative stuff. We knew the product was bad because we had the larger frame of reference of when it was bad before, and how it got better. We saw that happen TWICE already from high volume guys who couldn’t win before like Dantley to effective two-way players like Stockton and Malone, and then having a young team suck, and then be built up in free agency and the draft with Booz and D-Will. No one else was telling it like it was but us. The message sucked – but we owed it to today’s fans to say so.

The product was bad, and guess what? The front office agreed with us. The negative fans. The older fans. The fans who had earned their stripes as Jazz fans through thick and thin during the 80s, 90s, 2000s and beyond. They could have done nothing, and kept on trucking with mediocre veterans and mercenary free agents – but did not. A lot of fans, even bloggers, were more than happy to talk about how great things are NOW with the core that we used to have over the last two years. I think those people were either writing dishonestly or probably don’t remember how dominant and well run we used to be. [Note 4. This entire section sounds preachy and like a big "I told you so", like the Ego stroking that Spencer Campbell wrote about a few months ago. I accept that charge. But let's not forget the validity of this opinion. We at this blog were critical because the team was bad, and the team was bad because of evidence that saidthey were bad, when put into context of a larger frame of reference, like being a Jazz fan for 25+ years. And that larger context is NBA History / reality. ]

You don’t lose only 4 home games in a season and go to 5 WCF in 7 seasons by embracing mediocrity. That’s for other franchises. That’s not for the Jazz. I’m glad the Jazz remembered it. Some of us fans never forgot.

So where are we right now in the story of the Jazz? For me this is the third period of (hopefully) upward growth. Our team is going to get better, maybe vastly better in the next few seasons. I’ve read about the Rickey Green / Darrell Griffith / Adrian Dantley core. I lived through the Stockon / Malone cores (from Mark Eaton and Darrell Griffith to Greg Ostertag and Jeff Hornacek to Bryon Russell and Olden Polynice). I saw the aftermath when John and Karl left. I lived through the AK-47 / Wild Horse years, and the Jazz success remix era (Williams, Boozer, Okur, Kirilenko). We failed to win a title with that group as well. I’m still getting over the last few seasons today, but this off-season we had that necessary, cleansing, forest fire.

I’ve seen good Jazz teams and bad Jazz teams. I’ve seen the front office in active and dormant modes. I’ve seen playoff success and I’ve seen first round futility. I’ve seen the media attack our players and coaches and be critical, and I’ve seen the media message be much less critical. I’ve seen high expectations reached, and low expectations failed. I’ve seen three different Utah Jazz head coaches. (Which is like one season for some teams – but a way to demark the passage of time for our team.) I’ve seen the team go up and down and up and down, and hopefully now go up again.

When you start life your story stars. And your story is populated with the people, tones, colors, and events of your life. The beginning of your story is important because it’s your frame of reference for how the story goes. This is the same with how everyone’s life story with the Utah Jazz, their Jazz story, is as well. My Jazz story started with the team going on a historically significant, and unprecedented upswing. The talent got better. The team played better. The team won more. How my Jazz story started builds my frame of reference for the rest of my life with the Jazz.

I saw a team led by two young guys dominate the record books for decades. I saw defense and ball movement. I saw winning 85.9% of home games and winning in the playoffs. And I saw the team get better and/or be better. I’m in my mid-thirties now with half of my life over. I’ve been following the team since I was 10. The Jazz have been a huge part of my life for the majority of my life, and that time period is longer than some of you have been alive. And from what I’ve seen and experienced before this is an exciting time to be a Utah Jazz fan. We’re going to get better again. And it starts with this season.

It’s only fitting that the end of this story, one I started hours ago, ends at this point: our personal experiences with the team are subjective and non-uniform as a product of our initial experiences with the team and that team’s immediate winning culture and success. And our personal experiences with the team start our "Jazz story". Our Jazz story tells a tale, and helps shape our frame of reference for what is good, normal, and bad. From this we get the basis of many differing opinions.

So, what’s your Jazz story? How do you think that affects how you watch the game / team? How does that affect how you see things in Jazzland?

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