Years ago I was wandering around in some border town and found a bookstore. In it I found an old basketball almanac that was dedicated fully to the Utah Jazz. This was for the '93-94 Jazz season, but in it there was a very detailed history section. In it they detailed the rise of the franchise and the magical 1983-84 Jazz team. This book quickly became my Bible as I read more and more about the team I loved. Funny, now 30 years later the Jazz are celebrating this moment. And now I'm writing sports stories for people to read. #cosmos
It cannot be overstated enough how bad things were with the Jazz franchise back then. The team was hemorrhaging money, no one showed up to home games back in New Orleans, and the team was losing, losing, and losing.
That's what it looked like. It's not a trend, it's a Ouija board. The Jazz had run through five coaches in nine seasons -- Scotty Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Butch Van Breda Kolff, Tom Nissalke, and Frank Layden. And the team needed a move to Utah after the first five season after being run out of New Orleans. But even then the fates didn't change. It did take a lot of patience (something Frank still suggests today). And slowly the team started to get better, even if the wins were not accumulating arithmetically.
But, something amazing happened:
N.B. Spoilers: Life was hard back in the olden days of the Jazz franchise.
The proverbial monolith for the Jazz happened to be Frank Layden tailoring the Xs and Os to not just match the players on the team, but to force a cogent, cohesive game plan. The Jazz had stars before, and big scorers, and scored a lot. But they didn't have that fundamental defensive backbone to jump start their team.
In 1983-84 the Jazz still had one of the best offenses, but they also had the 12th best defense of DEF RTG. That's huge. The offense was good and the defense was good at the same time, for the first time in franchise history.
The players were special. Adrian Dantley scored 30.6 ppg -- not unknown for him at this stage of his career, but the fourth straight season where he averaged 30 ppg in Hall of Fame Career. He led the league in PPG this season. Rickey Green was a consummate professional and legit starting point guard, but he elevated his game this year to be a near double double guy, and led the league in SPG on his way to being an All-Star. Darrell Griffith came into the league with hardware as the 1980-81 Rookie of the Year, and was a high scoring shooting guard. But this season he brought the three point shot and dominated. He ranked #1 in the NBA in 3PT% that season, giving the offense something they didn't have before. And well, Mark Eaton, in his second season in his career, formed that defensive back-bone. He led the league in BPG for the first time in his young career, sending back 4.3 a game. His defense and rebounding helped get the ball to Rickey faster, and then get the ball to Adrian and Darrell in better spots. The defense was good and the offense was good. And everyone thrived under Frank's Xs and Os.
The old and new were having a good time. Rookie forward Thurl Bailey had a fine season averaging 8.5/5.7/1.6/0.5/1.5 while playing 2009 total minutes in the regular season. And long in the tooth bigman Rich Kelley (who played back with the Jazz in New Orleans) still managed to get up and down the court for 22.3 mpg and lead the team in both DRB% and TRB%. In an era before advanced stats the Jazz were playing proverbial money-ball.
I stole that line from Frank Layden who said it today in a much more meaningful way.
The Jazz would win the division, beat the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs (demonstrating that they did, indeed, have heart) and would lose to the Phoenix Suns in six games. In the off-season they would draft John Stockton. The next off-season they would draft Karl Malone. And now, 30 years later, we look back at the beginnings of one of the greatest stories in the history of sport -- the apotheosis of the Utah Jazz from a cellar dweller to a contender.
If you look too deeply those first few Frank years look like the first few years of Tyrone Corbin -- but in reverse. Right now we're back where we started as a franchise. The offense and defense are both poor. But we have a lot of potential and a solid foundation of youth. I'm excited to see where this team will go. I wonder if it will go on another long run of success.
I guess we'll need to find another Frank Layden (and Scott too!) in order to do that. Maybe that's who DL is? Or maybe the next Frank will be our next Head coach? It's funny, this franchise always looked to find people to replicate what Stockton and Malone did. We went after pass first point guards and tried to run our offense with a scoring power forward. We've seen success and failure with this. Maybe all along we just needed another firebrand like Frank instead?
Ramblings about wanting an
obese jolly head coach aside, the Jazz team I fell in love with ('87-88) wouldn't have existed without the Jazz team that was, back in 1983-84. As a result this team will always have a special home in my heart.
The media for this has been great, so I will share some of it here:
@utahmankiyi We will not be wearing throwbacks. There are NBA restrictions for alternate jerseys— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 22, 2014
Too bad it's not a throwback game. But still, awesome to be celebrating a team from 30 years ago. Nagging question why this entire season isn't a celebration, as it's the 40th of the franchise. (Hence my 40 at 40 series). Oh well, I guess they'll do it up big for the 50th year.