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Dear Deron: Thanks for 5 1/2 Years of Ninja

At any given time there are, I believe, only about ten people in the world that a championship team can be built around. Maybe fewer. These guys don't guarantee a championship, but if you want to build a championship team you have to have one of them.

For the past few seasons, Deron Williams was one of those ten. He came closer to leading the Jazz to the NBA Finals in 2008 than any of us understood at the time. He led the most successful Jazz teams since 1999. He was the best Jazzman since Stockton and Malone. It could be argued he was the best ever besides Stockton and Malone. He certainly led the team to more success than Adrian Dantley, Pistol Pete, or anyone else.

I know things soured lately. I know the Jerry Sloan resignation made a lot of fans turn on Deron. I know the past month and a half were not happy times. But I'm asking you to forget all that for a moment. I'm asking to you shove the bad aside and remember the good. Because there was whole lot of good.

DWill vs. CP3

I'm starting here because it began during their rookie season. It started at the end of the season, when Deron overcame an awful three-month stretch and finally started playing like a number 3 pick. The Jazz played played the Hornets all four times in the last two and a half months of the season. The first two, in late February, galvanized Deron out of his funk and turned a struggling rookie into a dependable player. The Jazz won three of the four games. Deron outplayed Chris Paul in all three wins, and he had a good game in the one loss.

And Jazz nation had something to rant about: Deron was better than Chris Paul.

We needed it. These were the worst of the Boozer years, and we needed something to rant about besides the absurd injuries of our own marquee player. And it let us become the same kind of fans we had been during the Stockton and Malone years—fans of a great player who we were convinced was unfairly overlooked by the basketball fans and media of the world. We got to be so loud about it that national media began to hear. We got so loud that within about 4 years we had a good share of the NBA fans around the nation to believe to us.

We got to count wrong: 1, 2, 8, 4, 5. We got to emblazon the internet with a simple math relationship that should have been obvious to all: 8>3.

The Deron vs. CP3 helped us care about the team more than we would have otherwise.

Thank you, Deron.

The Western Conference Finals

It was a magical run in the 2007 playoffs. The comeback against Houston. The Derek Fisher game. The Baby Blue T-shirts given to the fans. And nobody was better than Deron. (Though honestly Boozer was also pretty good in those playoffs). Deron put up huge games in must-win situations in Houston (particularly games 4 and 7). He outplayed the darling-of-the-playoffs PG in game 1 against GS. He killed any thought of a Warriors upset with his 20 and 13 in game 4. And against San Antonio, while the rest of the team wilted, he put up 26 points and 8 assists per game and fought until Sloan finally pulled him out for good in game 5.

The beginnings of Ninja happened at the end of his rookie season. The growth into Ninja happened that season. And in the playoffs he finally became Ninja.

And it was thrilling to be a Jazz fan. Is there anything we love more than our team winning when the national experts called them dead, or clobbering the team the national media anointed as the darlings of the playoffs? It's what we live for. It's what Deron gave us that season.

Again, thank you Deron.

The team of 2008

There was no ambiguity now. Despite the national media obtusely wondering whose team it was, we all knew—Deron was the Man. A player-coach conflict almost killed the season, but after the Giricek/Korver trade the team was as good as it would ever be with Deron Williams. This was the one time the team blew into the postseason playing their best. And he was the heart of it all. 19 points, 10.5 assists. And still no All-Star nod. Which Deron used as inspiration to play even better, which we fans used to shout and rant and rave with epic, wonderful delirium.

Early season muddles kept the team as a number 5 seed, but Houston didn't have a prayer. Deron was even better than the year before, once again raising his performance in the playoffs. Again they would lose to the eventual conference champs, this time the Lakers, but this time they didn't wilt. This time Deron led everyone in an all-out tooth and snarl fight to the end. They only made the semis, but the team was clearly better than the year before, they were still improving, and it was our brilliant Ninja PG who was the cause of it all. There was no question who was the best—Boozer fizzled that playoffs, and Deron was almost enough to lift the team in spite of his number two falling apart.

Again, thank you Deron.

The guy who loved Salt Lake, Utah, and its fans

Everyone forgets this now. He lived in Utah year round. He eagerly did every publicity stunt the team asked for. He arranged his own fun shenanigans (the competitions with Floyd Landis, the Dodge Barrage), just because he wanted to. He hung out at local Costco stores just to be around fans. He threw a birthday party for two teammates—not the stars, but the role players—and he invited the fans to come.

This kills me more than anything about the trade. Seriously, I just described Deron Williams' off-court exploits from just a year and a half ago. This was after everyone knew the Jazz wanted Boozer gone. And Deron gave every vibe you could imagine that he wanted to be here forever. He gave every indication he was a once-in-a-generation teammate as well as talent.

It's all gone now.

But I still thank him for those times. I'll take a a couple years of a player being that committed, that involved, and that connected to the community and his fans. Because even those couple of years are a very, very rare thing.

Again, thank you Deron.

The guy who helped us all believe

It's not often a player can make his fans believe the team could be something wonderful. It's even rarer for it to happen twice. Deron did it. He did it for the 2008-09 season, and again this year. We all know both ended much worse than we had hoped. They both ended much worse than the players had hoped. But the truth is only one out of 30 teams ends the season in a completely satisfying way. Only 8 teams have ended the season satisfyingly in the past 30 years.

And in all that time, how many fans have been stuck, year after year, with no hope and no excitement. How many teams were mired in gunk or, even worse, pure mediocrity. No Deron never led the Jazz to a championship (though he was awfully close in 2008, it turns out). But he brought a lot of excitement, a lot of fun, and genuine reasons to believe in the team for five straight years.

I'd never give away the excitement he brought, the belief I felt, the fun I had watching those teams. No matter if they fell short or not.

Again, thank you Deron.

The last three months of the 2010 season

Sunny G.'s shot was the catalyst. AK's readmission to the starting lineup was the ongoing difference, but it was Deron that led two straight months of the best basketball we've seen since 1999. It was the most consistently great basketball any team played at any time that season. Opposing fans watched their teams get obliterated, and they could do nothing but smile, awed simply beautiful basketball. Henry Abbot of True Hoops watched the Jazz destory his beloved Blazers three times in two weeks, and all he could do was talk about how amazing the Jazz were.

It was a fun time. I will always wonder how it would have ended had they stayed healthy. But what ifs aside, it was the most fun I've had as a Jazz fan since the late 90's. When I imagine the greatest moments of my 20+ years as a Jazz fan, I think of two images: Stockton, Malone, and Hornacek's group hug in 1997 and Deron's high fives to AK during the incredible run last year. Those are the images that encompass everything that was wonderful about both eras.

When I look back at the greatest teams of all time, my favorite is the Celtics of Bird and McHale. They had a special, attitude: "We're so much better than you, and it's so much fun to destroy you." The Jazz carried themselves with that kind of attitude during the run last year. It was fun to watch, fun to write about. And it was Deron who led it.

Again, thank you Deron.

The Denver series

There was a lot to remember. Fesenko, Fesenko, Fesenko. Boom Bitches. But the best was Deron, putting on a playoff performance with stats that had never happened before: 5 straight games with 20+ points and 10+ assists. For the series he averaged 26 points and 11 assists. Even the Sports Guy called him the best PG in the league. And he led the hobbled underdogs through a great series over a team we all desperately wanted to beat.

And we'd never have our SLC Dunk slogan had Deron not played out of his mind. Let's play the basketball, indeed.

Again, thank you Deron.

The Ninja play

OKC last April. Charlotte last November. Playoff numbers higher than regular season numbers every single season (something not even Stockton and Malone accomplished). Full court passes to Ronnie, CJ, and Wesley. The dunk against Derrick Rose. Always doing what he could to dominate the best of the best PG's in the league. The showmanship. Behind-the-back passes. No look passes.

We got it all again and again.

I think my favorite was the win against Charlotte in November. It was the fourth 10+ point comeback in a row, Jazz down by one and only a few seconds left. We all knew Deron was going to get it. And we all knew he'd make a shot to win the game. And he did—a beautiful floater after a drive to the paint that everyone knew was going to happen, but everyone was totally helpless to try to stop.

It's rare a player could do that. Everyone knew he was getting it—the fans, the opponents, the teammates—everyone knew it was going to go in and win the game, and then he pulled it off. I didn't think "I hope he makes it." Nor did I think "What if he makes it." No, I thought "he's going to win the game." There was no question. It's how people described Larry Bird back in the day. And for a moment Deron had it.

Again, thank you Deron

Final goodbyes

It wasn't a perfect five and a half years. There were times when things didn't work. And even the best of the best times didn't last. Epic playoff performances were followed by playoff losses. Spectacular finishes to the best seasons were followed by seasons in which the team struggled. Deron's magic this past November didn't last the rest of the year.

But that's sports and life. Most endings are losses. The great times never last. If you're lucky you get to see your team end a year with the big win. But even that lasts for only a moment.

I enjoyed the Jazz so much more because of Deron. I cared about the Jazz so much more because of Deron. I believed in the Jazz so much more because of Deron.

And in the end, that's enough. That's what being a fan is about anyway—enjoying, caring about, and believing in your team.

Thank you, Deron, for five and a half great years.

My only regret is that it couldn't last longer.

* * *

One last time, here's my Deron Williams video I made the previous summer. It included highlights from only 40 games or so last year. I put it here as a reminder ... there were more great times than some of us admit.

Deron is NINJA (via jamidget)