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Ghosts of Yesterday, Phantoms of Tomorrow

For whatever reason, this guy meant something to us
For whatever reason, this guy meant something to us
Stephen Dunn

My grandmother watched every Jazz game from the early 90's to the end of the Stockton and Malone era.

This still strikes me as incredible. She knows nothing about basketball, never had any interest in basketball, and was totally indifferent to the sport for most of her life.

And yet something about that team really struck her. She connected with it, somehow, and she loved the team. One of my fondest memories is watching a game with her, an old-school NBA on NBC playoff game. I don't remember who was doing the play-by-play, but Bill Walton was the color guy.

My grandmother couldn't stand it.

"They always favor the other team," she would complain. "They never want *us* to win."

She'd make similar complaints about the referees. She'd easily overlook Karl Malone going to the line 15 times in a single game and wonder why all the calls go for the other team.

* * *

Looking back at that Jazz team, there was something about them that connected with fans. They often connected with even the most disinterested of people. They were a part of our community in a surreal way.

Even for strong basketball fans, those of us who love the sport itself because it is so much fun to play, watch, and understand -- even for us, I believe, the connections with the people of the team are really what bring us back year after year.

The connection is, of course, strange. It's not a personal connection. Most of us, including myself, have never met any of the players, coaches, or anyone else with the team. The best I've ever gotten was a wink and a smile from Andrei Kirilenko. And that was two weeks ago, after more than twenty years of being an overly dedicated fan.

But the connection is even more than impersonal. It is almost completely one-sided. We create this emotional bond to them even as they have very little emotional bond to us. We are the faceless, nameless masses who come and make noise in the arenas.

And yet the emotional connection, from fan to the team and players, is real and strong. The emotional connection is what brings me back game after game, year after year. I like certain guys. I dislike other guys. I enjoy watching some guys. I don't enjoy watching other guys so much. But I'm choosy in my favorites, much like in my friends. There are certain qualities I want, and I won't create that connection for those that fall short.

* * *

The players I've connected with make up a long list.

Stockton and Malone, of course. I've written at great length about Stockton here. And more recently Andrei Kirilenko. I'm guessing many have read tens of thousands of words that I've written about that guy. But there are others:

I loved Felton Spencer. Much like Ty thinks veteran status makes every point count 150% compared to a rookie, I though Felton's goatee and badass gangsta visage doubled the effect of every dunk, every rebound, and every block.

Adam Keefe was the greatest role player of all time, I believed at the time. His nickname "The Trashman" echoed the brilliance of Brooks "The Human Vacuum Cleaner" Robinson. And that he married a hot Stanford volleyball player gave unrealistic hope for a socially awkward band-nerd teenager.

Bryon Russell and his "how-low-can-you-go" dribble drives were the stuff of beauty.

I could go on. Some were stars, like Deron and Memo. Others were not, like Wesley Matthews and Ronnie Price.

And I could write a full novel about the awesomeness that is Kyrylo Fesenko.

* * *

It's true the magical days of Stockton and Malone may never be matched (though I refuse to give up hope). But that doesn't mean we can't still connect to our guys. And so despite my well-documented ennui for our current team, there's still a lot I connect to.

I love Derrick Favors' quiet nastiness. The quiet part, of course, has been around for a while. But the nastiness is just starting to come alive. He's an athletic marvel, and a physical player. As a likewise physical player who wishes he was an athletic marvel, there's a lot I get excited about with him.

Sometimes I wish I could go backwards in time, back to my 2006 self, and explain what Paul Millsap circa 2013 is like. It's astonishing what he has done with his game. And I suppose that as a teacher constantly trying to help kids add to their skills and knowledge, I feel a distinct appreciation for what Paul Millsap has done with his career.

Gordon Hayward is, of course, the Great White Baby-Faced Hope. The Vanilla Cobra that is Too Big Yo! Somehow his failures and successes seem to capture every talented young dreamer trying to break through the establishment heirarchy, trying to get the good old boys to see that "Hey! I'm not only as good as those guys you call my superiors, I'm freaking BETTER!"

I love the weird combination of work-ethic and fun that is Enes Kanter. At times I openly wonder: is he the love child of Fes and the Mailman, somehow bringing the best of each characters amalgamated into a single Turkish Prince?

I love Alec Burks' swagger. I love how he can put up a crazy reverse dunk and just run back to play defense with nonchalance and aplomb--what's to get excited about, of course I can freaking do that.

Even Tinsley, for all his faults as a player, wins me over with the little dash of playground basketball he brinds to the Solution.

* * *

I could go on.

I still feel the connection. For some players it's stronger, for some it's weaker.

For some it's mostly there in memory of times of yore (I'm looking at you, Earl and Raja). For others its there as a foreshadowing of the future.

But whatever the reason, whatever the strength, the connections bring me back ... game after game, year after year.