One of the more overt defining points of my life has been my Utah Jazz fandom (over 70% of my life, and I’m closer to 40 than 30 now). And within that, I’m a "non-Utah" Utah Jazz fan, something the organization didn’t bother to court for many decades. Further compounding how crazy my situation is has to be the fact that I’ve never seen a Utah Jazz home game; which, according to some of the e-mails and twitter DMs I get, precludes me from the discussion of being a ‘Real™ Jazz fan’. I guess walking miles in 100+ degree weather halfway around the world to go to the American Embassy to read week old USA Today papers for the off-chance of seeing a Jazz boxscore means I was something else, all these years?
When I was living in North America things were much easier though. We all grew up (well, those of us who are old now) watching the NBA on NBC, and the Jazz were selectively on TV then. But if I was going to watch the Jazz play in person it would be as the road team. And with my whole counter-culture "being a Jazz fan while having no ties to the State of Utah" thing, that suited me just fine. When I started to get into the NBA people either liked the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, or New York Knicks. I really never met anyone else in my travels. Michael Jordan helped elevate a pathetic Chicago Bulls program, and in the 80s and 90s their popularity skyrocketed. Surprisingly, some people went crazy for expansion teams too, the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic became very popular when they first started. But for the most part you’d never see someone outside of Utah really repping Utah. I was that weirdo. (Btw, Utah Jazz fans in Utah – I don’t know if you can conceive that wearing Jazz gear meant people automatically disliked you, or would even start a physical fight with you. But that was my reality. Kids at school would rip up my Karl Malone poster that I had in my locker.)
Anyway, the main bullet point here is that the Jazz weren’t popular outside of Utah (what else is new), and I loved going against the grain. So watching Jazz games meant being one of the people who invade a home arena and root for the road team. This isn’t like going to the ESA and wearing Miami Heat gear. This would be like going to the ESA and wearing Milwaukee Bucks gear. And like being a Bucks fan from Seattle or something.
My Best Game, Live:
One of the best moments of my life came as the "road fan" watching my Jazz play a team, and beat them, while suited up in their purple jerseys. This was the infamous Utah Jazz @ Chicago Bulls game back on January 25th, between NBA Finals appearances. My mom promised me LAST season that if the Jazz made it to the NBA Finals that she would let me fly to Utah to watch them play – but that was right during final exams at my snooty private school, so I couldn’t go anyway. To make up for it, I weaseled my way into being able to go to this Sunday night game during my first year of University. I was dumb enough to schedule seven hours of class on a Monday, but this was the compromise of not letting me go to the finals the year before. Looking back on it now, I don’t remember thinking the Jazz would win. But the teen me felt like by going there, I would somehow help them do the impossible.
My tickets were trash (cheapest lower bowl), and I had no idea what I was doing as I flew from Canada to Chicago by myself and had no idea where things were in this city. (Flash forward a few decades, and I now live in Chicago. But hey, life is crazy sometimes.) I am convinced that the cabbie took me around for a tour of the West side before getting to the dreaded United center. But I didn’t care. The Jazz were going to win tonight, and I would be too stupid to not rub it into the faces of those evil Chicagoans! No matter what would happen, while this wasn’t my first NBA game or first Jazz game, this game would be my best ever game in person!
It was the 1997-1998 NBA Season. The Chicago Bulls had just won another title the year before, and were looking for another one this season – going for the super rare double-threepeat. Their team remained largely unchanged from the season before, as they were still a Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr team. Phil Jackson had coached them to a 30-12 home record so far in the season and they had won 18 of their last 21 games. Not too shabby.
Out West, the Utah Jazz were having a pretty good season again. After finally making the NBA Finals they were aiming to return for some unfinished business. Jerry Sloan ‘s club was only 27-13, but had won 10 of their last 12. And well, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell and crew were still all around and ready to do what was necessary to be the best of the West once again.
This would be the first time these two teams played against one another since the NBA Finals, and was billed as such. The fans knew it too, as 24,361 people showed up. When was the last time a Jazz road game drew in over 18,000 people? This game was big.
I wasn’t the only Utah Jazz fan there that night, you know, based on probability. I didn’t see any others, but they had to be there. This was during the height of the Bulls power and popularity, and their fans were loud, brash, and completely self-assured. Back then I was loud, brash, and completely self-assured too, but my purple Utah Jazz toque (or as Americans call it, "beanie") dissolved into my winter coat (also Purple, but hey, that’s just how I rolled back then) pretty quickly. Before I knew it the game started, and the Jazz won the tip.
The entire game was agony. Some of us remember back when the team was really, really good. And as a direct consequence, every game we (we – like the fans were part of the lifeblood of the team) played was very important. And because of that, every play on offense or defense helped determine the fate of the game, and thus, the franchise. It was easy to let your Jazzimune system rest during games against bad teams. But up close and personal against the best, every made basket was like a thousand victories; and every failed defensive stop was a crushing defeat. And this happened for 48 nerve wracking minutes. This is what it was like to be a Jazz fan during the Golden Era.
… onto the game …
And what at game it was! Two of the best teams of the era, at their best, with their best players playing well. This wasn’t a game marred by stars playing poorly, or guys being out with injuries. It was a heavyweight fight where the best offensive team went against the best defensive team. And looking back on it now, it was good basketball all around. I still am a bit envious at the Bulls length and ease of scoring as a result of their athleticism. But I am certain some Bulls fans on that night in 1998 were a little envious of former Bull legend Jerry Sloan and his ability to get his team to execute and never stop working to get the "right" shot every play. More than that, though, the number one take-away was that Michael Jordan and Karl Malone were really phenomenal players. Sure, this wasn’t their best ever game, and you could argue it was at the downside of their careers. But seeing them do their thing was worth the price of admission alone.
It was a Jazz @ Bulls game, but because of the way both teams were running things, it became a Karl Malone / Michael Jordan duel. They didn’t guard each other, but quickly both teams adjusted to the hot hands and soon enough it became a Karl vs. the Bulls team defense and Michaek vs. the Jazz team defense affair. Guys like Scottie, Toni, John, and Jeff were big parts of the game, for sure. And it was a pleasure to watch them, but for the most part my memory files it under one of the better duels I’ve seen in person. (I guess if I lived in, say, colonial times, I would have seen more.)
Utah had to prove that they belonged on this floor, and did so by taking the first quarter 26-22. Both teams were smart, and a four point lead was meaningless. Especially on the road against the Bulls who could fly in transition off of great defense. The second quarter saw more bench play. I still feel like our Jazz team was deeper. And early on, they were proving me right as the Bulls did not take the Howard Eisley / Antoine Carr pick and roll that seriously. And the Jazz went to town on them with it. Carr, at this point in his career, had legit pick and pop range for a bigman in his era – and was draining jumpers. I think this could be the natural evolution of the Alec Burks / Enes Kanter relationship on offense. We saw a bit of it last season, but Alec didn’t drive far enough before passing back, and Kanter was two feet in from where Big Dawg was making his Js from. But it can work. Of course, Eisley set it all up by getting to the rim and scoring before going into facilitator mode.
Both teams took advantage of each other, and there were plenty of counter attacks after made baskets. Fans of either side could claim that both teams were making impossible shots. But honestly, it was just great basketball played by two great basketball teams. MJ, Scottie, John, and Karl were great. And everyone else followed their leaders. Down by almost double digits, the Jazz would end up scoring nine straight to tie the game up at halftime 49 all. The last points were a classic "No, no, no . . . yess!" moment were Utah was on a mini break, Jeff Hornacek pulled up for three off the bounce, missed, but Karl Malone got the rebound, flipped it in and was fouled. He then calmly sank the free throw. It was at this point that I started to feel less inclined to barf all over myself.
At halftime both teams were led by their number one options, Michael Jordan was 17 points, and Karl Malone had 19. Bulls fans quickly reminded me that: Jordan can score 20 in a quarter; and that, I was trash and liked a trash team. (Being the "road team fan" is always fun.)
The third quarter was all about in-game adjustments, particularly on defense. Karl was doubled earlier and earlier, as he cooked the Bulls in single coverage. As for the Jazz, they went out and tried to contest Jordan’s shots more – which lead to easy offensive rebounds for Chicago, and occasional kick out passes to open men. You don’t see this often, where teams completely change up how they play someone as a curveball, and the star players don’t miss a beat. Jordan and Malone did the heavy lifting for both teams in the third, but the Jazz won the quarter 28-24. Utah went into the fourth quarter up 77-73, on the road, against the defending champs in their gym. That was only some bullcrap non-calls away from being a Bulls lead again. I wasn’t confident that I hadn’t already seen this ending before. The Bulls fans (who had found out I was not amongst them by this point) were overconfident in their team.
The Fourth Quarter:
Oh my, I know it isn’t the Delta Center, but 24k plus Bulls fans made it loud. Whatever support I gave for the Jazz was drowned out by drunk Bears fans who wouldn’t have watched the Green Bay Packers in the Superbowl (that same night), and were venting their frustrations out during this early Sunday game. They would have been better off at home as Howard Eisley deflated the crowd a bit with his under-rated shot making ability. The pace was slow, and with the time ticking by in the fourth each possession meant so much more. The Bulls were forced to call a time out with the Jazz up by double digits with about 7 minutes left in the game. It was time to take the bench guys out of the game, and put in the closers – even if it was a littler earlier than both head coaches wanted.
Every moment of this game took 20 minutes off of my life. The Jazz had the lead, and were closing out the game well, but I couldn’t feel comfortable at all. Michael Jordan was individually just too good to believe. He was getting leeway from the refs, but man, he was just so athletic and made our team look stupid at times.
The game clock kept running but the game was out of hand. The economics of end game situations favored our team, with 24 seconds on the clock, and Karl Malone going to the free throw line nursing a 5 point lead. He made both and then I started beaming, and talking a little too much trash for the situation. It was a 7 point win, 101-94, but meant so much more.
Bulls fans weren’t happy, but were nonplussed. January home losses don’t matter. For me, this was huge. Looking back now I recognize how rare big road wins would be for our club going forward.
Looking at the stats years from the actual game is a funny thing. I know that Karl scored a lot, and Jordan did too. And I did remember that Karl scored more (which was individually an important thing for me – many people may not remember all the times Karl came 2nd to Michael in the scoring race back in the 90s).
- Karl did not dominate all aspects of the game, but The Mailman pounded the bulls inside and out, and finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal. He went 11/12 from the line, and 12/21 from the field. If you like BARPS he had 50, in one game. And at a GO Rating of 278.07, which is nearly 300% better than All-Star level. It was a legendary performance on offense, where he was called upon and Delivered. Karl finished with a 39.3 USG%, and a 124 ORTG. He also had a 20.0 AST% when he was out there on the floor too. You don't see those kinds of advanced stats from bigmen on offense anymore.
- Jordan had 32 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and shot 13/26 from the floor. He went 0/4 from outside, and we know that a three here or there could have changed the outcome of such a close game.
- Scottie Pippen added 16 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, and 1 block, but he also sucked from deep, going 1/8. You can't bank on the other team's two best players, who are wing players, going 1/12 from outside. There was some luck involved in this game.
- But there was also Howard Eisley, who came off the bench and gave the Bulls the business: 14 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, and 6/12 shooting. If you combine that with John Stockton's 7 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds you have a dominant advantage against what the Bulls got from their point guards Ron Harper (6 points, 2 assists) and Rusty LaRue (filling in for an injured Steve Kerrr?) (4 points, and nothing else)
- Luc Longley (12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block) was more effective than Greg Ostertag (4 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks) when it comes to scoring -- but for what the Jazz needed from Big Greg they kinda got it
- The Jazz had 35 bench points, to the 28 of the Bulls
- The pace of the game was 88.1 possessions; and the Jazz finished it with an ORTG of 114.7 and a DRTG of 106.8. Obviously the Bulls are a great team, but the Jazz offense was really clicking. (They seem to do best when Eisley was aggressive)
- The Bulls rarely turned the ball over (7.2 TOV%), and crashed the glass (36.5 ORB%), but I guess that is what happens when you mainly run post ups to Jordan or Isos on offense, and you have a muppet like Dennis Rodman (0 points, 14 rebounds) on your team.
- Toni Kukos and Jeff Hornacek didn't have the biggest impacts in this game, but were still very solid at being complimentary players sublimating their games for the betterment of the team
- This was a Steve Javie / Sean Corbin / David Jones reffed game.
I made it back safe and sound to Canada, and the Jazz would go on a tear after this Bulls game – finishing the season 37-5. Utah would never lose back to back games during this closing stretch, something they managed to do twice in November earlier in this season. Losing two games in a row was something they did not do for the rest of the season until Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals.
Also, and I am just taking this all from JazzBasketball1 ‘s write up of this from YouTube vid description:
"The loss ended the Bulls' 38-game home winning streak against the Western Conference which began when Michael Jordan came out of retirement in 1995."
So that’s pretty cool, right?
Well, for the Chicago Bulls losing this game to the Jazz didn’t change their fortunes much. They would only lose 5 more games in the regular season as well (including two in a row in the middle of April against the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons), and finish the season with a 62-20 record – the same as the Jazz. They would face each in the NBA Finals, and while the season ended and the Bulls won another ring, I think most of us are still waiting for that Game 7 of the 1998 Finals.
But all of that anguish was months away. And as I was on that flight back to Canada I had already known that this was the best game I ever saw in person.
And of course, you can watch extended highlights of the game at JazzBasketball1's youtube page here.
And, last, but not least, feel free to write your own FanPosts about your best ever in-person game experience! I would love to read it!