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Monson: Disappointment wrapped in dignity — the Jazz's 1996-97 season is worth celebrating

Published March 22, 2017 5:23 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

John Stockton walked off the court that last night in Chicago, sweat rolling down his face, his body spent, his work put in, the bitterness of elimination circling him like invisible vultures hungry to pick away the remains. But he would not allow it.

He and his teammates suffered defeat in their final game of the 1996-97 postseason, falling in Game 6 to the Bulls, but the lasting image of a basketball warrior leaving the floor of competition, fans at the United Center cheering wildly, straight into the view of a proud man carrying so much disappointment, yet with his head up, never completely has faded.

The Jazz that year had a championship torn from their grasp by Michael Jordan, a fate that was repeated the following season, but two decades of reflection have softened that so-called failure, instead turning it into proper accomplishment, surrounded by appreciation for how good that team really was.

"It was a great team," Bryon Russell said Monday. "It was a great season."

That team and season will be celebrated 20 years later Wednesday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena at the Jazz game with the New York Knicks, coached by Jeff Hornacek. An assemblage of players and coaches from that team, reunited for the night, will be honored.

The subsequent seasons have underscored how difficult it is to do what that particular Jazz team did. And the first of the franchise's twin-peak Finals years is memorable for a whole lot of reasons beyond the 64 regular-season wins, most of them positive. I covered that team closely and remember so many bounces of the ball, including the ones that ricocheted off the foot and out of bounds, all of which spice the mix enough to make it even more legendary.

For instance, that was the season Derek Harper, who would have been shipped from Dallas to the Jazz minutes before the trade deadline had he not blocked the move, uttered the infamous words: "You go live in Utah. I don't want to."

It also was a season during which the Jazz dominated the third quarter of games, badly outscoring opponents in 37 of them over one 50-game stretch. Jerry Sloan marveled at that phenomenon. "There's not much I can say as to why it's happening," he said. "It's not my halftime speeches, I know that."

Sloan knew he had one of the two fastest race cars on the track that season, and he expected players to show up, do their jobs, be professionals. But he was fairly animated, often screaming at officials for their shortcomings. He actually uttered the following phrase in March of that year: "I was madder than a polecat with his tail caught in a John Deere baler."

On a Friday night in mid-April, the Jazz offered up a bit of evidence that revealed that this team was different from earlier teams. The Jazz had been eliminated by Houston in two of the previous three postseasons. But on this night, they crushed the Rockets, who were battling for playoff position, by 21 points. Hold that thought.

A survey among NBA players that year indicated that of all the home-court advantages around the league, Utah's was No. 1.

The Jazz finished that season by winning 24 of their last 26. They had the second-best offense in the league and the eighth-best defense, with an average nine-point margin of victory. And still, they had the demeanor of a road crew coming off a lunch break, getting no credit from Sloan, and accepting none. They just moved forward to the battle they knew eventually would come.

They swept the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, an opponent that L.A. guard Brent Barry described this way: "We're kind of like the Bad News Bears. A bunch of guys who just happened to end up wearing the same uniform who don't know how they came together."

In the second round, the Jazz beat Los Angeles' varsity team — You-Know-Who — with Shaq and a young fellow by the name of Kobe in five games. After a Game 1 win where Greg Ostertag limited O'Neal, the goofy center with the funny name, which sounded like … what, a Swedish bowling ball manufacturer? … a kitchen appliance? … a German holiday? … a Prussian hound dog? … looked around at the crowd of reporters surrounding his locker and said: "Where y'all been?"

At the first game of the Western Conference finals against Houston, Karl Malone was awarded by David Stern the league's MVP trophy over Jordan, which seemed like a good thing at the time. Malone averaged 27.4 points, shot 55 percent, had 4.6 assists and hauled in 10 rebounds.

The strongest memory comes from Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in Houston when, after trailing nearly throughout, the Jazz were brought back by Stockton, who took over offensively in the final minutes and famously hit the game-winner at the end from just to the left of the top of the 3-point arc. The Summit was loaded with Rockets fans, and when Stockton hit that shot, the place went absolutely silent, except for the voices of Jazz players and coaches jumping up and down on the court, looking like kernels of JiffyPop on a hot burner. Those sounds of victory echoed through the building.

Said Stockton, afterward: "I don't know how to explain the feeling I have. It's tremendous. I want to savor it … enjoy it."

At that exact moment, 1,500 miles to the northwest, Larry Miller was sitting in his car with his wife, Gail, and 8-year-old grandson, Zane, parked outside the old Cowboy Grub restaurant, listening on the radio. When Stockton's shot swished, Miller said:

"We hollered and yelled and let it all out. We celebrated like little kids. I'm sure Zane thought I was nuts. It surprised me how quick and how high the emotional spike was, probably because I had done such a good job of holding that in over the last few years. All of a sudden, everything exploded. It was ecstasy, too good to be true. In that instant, it hit me. ... If there was any question whether all of this had been worth it, it was answered right then and there."

Game 1 of the Finals, in Chicago, with 9.2 seconds left, game tied at 82, Malone missed two free throws — after Scottie Pippen walked in front of him and said, "The mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday." Next thing, Jordan hit a jumper over Russell to win the game. Russell said: "He did what Michael Jordan is known for … back-breakers."

There was Jordan renting out the Park Meadows golf course, so he and his teammates could play in private.

During the Finals, I drove to McLeansboro, Ill., rolling down Interstate 57 a couple hundred miles, onto Interstate 64 for a hundred more, turned south at Route 242 and rode that country road a spell, through a million acres of planted crop, dilapidated barns, sputtering oil rigs and rusty old tractors, all framed by hardwood forests and milky skies, toward a place unlike any outside of Utah.

Jerry's hometown.

Talked to the people there, all of whom adored Sloan. Visited Don's Liquor Hut, Huck's Food and Fuel, the This and That Variety Store, a hardware store and a Baptist church. Talked with guys named Snook and Beezer and Scooter and Dizzy. Found nothing but respect for Sloan and his Jazz.

There was Jordan's Flu game, in which he scored 38 points, 15 in the fourth quarter, giving the Bulls a 3-2 lead heading back to Chicago.

And then, there was Stockton walking off the court with disappointment wrapped in dignity at the end.

It was and is a year worth remembering.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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