'We can challenge anybody in the West,' guard says as he returns to Utah.
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Raja Bell was mauled. Cut off midsentence, grabbed with two long arms and almost tackled by a much-discussed man with shaggy blond hair.
Bell quickly turned around to discover the culprit. In turn, Bell found a friend.
Andrei Kirilenko was saying hello. And Bell was once again a member of the Utah Jazz.
The duo embraced, laughed and smiled. They requested a moment alone and were granted it. Within seconds, the former and current teammates were catching up and reconnecting after five long years.
For Bell, 34, a quick minute filled with private conversation said everything about his decision to once again call Salt Lake City his home and the Jazz his home team.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Bell has not played for Utah and coach Jerry Sloan since 2005. But during the most-hyped summer in the history of NBA free agency, Bell decided to forgo fame and seek out the familiar.
"There are things that I remember from Utah that still warm me up a little bit," Bell said Monday, during the Jazz's annual media day at the team's practice facility. "I had good times here. My wife and I had great times with the other players and their wives. It was a great stop along my ride."
For the former Florida International standout who has had to earn everything he has ever obtained in a big-name league, the ride continues.
After making just six appearances for Charlotte and Golden State in 2009-10, Bell entered the offseason by doing the same thing he has always done when his name is on the market and his defensive-based game is up for grabs: He took pen to paper, and compiled a short list of possible destinations.
After watching the numbers roll in, weighing the pros and cons and exploring his heart, the 11th-year player spurned Kobe Bryant's last-minute invitation to move to Los Angeles and chose the team that made the most sense to him but not nearly as much to others: Utah.
"It's a fabulous place to live. I think it's what you put stock in," said Bell, who spent the past few days unloading boxes and settling back in. "If you want to be out until 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning - if you want to be doing those kinds of things, then probably Salt Lake's not for you.
"But if you want to win, there are very few franchises that have a winning record like the Jazz do. If you want a community to support you, I challenge you to go somewhere and find people that support you more than the Jazz fans do. So, money is money. If there's no difference there, it's what's personally important to you."
After six teams in 10 years, Bell said the only two things that are truly important to him are winning and family. Thus, the decision to return to the Jazz, playing for a coach he believes in and a front office he trusts. Thus, his willingness to do whatever Sloan asks of him even if it means coming off the bench.
Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor praised Bell, noting that he arrived for camp slimmed down and in shape. Meanwhile, Sloan used words such as leadership and toughness to paint Bell's picture.
"We've always liked him," Sloan said. "We wanted to keep Raja Bell. He was a huge part of our team to be able to win 42 games [in 2003-04]. … We certainly have a memory of how he played hard; busted his butt."
Bell acknowledged that his team-first words were clichés. And he said that taking the court first is "always cool." But the same player expected to challenge C.J. Miles for the starting shooting guard spot is embracing ideas such as selflessness, leadership and team chemistry more than ever.
Bell felt burned in 2009-10. A fast start crashed into nothingness, due to a lingering left wrist injury that forced him to miss 76 games. Then, when he entered the recent free-agent bonanza, Bell was blacked out.
Now, he is entering training camp grounded, but also with hope and optimism. To Bell, Al Jefferson is a beast and Deron Williams is phenomenal. Paul Millsap? Ready to spread his wings and fly. Miles? Tough as heck to hold down.
Bell knows focus and perseverance will be everything. And that a little luck and a lot of chemistry will unite rather than divide.
But on Day One, the only Utah player besides Kirilenko with ties to the immediate post-Stockton and Malone era could not help but look ahead.
The Los Angeles Lakers are still on top of the mountain. The Western Conference is an unpredictable jungle. But Bell already sees something in the Jazz that he likes something that he wants to love.
"I think we can challenge anybody in the West," Bell said. "That's me saying it: I'm an ultra competitor. But I don't think that's far-fetched. I think we have a lot of talent. I think we're deep. … So, I'm not blowing smoke when I say we can be a really good team. I think we can play with anybody."
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More on Raja Bell
Position • Guard
Age • 34
Vitals • 6-foot-5, 215 pounds
Stats • 10.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 604 career games
College • Florida International
Previous teams • Philadelphia, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, Charlotte, Golden State