It looked like he pushed him.
With seconds ticking off the clock, Michael Jordan crossed over Bryon Russell and drained a 20-footer to take the lead from the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. I was at my mother’s house in Las Vegas screaming at the television and I wasn’t alone. Everyone in the room was going nuts for MJ and the Chicago Bulls. And why wouldn’t we? Michael Jordan was/is the greatest basketball player of all time and he just scored 45 to win his sixth NBA Championship. From Vegas, we could hear the air sucking out of the Delta Center as the Jazz missed their second consecutive opportunity at winning a championship and I couldn’t have cared less. Those of us who didn’t have a team growing up made the Bulls and Jordan our team simply because he was the best. It is funny to think that the most iconic moment of the Jazz losing is my first real exposure to the team.
I wasn’t much of a basketball fan in ’98 and I certainly wasn’t a Utah Jazz man. Growing up in Las Vegas, the only professional basketball I knew was Coach Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin’ Rebels. After winning the NCAA tournament in 1990, Vegas had Tark the Shark-mania. His popularity in town put him on par with Siegfried and Roy, Wayne Newton and Cook E. Jarr. The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” was parodied into a really exciting version entitled “Walk Like A Tarkanian” and Tark’s wife, Lois, easily won public office. The highlight of my junior year at Bonanza High was UNLV’s center Larry Johnson coming to a Homecoming pep rally and saying (verbatim): “I only have one thing to say: wee pet.” I had to ask a dozen people what he had said before we eventually settled on “repeat.” Well, they failed to repeat the following year losing in the NCAA tourney in the semifinals to Duke. Following UNLV that year felt the closest to ever growing up in a town with a professional team.
It wasn’t until I moved to Salt Lake City did I start to follow the NBA. In fact, the first professional basketball game I ever went to was Utah against Portland in the semifinals of the 1999 season. Walking into the Delta Center for the first time, it felt like basketball. The arena was packed and the volume level was similar to working on the tarmac at an airport. For 60 minutes, the crowd stood on their feet, banging cow bells and screaming as if dear life depended upon it. The only indoor event that I have ever been to that was louder was a tractor pull (and yes, I did get to see Big Foot). For the first time, I saw Stockton and Malone effortlessly execute the pick-n-roll, the Jazz Bear toboggan down a flight of stairs and Coach Jerry Sloan pace the bench with every four-letter word flying out of his mouth. It was a combination of theater and blood sports. The fans were ravenous in their support of the Jazz and in the end, Utah won the game.
There are moments in life that can potentially ruin every other experience and this one had that potential. I left the Delta Center exhausted from the experience. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had and I feared that I would never go to another basketball game as exciting as that first one. It didn’t take long after that to become a big Jazz fan. Working behind the bar, I would become a bullhorn of Jazz factoids and a local booster of the club. I had developed Jazz fever and I knew that it was contagious. The working bartender is required to watch the Jazz play to help keep the customers abreast of the action and how the team is performing. Do this for a couple of seasons and next thing you know, one becomes a die-hard fan.
I worked at the Wyndham Hotel, right down the street from Delta Center, for five years. The bar was a major stopping point for fans, visitors, ticket scalpers and hooligans to the Jazz games. Working with the ticket dealers, anybody who wanted a ticket could get one and there was always money on the backend for us. The very first night I worked the Wyndham, I remember that I broke up my only fight in half a decade at the Wyndham. The Jazz had completely made mincemeat of the Seattle Supersonics and a lot of the fans from the game came back to the hotel to drink over-priced Heinekens before heading home. The small bar was full with drunken Jazz fans watching the last minutes of the game when this diminutive man in his mid-30s walked in with his mother. He was dressed from head to foot in Sonics gear wearing Seattle’s jersey, shorts, socks and Nikes. Coming to the bar, he ordered two Shirley Temple. It didn’t take long to realize that the man was mentally handicapped and his mother was actually his escort for the evening. Instead of being gracious winners, grown men with jobs and mortgages started harassing this Sonics fan mercilessly. The guy was trying to make his way to the booth to sit with his mother when some guy pushed into the man who in turn spilled his drinks on his jersey. The room exploded in laughter and I moved into action quickly kicking out a dozen guys. I damn near lost my job on my first night. I think I learned something important about basketball that night: Utah Jazz fans are absolutely fucking obnoxious.
I think it is one of the few things in this state that both Mormons and non-Mormons have in common. They love the Utah Jazz and Mormons are fanatical when it comes to basketball. Every one of their churches has a basketball court in it and they play a style of the game called Church ball. Church ball is a cross between rugby, MMA and basketball. Considering how absolutely pussy-whipped Mormons are off the court, they all turn into some form of Brock Lesnar meets Steven Seagal meets Dennis Rodman on the hardwood. I have played with the “Saints” a couple of times and I am lucky to have kept all of my teeth. They play by the rule of “No blood, no foul” and would make any streetballer at Rucker wince the way they crash the boards. It’s a selfish, bully-style of play that is fun to be in the middle of and absolutely horrible to watch. Nonetheless, Mormons bring this same sort of energy from the Ward House to the Delta Center to support the Jazz.
I think the fact that Jazz fans are obnoxious makes going to the games that much more exciting. I was very fortunate from 2000-2004 to go to a lot of great games and experience the excitement of the Jazz from the fans that would pre- and post-load at the Wyndham. In fact, one of our regular postgame customers was Karl Malone. He used to come to the steakhouse at the hotel with his wife every now and then after a home game. I don’t care what Jimmy Kimmel and other people say about Malone, he has been nothing but an excellent guy. Like most people, I was upset at him for chasing a championship with the Lakers his last season but it is understandable. After 19 years in the league, he just wanted a ring to cap his career. Every time he came to the bar, he was very gracious with everyone as he sat with his wife, eating a porterhouse and drinking a bottle of white zinfandel. I think the fact that The Mailman loved cheap, cold, sweet Sutter Home white zinfandel was more upsetting than the fact that he spent his last year in LA. The only time that Malone was short with the staff was the night that Stockton made his retirement speech at the Delta Center. Even though he dined with five other people, I never saw a lonelier man. I often wonder if it was that night as I was watching him if he decided to leave Utah and chase that ever allusive championship.
It wasn’t until the 2004 season did my passion for the Utah Jazz enter into a new stratosphere. A good friend and boss, Scott Alexander at The Tavernacle had bought season tickets to the Jazz when Carlos Boozer left Cleveland to come to Salt Lake. That was a great day. Scott was the first person I worked for who actually loved the Utah Jazz and wasn’t a maniac. His cool demeanor taught me to look at the game as a season and not live and die by each game. In a way, he probably did more to lower my blood pressure than Lisinopril. He was incredibly generous with his tickets either taking or giving them to me throughout the year. I think I went to something like 30 games that year. Towards the end when Scotty was too busy with his other job of selling real estate, I was going to more games than he was. It was the best season ever even though the Jazz failed to make it to the playoff for the first time in 20 years. Prior to having access to Scott’s tickets, I was just a fan. After that season, I was an unapologetic fanatic of the Utah Jazz.
Above and beyond, I think the one thing that I liked most about the Jazz was the fact that Coach Jerry Sloan was on the bench leading the team. It really felt during the last ten years that the only thing you could count on was death, taxes and Sloan coaching the Jazz. I loved watching him coach as much as I did watching the guys play. He was a big, violent man with a hangdog face that seemed very un-Utah. He had a toughness that couldn’t be replicated by other coaches. He was cut from a generation of guys that didn’t take gruff from anyone. I like the fact that he led the league in technical fouls as both a player and a coach. I got to meet Coach Sloan once. It was at Duffy’s Tavern. I went into the bar to get one of their great sandwiches and drink a beer. The usually sleepy bar was filled with people with Sloan slugging back Bud Lights with Jazz fans. I quickly put money into the kitty to buy Coach another beer. He probably had two cases of beer bought for him and drank the majority of them. I just got to shake his hand and say hello but he was very gracious. It was a cool moment.
I think the only cooler moment that I had with the NBA happened in 2007 when the Utah Jazz made it to the Western Conference Championship. I was working full time at The Tavernacle when the Jazz were taking on the Spurs for a shot of the championship. It was Sunday night at The Tav and it was karaoke. We sold $1 Bud Lights and $3 shot of Jagermeister to an absolutely packed house. I usually referred to Sundays as “Gay-oke” because of the large crowds of gay men who came into sing. I was pouring drinks and waiting for the show to start when this tall man came to the bar to ask if it was okay for him to come in without his ID. I took one look at him and said, “6’3” 275 pounds.” It was Dan Patrick. He came in with Jon Berry and some other production guys doing the coverage for the conference championship. He gave me the “ding” and I subsequently bought every beer for him for the rest of the night. The best part of the evening was explaining to all of my regulars who Dan Patrick was and why I was acting like a smitten school girl. For the record, Patrick put down an equal amount of beers as Coach Sloan and sang Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Pretty cool night.
The Jazz have been an important part of my life for the last decade. Since Scott gave up “our” seats, I am only able to go to around ten games a year. At home, my girlfriend is absolutely the coolest person in the world when it comes to Jazz games. No matter what, she will always let me turn on the game for us to watch. She is never more gracious and accommodating when the Jazz play. In fact, she started learning the game pretty well and even picked up a crush on Paul Millsap. During the inversion-filled month of February, nothing breaks up the disgusting weather better than watching Jazz games at home with her. From watching the Jazz lose heartbreakers to Sundiata Gaines draining that moonshot to beat the Cavaliers, the Jazz fills a role in our house to keep us connected to our community. Reading the sport’s page during the season means I might accidentally read the other parts of the newspaper. It gives me something to talk about with strangers and something to look forward to.
I think that is what made Deron Williams trade and Coach Sloan’s retirement last season so unsettling. For the first time since becoming a Utah Jazz fan, I was forced not to think about the play on the court but rather consider what was happening in the front office. Basketball as a distraction was caring about the ten guys on the court not how the organization was moving around the pieces. I couldn’t care less how Williams’ contract impacted the team and the fact that the Jazz were making that a point of contention really upset me. I cared about these things during the off-season not in the middle of the season. Also, Coach Sloan’s departure left a really bad taste in my mouth. After 23 years, I couldn’t believe that the Miller family couldn’t figure out a better way to replace him. They did a piss-poor job of protecting him and giving him a respectable out that I figured things within the organization just deteriorated. I am not surprised after all of the mismanagement of last season that the Jazz finished with a 39-43 record. It was hard to believe that after last season’s opening road trip back East where they went 4-0 against Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte the season ended so badly.
So, here we are. We should have been on our 19th game of the season but the NBA Lockout has prevented that. It’s ironic that the 1999 season that made me an addict to the Utah Jazz was a strike shortened season and the strike shorten season of 2011 will make me turn my back on basketball. For the last nine months, the foot-dragging between the owners and players coming up with a new labor agreement has threaten to kill the NBA season and by own admission, it has killed my desire to watch a single game this year. Sorry, NBA. You blew it. It is much too little and much too late. As far as I am concerned, a partial season is no season. I’ll might be back in 2012 but I won’t be spending a dime on the NBA this year. The anger that I had towards the front office of the Jazz on how they conducted themselves last year with Sloan and Williams has been amplified by a factor of ten against the NBA during this lockout. This labor crisis between players and owners needed to be addressed since last year’s All-Star game and it took them almost eight months to get to this point?
For over half a year, there have been stories in the news on David Stern and Billy Hunter trying to figure out an amicable labor agreement between the players and owners to no avail. Neither side was willing to budge even as we were approaching a point of no-return for a full season. Instead of both sides working this problem the minute the Mavericks cut down the nets in June, they have foot dragged and battered each other to no avail. What were they thinking? That there product was so addictive that fans would immediate come running back to the NBA? I hate to bring it to their attention but there are a lot of other distractions out there that can take my time, energy and money besides basketball. There is not going to be a Sosa/McGwire moment this season that is going to have me run back to the arena or KJZZ to follow the Jazz this year.
I think I am the ideal customer for the Utah Jazz and the NBA. I go to six to ten home games a year. I pay for parking, food, souvenirs and at least five beers at the outrageous price of $8. Going to a Jazz game is never cheap and I don’t treat it as such. We make an evening out of it. Basketball games are about making it an experience but after how the NBA Lockout has been conducted, I don’t think I want to give them my money this year. I haven’t reduced the argument that the Lockout was a fight between millionaires and billionaires. The fact that these people are wealthy and fighting over future pieces of the pie means nothing to me if they cannot get their act together by opening tip-off. By dragging their feet, the NBA Lockout has hurt local business as well as the ushers and concession workers who are dependent upon work at the home games. The good will that I have given the Jazz for putting out a less than superior product has completely disappeared because they were not able to get their act together and give us a complete season. Stern and Hunter need to be either removed from their positions or suspended for eighteen months.
To those that say that I am overacting, you are probably right. However, it is embarrassing to put so much energy into something that in the end doesn’t care two shakes of piss about you. The fact that the NBA is some sort of juggernaut that doesn’t care about the needs of both the fans and the community needs to be addressed. They need to make amends for botching up what should have been a great season. A strike shortened season doesn’t feel like a real season and the fact that it is starting on Christmas doesn’t feel like a gift at all. They should be ashamed about how they conducted themselves and made a mockery of negotiation the last six months. By not able to put together a full season, they have created a monster that they will have a very hard time killing—I am much more excited about attending Utah Grizzly and University of Utah basketball games then I was in the past. And the last time I checked, these activities are a Hell of a lot cheaper than going to the Jazz. I might be back in 2012. The only hope the NBA has is that I don’t learn how to follow hockey.