Is this the year for the Utah Jazz? Will 1996-97 be the breakthrough season they've longed for? It's a question one hears around the National Basketball Association these days. For although the Jazz have made it to the Western Conference Finals in three of the past five years, they have never cracked the invisible barrier that seems to separate them from the championship series.
This year the Jazz have exceeded the 60 victories that were the franchise's previous high. Now, they want to carry the momentum garnered in the regular season into the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Their hopes rest in the hands of two veteran players, John Stockton and Karl Malone. Perhaps no pro sports franchise is as closely tied to the fortunes of a couple of "cornerstone" players as the Jazz.
Stockton is the NBA's all-time leader in assists and steals; Malone, who is a strong candidate for the league's Most Valuable Player award, ranks 10th in all-time scoring and has racked up 2,000 points for a record 10th straight season. Both seem destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In pro basketball circles, they are major stars. To the general public, however, they may have gone largely unnoticed, having spent their careers with a small-market team far from the national media limelight, between the Great Salt Desert and the Rocky Mountains."We're a relatively well-kept secret," admits Scott Layden, Utah's director of basketball operations. "And that's fine. We'll sneak into town, steal a game, and get out."
That seemed to be the script on March 23, when the Jazz crossed the Rockies to face the Denver Nuggets.
Stockton and Malone were in typical form, as Malone converted 14 of 17 field goal attempts and 7 of 9 free throws for 35 points, while Stockton netted 22 points and 15 assists - most of them to Malone, who is nicknamed the Mailman. Denver coach Dick Motta tried three different defenders on each of the Utah stars, but to no avail."The mail gets delivered 'cause there's a postage stamp on it," quipped Motta. "John Stockton is the postage stamp."
Even the referees seemed to recognize the presence of greatness. When Stockton was called for a questionable foul in the second quarter, he complained bitterly to the referee up and down the floor. An NBA scout at courtside noted, "That's the respect these fellows have. They can get in an official's face and, instead of giving them a technical foul, he [the official] will hear them out."
Stockton and Malone weren't always so highly regarded. When the 6 ft., 1 in. Stockton came into the league in 1984 out of little-known Gonzaga College in Spokane, Wash., he was the fifth guard chosen in the draft. (Michael Jordan was the first.) He didn't start for a couple of years. The following season, the strapping 6 ft., 9 in. Malone was drafted out of Louisiana Tech. He was the eighth forward taken in that draft.
In 1988, however, they were selected to play alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird on the much ballyhooed US Olympic Dream Team, a high honor. They returned to the Olympics in 1996 to collect their second gold medals.
Malone was only a 48 percent free-throw shooter when he came into the NBA. But by his sixth season in the league, he was making 78 percent of his free throws. Utah Coach Jerry Sloan says simply, "Everything Karl has done has come through hard work."
Layden, the son of Jazz president, Frank Layden, is credited with building a winning cast of role players around Stockton and Malone. He has made his own reputation. In 1994-95, he was runner-up for the Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year.
"It's not all my doing," Layden insists. "It's a team effort. We all share in our successes and our failures."
One of the Utah's notable additions is guard Jeff Hornacek, one of the NBA's leading shooting guards, whom Layden picked up in a trade with Philadelphia three years ago. Hornacek's skills have complemented Stockton's ballhandling and passing. "It's as if he'd played his whole life with Stock," Layden says.
The team has also drafted well, picking up such players as center Greg Ostertag from Kansas in the first round of the 1995 draft, plus two quality second-round draft choices - Byron Russell out of Long Beach State in 1993, and Georgia's Shandon Anderson last year.
Above all, Utah's success seems to be the product of a strong work ethic and a commitment to teamwork - both values that play well in the Mormon culture of Salt Lake City. "Utah fans don't demand a championship for it to be [considered] a successful season," says veteran sportscaster David Blackwell. "They're into the work ethic, and that's what they expect to see from their team."
In Denver, Jazz coach Sloan bristled when asked if he planned to give his two stars extra bench time in preparation for the playoffs. He said, "I don't rest anybody. They get paid to play 82 games."