Sixty-eight games later, we find Jim Les, Eric Leckner and Jose Ortiz wondering if all this basketball will ever end. Welcome to life as an NBA rookie: big salary, first-class travel, meal money . . . and all those games.
"This is relentless; this is crazy," says Leckner - and this is with four weeks left in the regular season.Besides, these Jazz rookies are hardly overworked. Karl Malone worked more minutes as rookie than these three will, all together. That's part of the story. They come to practice every day, stay late for the reserves' three-on-three games and to lift weights and go home to wonder about their NBA futures. "You're really brought down to earth when you play against these guys," says Les. "It's been very humbling, but when something goes right, it's like a golden moment," says Leckner.
For now, all they have is questions: How long can the Jazz go with Les as their backup point guard? Is Leckner all potential and no payoff? Was Ortiz worth the international chase? Tune in again tonight, when the Jazz - most of them, anyway - play Seattle in the Salt Palace.
The real answers will come in the offseason, when the Jazz's expansion-draft survivors undertake the most ambitious summer program in franchise history. They'll join in the rookie camp, play together in the California summer league and come home to play in a tournament that Jazz officials are trying to put together with Golden State, Sacramento and Phoenix. "Player development is now more important than ever," says player personnel director Scott Layden. "You have to bring guys along."
After the Jazz's resounding mid-80s draft success, Ortiz (Class of '87) and Leckner ('88) are comparative disappointments. "On draft day, you have the idea that you're going to get another Stockton or Malone, but that's just not realistic," says Layden.
Coach Jerry Sloan stands by all three rookies. "I don't think there's any question they're better players now than when they came here," he says. "A lot depends, very seriously, on how they approach the summer."
After two years of close calls, asking to be waived in Milwaukee last October and beating out Billy Donovan as a late arrival in the Jazz camp, Les' No. 1 achievement is surviving the season without the Jazz bringing in another point guard.
Not that Les was ever threatened. "You get too caught up, looking over your shoulder," he says.
The No. 1 issue hanging over the Jazz in the playoffs will be: What if Stockton has foul trouble? All season, though, they've survived with Les, who spent last winter on the high-pressure trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Les' only flaw is an offensive average that makes him look like he came from the Chicago Cubs. Finally, last Saturday, he hit 2 of 3 shots to reach .300 from the field.
He's working on his shot - less jump shot, a quicker release - with assistant coach Phil Johnson, and trying to learn from Stockton. "The one thing that amazes me is how he gets into the lane and scores," says Les.
No doubt, the Jazz will consider drafting a point guard in June. The heat will be on Les, all over again; has he helped himself enough in one season? "There's nothing like game experience," he says, having played in all 68 this season. "I think I can be a backup point guard in this league and help somebody out."
Leckner is on the border, too. Some days, he looks life a lifelong backup center; other days, like a player with a future. The rap that followed him out of Wyoming - work ethic - is still an issue. Just ask Leckner.
"I'm still overcoming it," he says. "If I work hard enough, I'm going to be a good player."
The fact that Sloan has hounded Leckner in practice every day since rookie camp in August is evidence that Leckner has a chance. Otherwise, why would Sloan waste his time? "Sure, it's discouraging," says Leckner, "but it's making me a better player."
By finding his way into the weight room, Leckner has increased his bench-press ability by 80 pounds. Still, he struggles with conditioning - Saturday against Denver, a six-minute stretch was obviously all he could handle, even with a timeout in the middle.
While Mike Brown worked his way into the lineup, Leckner played regular minutes through the All-Star break. Since then, while playing in all but seven games, he has appeared only briefly, unable to keep up with the demanding schedule. "I wore down mentally more than I wore down physically," he said. "I had trouble keeping my intensity . . . I needed to condition myself to keep my head in basketball all the time."
Ortiz, meanwhile, needed a break. After playing the equivalent of an NBA schedule - summer league in Puerto Rico, followed by his senior season at Oregon State, followed by more summer league, followed by a season in Spain - Ortiz played in the summer league again before joining the national team for the Olympic Games. Two weeks later, he was in the Jazz camp.
The 18 pounds he's gained this season, Ortiz figures, prove he needed time off from basketball. Just the same, he was not happy to go to the end of the bench after starting 13 early-season games. Unless something drastic happens, Ortiz will play the fewest minutes of any full-season Jazzman since Tom Boswell and J.J. Anderson in 1983-84; and the fewest of any first-round draft choice who ever played for the team.
Ortiz seems likely to join Les and Jim Farmer on the Jazz's expansion list, and would be the most attractive player. "I would like to stay," says Ortiz, who also claims he never wanted a trade before the deadline last month.
As for keeping a good attitude this season while appearing in only 44 games, Ortiz admits, "That's a hard thing to do. You have to take it day by day. I would be bitching about it if we were losing and I wasn't getting any time. You know you're not going to play, but you've got to be ready."
Ortiz had to switch from center to small forward with the Jazz, moving away from the basket and guarding quicker players. The adjustment was difficult, and Ortiz lost confidence. Already, he's looking forward to playing in Puerto Rico again the summer, once the playoffs end. "It'll be good for me," he says. "I'm big-time down there."
One of these years, Ortiz and the other Jazz rookies hope they'll be big-time up here.