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Five months and 82 games later, it's crunch-time in the NBA.

It's the NBA playoffs in all its fan-frenzied, gravity-defying, we-will-rock-you glory. It's that time when millionaire athletes put up or shut up. It's when teams measure their earnings by the truckoad.At playoff time, it's even more obvious that pro basketball is not just a game. Even public officials on Utah's Capitol Hill glow when talking about the Jazz. And it's not Karl Malone's slam dunks or John Stockton's assists or Darrell Griffith's three-pointers they are talking about.

In a state hungry for national respectability on all levels, the Utah Jazz offer something few other businesses in the state can.

"The Jazz are one of three or four things that give the state something in common with the Bostons and New Yorks and the other major metropolitan areas," says Bud Scruggs, chief of staff to Gov. Norm Bangerter. "It's our calling card to the world that says Utah is in the big leagues, that Salt Lake City can compete head-to-head with anybody."

The longer the Jazz last in the playoffs, the longer the Utah calling card is in the international spotlight.

It's an exclusive calling card that transcends mere basketball. Along with other calling cards, like Utah's "greatest snow on earth" and an impressive resume of national parks, state officials have used the Jazz to cultivate an image of Utah as a dynamic place to live, work and play.

Jazz ease `inferiority complex'

It's an image that has been carefully crafted by Utah imagemakers to enhance tourism and economic development opportunities, and ultimately to attract top corporations to the state. That means increased job opportunities, an increased tax base and, perhaps most importantly, increased prestige for a state plagued with a long-standing inferiority complex.

"Utah has so much to offer that if we can just get companies to take a look here, we can compete with anybody," Scruggs maintains. "We're looking for a foot in the door with those who maybe never have thought about Utah at all. Sometimes the Jazz offer that foot in the door."

State officials continue to struggle with the state's image. In one recent survey, top executives around the country were asked what they thought about Utah. More than 80 percent thought nothing of Utah whatsoever.

Many see the Jazz as a key to Salt Lake City becoming a regional business and trade center on par with other regional centers. "It boils down to a basic question: Do we want Salt Lake City to be another Boise or Butte? Or do we want to be a Phoenix or Denver?" said Speaker of the House Nolan Karras, R-Roy.

"We have to convey the message we are a progressive, up-and-coming city and we want the image that goes with it. Considering the economic development benefits, the state ought to and will work hard to keep the Jazz in Utah."

Jazz distinguish Utah from the also-rans

Why? State officials agree that in the high-stakes competition for economic development, virtually every city and every state is looking for an advantage over the next. And it's often the little things - like a professional sports franchise - that gives one city an edge over the next.

"It all comes down to a quality of life question," Scruggs said. "All other things being equal, the Jazz give Salt Lake a definite edge."

Salt Lake City is one of only 26 cities with a National Basketball Association franchise - one of 35 cities in the entire United States with a big league sports franchise.

But Scruggs emphasizes the economic impact of the Jazz is not the payroll or the ticket revenues generated. The real impact is on the state's national and international image.

Selling Jazz would be `devastating'

In a world where dozens of major metropolitan areas are vying for sports franchises, there is always a possibility that owner Larry Miller could sell the Jazz. Miller says that is not likely.

"It would be devastating to the state if that ever happened," Scruggs said. "It would communicate the message that Salt Lake City is literally not a big-league city in any sense."

Jay Woolley, director of the Utah Travel Council, uses the Jazz heavily in the state's national ad campaigns. And he likens the impact of losing the Jazz to losing one of the state's historic monuments.

"It's hard to repair that kind of damage," he said.

Some public funding possible

Publicly, state officials hold to the time-honored line that the Jazz are a private business and must compete in the free market. But privately, many are now talking about taking whatever steps are necessary to keep the Jazz in Utah.

At the center of those discussions is a new arena - an arena Miller says is mandatory to keep the Jazz in Utah.

"The Utah Jazz have strong fans in the Utah Legislature," said one lawmaker, "and I don't think they would hesitate to take whatever steps it takes to keep the Jazz in Utah."

Miller is currently negotiating with Japanese bankers for a $60 million loan to build a new arena. A source familier with the Jazz's income projections and Miller's business operation suggests the team would have trouble handling any loan larger than about $35 million, and that taking on a $60 million loan could someday force Miller to sell the team to pay for the arena.

"It should be a community building," the source said. "The city, county and state ought to find a way to build it and lease it to him."

The Jazz owner has not yet gone to the state for help with the arena or any other help in keeping the Jazz in Utah. But, "It would be fair to say, I'd choose that alternative over seeing the team go."

Speaker Karras - who has campaigned long and hard for public funding of winter sports facilities for the Utah's Winter Olympic bid - cautions that any funding for a new arena would probably pass legislative muster only if the new arena is a pbulic facility.

"I know we'd work hard and long and keep the Jazz organization here," Karras said.

Quality of life

Some Salt Lake area legislators compare the crisis facing the Jazz with the annual funding crisis facing the Utah Symphony - another of the economic development tools used to promote Utah across the country.

Every year, the Legislature provides considerable fudning to the Utah Symphony, as well as the opera and ballet, the theory being that having these fine arts improves the quality of life in Utah, provides educational benefits to Utah school children and provides a key economic development tool.

"The quality of life argument the symphony uses to get funding is the same argument that could be used for Utah Jazz funding," said one Salt Lake lawmaker. "When it comes to telling a McDonnell-Douglas executive why he ought to locate in Salt Lake City, the Jazz and the symphony are mentioned in the same breath."

Free advertising

There is a more practical side to all the Jazz do for Utah. For every nationally televised game, some announcer invariably gushes about the skiing or mountain scenery.

Take, for example, the Christmas Day broadcast two years ago when the Jazz played the Los Angeles Lakers.

The announcers raved about the great skiing offered at Utah resorts.

"If we had to buy that kind of advertising, it would have cost us in the millions and millions of dollars," says Jay Woolley, executive director of the Utah Travel Council.

"From a practical point, we could never afford that kind of positive image building," Woolley said.

And from the perspective of most state officials, the state just can't afford to lose the Jazz, either.