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BREAKING EVEN: JAZZ REACH .500

KARL MALONE had racked up a season-high 45 points, David Benoit had brought the house down with a reverse dunk, and the streamers had come down on cue as the final horn sounded. It was that kind of night at the Delta Center, Wednesday, as the Jazz walked off with a 115-96 win over Houston. A night for celebrating. A night for reflection. A night for the books.

Aside from adding another win to their best regular season ever, Wednesday's game represented a significant point in the history of the Jazz. It was their 860th all-time win. Which may not seem like a very important deal, unless you consider the losses (860). For the first time since the the New Orleans Jazz opened the doors of the Louisiana Superdome, and Pete Maravich brought his particular brand of party-on basketball to the party-on capital of America, the Jazz were batting a career five-oh-oh. They could hold their heads high. They had erased a long history of losing."I think we should quit right now," cracked Jazz president Frank Layden as he headed out the arena doors and into the night. "It doesn't get any better than this."

For a long time, a seriously long time, it appeared the Jazz would never be among the teams who won more games than they lost. It was a club destined for a lifetime of being everyone's favorite opponent. The team that let you experiment with your bench.

It wasn't as though the Jazz ever had really fell into a slump. They were born in one. They began their story in New York, losing by 15 to the Knicks on Opening Night, 1974. Soon to follow were losses to Washington, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, Kansas City, Phoenix and two each to Philadelphia and Buffalo. That made the Jazz 0-for-history after 11 games. The record-books read Jazz 0, NBA-at-large 11. They were going backward faster than the trade deficit.

After 11 straight losses, they cashed in on a 30-point night by Pete Maravich to shock Portland, 102-101. The sigh of relief could be heard in Arkansas. They'd reached their first milestone: a win.

Things didn't improve immediately after that - or even gradually. After that first win, they promptly lost five straight and 12 of the next 13, bringing their all-time franchise mark up to 1-23. It was a record only the Washington Nationals could love. They were the bungling team with the strange colors and the sorry lack of depth. The team everyone could beat.

By the time they'd abandoned New Orleans for Salt Lake City in 1979, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion the Jazz would never, ever see a winning record overall. They were 88 games below the watermark. The first year in Utah they went 24-58, bringing their alltime record to 185-307, 122 games in the red.

Still, the deficit mounted. They were 202 games below .500 when the 1983-84 season began, and wondering if their checks would clear the bank. "I didn't think I'd ever live to see us reach .500," continued Layden. "I just didn't think I'd live that long."

Quietly, though, something was afoot. The Jim McElroy-Joe Meriweather-Bud Stallworth Jazz teams were slowly being replaced with the foundation for the current teams. In 1979 they acquired Adrian Danteley in a trade with Los Angeles in exchange for Spencer Haywood. The following June they selected Darrell Griffith in the NBA draft. Three years later they got Thurl Bailey in the draft, resulting in the first winning season in franchise history. They followed with John Stockton and Karl Malone in the next two drafts.

When Larry H. Miller acquired all of the Jazz in 1986, the Jazz had improved considerably. Still, they had whittled only 10 games off their deficit. They were 192 games below .500.

"I remember even three, four, five years ago I was thinking evening our record was insurmountable in my lifetime," continued Miller.

But a run of mostly 50-win seasons in recent years, and finally the Jazz were in a position to even it up, which they did at the expense of the defending World Champion Rockets. For the first time since they were a newborn franchise, when they lost to the Knicks one long-ago October night, they weren't looking at a deficit.

"I look it as another sign that this franchise has come of age," said Miller. A sign that after 1,720 games and 21 seasons, they'd finally balanced the books.