IT WASN'T THE T-SHIRT with the Jazz logo on the front, or the wide smile, or the overall good mood that set Jazz owner Larry H. Miller apart from 19,111 others at the Delta Center Sunday night. As far as that goes, he was just another fan enjoying the groove.
It was that he was in the Jazz locker room, giving his best to Chris Morris and shaking hands with Bryon Russell. Good vibes all around.There are a few good reasons for owning a professional basketball team, and that is one of them. He can go in the locker room and slap five with Karl Malone. He can talk mountain biking with John Stockton. He can even challenge Jeff Hornacek to a game of H-O-R-S-E if he wants. It's his team - and one he's enjoying more than ever.
"It's a thing of beauty," said Miller, waxing poetic about his team's play following the Jazz's 101-86 thumping of the Spurs.
"Of course," he added quickly, "I am slightly prejudiced."
Miller could hardly be blamed for rhapsodizing about the Jazz, or being prejudiced. This is the guy who 11 years ago decided he could live with a little risk. So when the Jazz were getting offers to move to Toronto, Minneapolis and Anaheim - and points in between - Miller stepped in and said he'd take the leap of faith. He'd adopt them, warts and all. They weren't a good team, but they were his just the same.
But these days, the Jazz are making Miller look like a very smart man. Like Pamela Lee, they're looking good and they know it. That's them smiling becomingly for the television cameras. That's them adjusting their shades. That's them running out the clock and trying to keep the score down.
The reason for the optimism is that the Jazz have suddenly taken a stranglehold on the Spurs, and are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. Three weeks ago it looked like they might be spending most of May working in their yards. Now they're telling their wives they may have to push back the family vacation plans.
It's not just that the Jazz are winning, it's that they're obliterating. Like Fidel Castro and the Pepsi Challenge, they're winning by landslides. The whole affair has become as one-sided as fishing with a shotgun. They've beaten the Spurs by 20, 30 and 15 points so far, and the punishment may not be over yet. With the exception of a few lapses - primarily the first quarter of Game 2, when they scored just nine points - the Jazz have been invincible. After beating up on Portland by 38 points in Game 5 of the first round, they've scarcely stopped to reload. They won Games 1, 3 and 4 in the second round and had a decent chance to win Game 2.
"We have our backs to the wall. We have to go home and win, come back and win and go home and win again," said Spurs coach Bob Hill. "Utah is playing great basketball."
Even when things aren't going well, they're going well for the Jazz. They fell behind by 19 points in San Antonio in Game 2 but managed to actually retake the lead before losing. When Miller, who generally doesn't attend Sunday games, left his house for the Delta Center yesterday, the Jazz were up by 19. But by the time he pulled his car out of the driveway, the lead had fallen to five.
"I thought I had it on the wrong station," said Miller.
The Jazz, though, didn't panic. They would have been more nervous if someone threatened to take away their library cards. They coolly reeled off seven straight points, and soon the lead was back up to 19. The Spurs were already looking for their room service menus.
For a team that once tried to get bench production from the likes of Isaac Austin and Jose Ortiz, these are strange times indeed. Eleven of this year's players have played 100 or more minutes in the nine playoff games. This is a team that, when the franchise was formed in 1974, played Stu Lantz for 353 minutes during the regular season. A team that, for most of its existence, tried to live off five or six players in the playoffs while the others buffed their nails.
Thus, if you ask Jazz coach Jerry Sloan if he's ever had team with so much to work with, he'll say, "Not really." Or if you ask Miller if it's the best team he's ever had, he'll admit, "Without question."
"Never in my 11 years have we had a run like this where we're beating good teams like this," said Miller.
So if you happen to be driving around this week and you hear on the radio that one of the teams is up by 20, odds are good that would be the Jazz. Don't adjust your set. You're not on the wrong station. And it's not the wrong team.