IN THE 25 years since the Utah Stars won the ABA championship there on the Salt Palace floor, Ron Boone has been approached hundreds, maybe thousands of times with the same story: Where they were and what they were doing when the Stars won the title. It's like recalling when Kennedy was assassinated or men landed on the moon.
The only difference is, with the Stars it's the same story for everyone. They were all in the Salt Palace, spilling out onto the court after the final horn like wheat from a slashed sack. EVERYONE was there the night the Stars brought the championship home. Nobody was in the grocery store, at the movies, at home, in the hospital."Over the last 25 years at least 20,000 people have come up to tell me they were at the arena when we won the championship," says Boone, noting that the Salt Palace only held 12,500 people. "They say they were in row something-or-other, seat 12 or 13 . . . "
Now a color commentator for Jazz television and radio broadcasts, Boone remembers where he was, too, 25 years ago today. Once the horn sounded, Boone, a guard for the Stars, raced into the locker room as fans covered the floor. "I was so surprised that the court flooded so quickly. I didn't even think that it was time to celebrate."
As the Jazz enter the Western Conference finals today against the Seattle Sonics, it's hard for Boone not to think about that spring, and how everything was working right. How the Stars upset the Indiana Pacers - their biggest rival - in the division championship, then beat Kentucky in a 7-game series that ended in Salt Lake with a 131-121 win.
"I can't believe the time has gone so fast," says Boone. "How long is 25 years? You realize, man, that was a long time ago. You look at the way you were dressing and how your hairline was down just above your eyebrows. Then you start telling about things in the past tense and you realize that was a long time ago."
The Stars' winning an ABA title was a fairly improbable event. Indiana, which played in the Western Division with the Stars, finished a game ahead of Utah in the standings. Utah won 57 games that season, then rushed through the first round of the playoffs, taking four straight from the Texas Chaparrals. Even so, the Stars were considered underdogs to win the Western Division title, let alone a championship.
"Utah win a championship? You kidding?" says Boone.
In the ensuing years, Salt Lake City has changed dramatically from a mid-sized city dominated by the copper mining industry to a high-tech metropolitan area of well over a million people. In the place of the Stars are the Jazz, who have been in the playoffs 13 straight years but have yet to earn a trip to the NBA Finals.
But just as it was then, the Utah team today has a problem in its own conference. The Sonics finished the regular season with the second-best record in the NBA, nine games better than the Jazz. They beat the Jazz three of four times they met this year. Still, Boone can't help but get nostalgic and wonder: Could it happen again? Could an underdog Utah team again make history? In the Jazz, who beat the Spurs by an average of 23 points in the second round, he sees similarities to his 1971 Stars team.
"There's a certain amount of cockiness you need to have," says Boone. "You know you're good and you know you're supposed to win. There's nothing better than feeling before the game starts that you're 10 points up and the ball hasn't even been thrown up yet."
If the Jazz aren't feeling cocky, it isn't for lack of reason. They beat the Spurs by 20, 30, 15 and 27 points. It wasn't a series, it was an extermination. They couldn't have been more convincing if they'd packed the Spurs in Karl Malone's big rig and delivered them back to Texas in person.
This round, though, won't come so easily. Seattle is deeper, more athletic, better defensively and, of course, cockier than the Spurs. If the Jazz manage to get past Seattle to the NBA Finals, it will be an even bigger upset than when the Stars beat Indiana and Kentucky in the ABA playoffs.
Boone, who covers every Jazz game, home and away, says not only is this the deepest Jazz team ever, but that it also has the same feel as his old Stars team. The Jazz's run against the Spurs represents their most impressive string of playoff basketball in their history.
So maybe the planets are aligned and the tides are right and history is poised to repeat itself. After all, before John Stockton there was Merv "The Magician" Jackson. And before the Mailman there was Zelmo "Big Z" Beaty. A championship in Utah would be news indeed. But it's not like it hasn't happened before.