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In the still of the night they trooped through a quarter-mile of darkness, walking without talking toward the charter runways at Salt Lake International Airport.

Not long before midnight and four hours after Utah's only big-league sports franchise reached from the brink of what would've been its first-ever championship series, 3,000 fans had lined the little street out of Hudson General Aviation's terminal.Quiet on their approach, they got loud quick enough, chanting back and forth across the narrow road.





It was as if their team had won, not lost.

"They put us on a good year this year," proclaimed Bill Richardson of Salt Lake City, summing it up for everybody else as he waved a big Jazz flag over his head and screamed with the rest of the mob.

Judy Meyers of Sandy stuck a sign into the sky that spoke for the rest of the crowd too: "I Love You Men!"

"It's been a great year, and anyway, who's gonna beat Jordan?" said Meyers, who seemed unperturbed that the Seattle SuperSonics - not the Utah Jazz - are the ones in line now to get stomped by the Chicago Bulls.

Depressed, anyone?

"No," said Roger Crump of Taylorsville. "No, no, no."

"It was a good game," said Crump's buddy, Rod Dean.

"It was a great series," concluded Crump.

At a quarter to 12, the Jazz jet from Seattle touched down and taxied back toward the terminal with a cadre of police cars leading the way, emergency lights on.

Team owner Larry H. Miller zipped through the crowd in a Lexus, making his way toward the aircraft.

The airplane's door opened and suddenly a row of very tall men filed down the stairs toward television lights that threw their shadows high up against the fuselage.

Great, lumbering giants come back from battle. Larger than life they seemed.

In no time a convoy was cutting across the tarmac, through a gate, and into a sea of frenzied fans fighting for a look at whoever was behind the wheel in a lengthy spectacle of fancy cars: Here was Greg Ostertag. There was Adam Keefe, Felton Spencer, Antoine Carr.

Coach Jerry Sloan made the crossing in the perfect vehicle for his persona: a plain, white utility van.

Was that Greg Foster motoring a Mercedes with David Benoit riding shotgun, laughing and high-fiving bystanders?

And who was this in the big, black Dodge pickup retrofitted for natural gas and sporting nearly opaque windows concealing its contents? Who but the Mailman, talking on a cell phone while his gray-haired mom sat stoically in the passenger seat, looking straight ahead.

"They did a fantastic job," said Michelle Brown, who drove to the airport alone from Holladay and left her dog in the car while she stood, the solitary fan, at the perimeter of the parade and watched it all go by.

"It's sad they didn't make it, but they gave us a heck of a ride," said Mike Nielsen of West Valley City, on hand with his 11-year-old son, Mike Jr., and his daughter, 9-year-old Becky.

Nielsen acknowledged the late hour but said he'd be on time for work Monday and that his kids would show up promptly for the first bell at school.

Life would somehow proceed, figured Nielsen.

Less certain the sun might rise was Karen Young of Salt Lake City, who became a Jazz fan only this year but said she'd gotten hooked in a big way.

"We love our Utah Jazz," said Young's sign.

And though she laughed about it, Young said Sunday's loss had left a hole in her heart as big as the just-waning moon.

"I don't know how to deal with it, actually," she said.