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In the end, Karl Malone stood close to a television reporter, strained against the waves of sound that crashed around him on a hostile court, and demonstrated why the Utah Jazz were winners despite finishing four points behind Seattle.

"We win like men, we lose like men," he said, offering congratulations to the victorious Seattle SuperSonics after Sunday's Game 7 in the NBA's Western Conference Finals.No excuses. No regrets. No blame. No looking back and agonizing over past mistakes.

Malone and John Stockton are the anchors on a team that has become the antithesis of modern professional athletics. They don't trash talk. They don't belittle opponents. They don't eat their pizzas backward. And, even if they did, they wouldn't try to draw attention to it.

In a world where the flamboyant, the narcissistic and the attention-starved flap like moths around hot television lights, these guys believe the most important thing is to work hard; that hard work is its own reward; that it leads to success, and that success makes athletes the masters of the national attention they receive, rather than the other way around. It is a lesson many struggle a lifetime to understand.

Basketball is only a game, but it also is a business and a livelihood for those who play it. If it is possible for those who run amid the glare of thousands of admirers to serve as inspiration for those who plod anonymously through daily life, the Jazz are successful.

But basketball is more than a game, especially in a community where many invest a share of civic and personal pride in the outcome. For 12 years, the Jazz have won games, but they have never won enough. They have competed fiercely, but have always ended the season with a loss. They have raised cheers and captured the imaginations of many who live far from Utah, but ultimately have always turned those cheers to whim-pers.

To be a Jazz fan is to appreciate the significance of falling short of one's expectations, then getting up and trying again. It is to understand Dylan Thomas' injunction to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," yet to vow to do even better in the morning.

Children are taught that winning isn't as important as playing hard, being fair and never quitting. For some reason, many think those lessons no longer apply when the players are adults and the game is a business. But the truth is they do apply, just as they apply to all of life's endeavors.

Nice, hard-working, decent guys don't always finish first. But they always are the ones most worth watching, admiring and cheering.