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NBA Championship would mean whole world to Jazz fans

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Maybe you didn't cry through "The Horse Whisperer," but if you're a Utah Jazz fan, winning the NBA Championship could bring you to tears.

It could make your day, your month, your year . . . perhaps even your entire existence."It would almost be the defining moment of my life," said season ticket-holder Gary Deaton of Sandy. "It's like, give me victory or give me death.

"To me, it's the biggest thing that would ever happen to this state. Bigger than the Olympics? For me, it's way bigger."

Indeed, it would be a personal triumph for many Utahns and could have more widespread impact than BYU's national football championship or the University of Utah's recent march to the NCAA men's basketball title game.

There are Beehive State residents, somewhere out there, who could care less if the Jazz dethrone Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. But even they could be touched in some way if Utah wins the NBA title.

Consider the possibilities:

- Increased national and international exposure could prompt more people to visit Utah, pumping additional tourism dollars into the economy.

- A corporate CEO looking for a place to build a new plant or headquarters might settle on Utah after watching on TV as the Jazz take the series.

- Other sports leagues, including the recently announced professional football league backed by NBC and Turner Sports, could start viewing small-market Salt Lake City as a big-time sports town. Other big-league franchises could follow.

- The title could provide an emotional and psychological lift for many Utahns, causing them to smile more often and be more friendly to one another. They might even be nice to other drivers on the freeway. It's a stretch, but it could happen.

When your team is the world champion, anything is possible.

Randall K. Edwards, a former assistant Salt Lake city attorney and would-be stand-up comic, believes an NBA Championship would help Utahns feel better about their image.

"I think Utahns have this inferiority complex. They seem to be very concerned about what other people in the nation think about them and think about their teams," Edwards said.

"If we win the title, nobody is going to care what anybody else thinks about us because we're going to know we're the best."

If Utah loses, Edwards isn't worried that some fans will throw themselves into oncoming traffic. And with gridlock what it is today, Edwards points out, that isn't likely to injure them, anyway.

But Paul Bernhardt, a University of Utah graduate student who has studied the relationship between fans and teams, says the success of any team can have a strong influence on the lives of its fans.

"Fans of a sports team often connect a lot of their self-identity to that team," said Bernhardt, a doctoral candidate in the school's educational psychology department. "When a person has done that, then the success and failure of the team becomes very personally relevant. It becomes very important, and therefore they pay close attention to it and engage in some behaviors that indicate this connection."

Painting your entire body purple, mowing your lawn in the shape of the Jazz logo or shaving the words "Go Jazz" onto your dog's backside.

When the team wins, this extrinsic link becomes even stronger, Bernhardt said, and the individual fan feels elevated and empowered. Imagine, if the Jazz win it all, there will be a whole state full of these people:

"I think you'll see everybody walking around with a sense of being a winner, and that is likely to create a sense of confidence that will be fairly evident in everyday interactions," Bernhardt said.

The rest of the summer could be like the December holiday season - everyone full of joy and spirit, wishing each other well. Until the bills arrive, that is. Like the one for next season's tickets. Jazz tickets have steadily increased in price, even without an NBA Championship.

Could an NBA title produce an economic windfall, an infusion of business capital and tourism dollars that will give Jazz fans extra money to spend at Delta Center snack bars?

"I wish I could say the economic impact is huge," said James Wood, an economist with the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research and a Jazz season ticket-holder since day one.

"The problem with economic impact is, you have to show some sort of augmentation to the economy . . . In terms of measurable economic impacts, they would be very modest."

Gov. Mike Leavitt, however, doesn't believe you have to measure it to recognize it. Leavitt, in a telephone interview from London on Monday, related an experience he had that morning when taking a cab:

Leavitt hadn't heard yet that the Chicago Bulls had won the Eastern Conference title, so he asked cabbie if he knew anything about American basketball. Not only did the driver follow the NBA, but he knew the exact score of the Bulls' seventh-game victory.

When he found out Leavitt's home state, the cab driver wanted to talk about Karl Malone and the Jazz, the governor said.

"This guy knows one thing about Utah and it's the Utah Jazz," Leavitt said. "People don't define quality until they identify you, so you have to start with people knowing who you are."

The governor, for example, said he had a positive impression of Innsbruck, Austria, before he traveled there for the first time because he remembered it as a past site of the Winter Games.

And officials in China and the Philippines, where Leavitt visited last year, wanted to hear about the Jazz, too, before discussing more serious subjects like international commerce.

"The way people relate to sports, it's an enormous economic boost to the state simply because people know this is a place defined by quality and success," the governor said.

Chris Hill, athletic director for the University of Utah, knows first-hand what national recognition can mean. The university, fresh off its NCAA Finals loss to Kentucky, now finds that it already has a foot in doors that were once just cracked, closed or locked tight.

"It's really helped us throughout everything we do. It's moved us up a notch," Hill said. "Everything is just better. There's no Rodney Dangerfield syndrome as much as it used to be.

"We do a good job, and now it's nice to be noticed."

If the Jazz weren't who they are, though, would Utahns want all the attention?

Despite complaints from elsewhere in the NBA that some Jazz-men are "dirty players," the team and franchise have a fairly wholesome, family-oriented image across the league. It's an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality that defies the selfish, bad-boy image with which some of the NBA's younger stars have been saddled.

Former University of Utah President Chase Peterson admits there are some NBA players you wouldn't want to invite to your house for dinner, much less have them serve as ambassadors for your community.

Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Cor-ra-dini concurs. She believes the team's character is just as important, if not more so, than its accomplishments.

"The team (members) and their values say a lot about who we are as a society here, and you hear that over and over again, that this team is a real team," the mayor said.

"They're good people. They like each other, and that reflects on our community."

That reflection could be brighter, though, if it's coming from gold and diamond-studded NBA Championship rings.