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All that Jazz: a community’s obsession

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America, you have no idea what it's like to be obsessed. You have no idea what it's like to be . . . here.

This place is awash in the Utah Jazz. Our color scheme: The Color Purple. The neighbors have Jazz signs in their windows and stuck in their lawns. Jazz flags fly from car windows. White-haired ladies and little children wear Malone T-shirts to the mall.A guy mowed JAZZ into his lawn. A boy painted a giant Jazz logo on the roof of his house. The city stenciled JAZZ on the streets of Salt Lake. A lady dresses a large hairy pet pig in a Jazz T-shirt. Twenty-five grade-school kids stood on the corner of Main and 100 South shouting "GO, UTAH JAZZ!" to passing cars.

We are a major metropolitan city - honest, we are - that acts like that little town in "Hoosiers." We have a major professional basket-ball franchise, but we treat it like the local high school team. It's easy to forget that the Jazz are a multimillion-dollar business. It's just John and Karl and Jeff; we're on a first-name basis.

We are obsessed with the Jazz and winning The Title. The Jazz's road to a championship has been a long, drawn-out mini-drama, each spring bringing a new episode of the playoffs, a new reason to hope, and, finally, a new disappointment, followed by off-season despair and an increased sense of urgency as the clock counts down the careers of John and Karl.

The question is the same every fall: "Think the Jazz can do it this year?"

So here they are again, back in the NBA Finals. Tonight the Jazz meet the Chicago Bulls in the Delta Center. It begins again. Another assault on the summit. A city and state watch and wait.

The Jazz's title quest, you must understand, has been the product of remarkable persistence and the source of considerable community angst for more than a decade. Nobody thought much about winning a title at first, even though Frank Layden, the Jazz coach at the time, raised the issue in his first press conference after the team moved here in 1979. The reason the Jazz were here, he said, was to win a championship. Which was pretty humorous because the Jazz were pathetic. They didn't leave New Orleans because they were successful and needed a new challenge.

"I'll bring a championship team here next season - the Celtics or the Lakers," Layden said. A good joke for a joke of a team.

The road to a title has been long and bumpy. The Jazz were poor. They didn't have the money that other teams did. They drafted Dominique Wilkins one year - and immediately sold him to pay the light bill. They passed up the expensive free agents. Their decisions weren't always based on getting better; they were based on staying in business.

"We couldn't take short cuts," Layden says. "If you don't have the money to buy talent, the only way you can get better is by losing." They chose another route: They picked over the CBA, low-end free agents, drafted sleepers and bargains in the first and second round. Slowly, a good team took shape.

The Jazz had Stockton and Malone, but they were always trying to fill holes around them, trying different players, discarding them, trying others. They tried fat ones (Dinner Bell Mel Turpin and Billy Paultz). Smart ones (Rich Kelley). Fast ones (Ricky Green). Troubled ones (John Drew and Luther Wright). Weird ones (Darryl Dawkins). Mercurial ones (Bernard King).

Players and eras came and went. Bobby Hansen. Darrell Griffith. Mark Iavaroni. Danny Schayes. Mark Eaton. Adrian Dantley. For years the Jazz searched for a shooting guard. Then it was a small forward. And always a center.

When the Jazz made the playoffs for the first time ever in 1984, fans started to dream about a championship, and so it began. The community-wide quest for a title was under way. The Jazz bowed out of the playoffs in the first or second round for eight years. In the '90s, they took another step. They made the conference finals four times in six years. Last year they made the NBA Finals for the first time and lost in six.

Fifteen straight years they've been to the playoffs and never won the title. Each year there was a setback, and the following year they started over again, once more, from the top. They scratched their way through 82 games just to get back to the playoffs and then started all over again, only to lose again.

It was always some darn thing. The great Lakers. Hakeem Ola-ju-won. Somebody punching Billy Paultz. David Benoit casting up threes from downtown. Twice in the '90s they checked out of the playoffs in the first round.

Fans suffered every step of the way. Not like other team's fans. Worse. The Jazz are the only big-time franchise in town. There is nothing else. And basketball was Utah's game - "a basketball mecca," Layden calls it. In Utah, the predominant religion plays basketball on week-day nights in the church gym, or some form of it. It's like the NBA game, only much rougher. And, truth be known, there were always symptoms of an inferiority complex - a small-market town wanting to show the big guys we're hip, too.

The point is, the Jazz's problems have been our problems. The source of much public discussion and worry. It was taxes and teacher salaries and road construction and what to do about filling that post position. It was the Winter Olympics and population explosion and spring floods and how to get help for John and Karl.

And now the Jazz stand again on the brink of fulfilling the old state-wide dream. It only figures they would have to meet the Great Michael Jordan and the Mighty Bulls in the Finals. They are the only worthy opponent for a team that has made such a long and difficult quest.



Second chances

The Utah Jazz are looking to become the sixth team in NBA history to win the championship after failing in the Finals the year before.

- 1979 - After losing to Washington 4-3 in the 1978 NBA Finals, the Seattle SuperSonics return to bite the Bullets 4-1.

- 1983 - A year after falling to Los Angeles in six games, Moses Malone leads the Philadelphia 76ers and the good Doctor, Julius Erving, to a sweep of the Lakers.

- 1985 - After failing twice in the Finals - including a seven-game series loss to Boston the previous season - the Los Angeles Lakers down the defending champion Celtics 4-2 to win their third of five NBA crowns during the 1980s.

- 1986 - Boston takes its turn moving from runner-up to NBA champion, but the Celtics' title run comes at the expense of not the Lakers but the Houston Rockets in a six-game Finals.

- 1989 - Detroit logs the first of its Daly-double titles, as the Pistons rebound from a seven-game NBA Finals defeat to Los Angeles the season before to oust the Lakers 4-0.

On eight other occasions, the NBA runner-up has returned to the Finals - only to finish second for a second straight time. The most recent two-time helping of "seconds" was the Lakers' losing to the Sixers in 1983 and the Celtics in 1984. But L.A. had won the title both in 1982 and 1985, on both ends of its two-year second-place stretch.