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Looking up to the Jazz

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When Michael Erekson was born, his parents almost named him something else, and they have talked from time to time about whether he would like a different name. So his mother was not too surprised when 6 1/2-year-old Michael came to her the other day and said he wanted to change his name. "You don't want to be Michael anymore?" she asked. "Yes, I want to be Michael," he said, as if everyone should know that, "but I want to be Michael Jordan!"

Kids like basketball. They look up to the players. (And not only Michael Jordan. A lot of Karls and Johns around here would probably like to change their names, too.) Kids get caught up in the game. Some of basketball's biggest fans are some of those littlest people.Take some of the second- and third-graders at Washington Elementary School, for example. When teachers Rosanne Brown and Carol Facer Hall had their classes focus on the Jazz as part of a writing exercise, the enthusiasm for the team came through loud and clear.

They may not know much about the pick-and-roll. They may not care about shooting percentages or know how to spell Jeff Hornacek's name, but they like the Jazz (and they understand exclamation marks!).

"This year I think the Jazz are going to win the champion ring," writes Megan Hill, age 9. "Especially because of that win against the L.A. Lakers. I think it's the best win yet. I can't wait to go to the next Jazz game. I bet we're going to will the bulls - no doubt about that. We're the best team in the world. If you don't agree, well, you should because you know the Jazz are going to win. So whatever you do, don't bet against the Jazz!"

"I like the Jazz because they play good basketball and, they have good players," writes Holly Ho, age 7. "Here are some of my favoriot players and mascotts: Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornasack, and the Jazz Bear!" But not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, she adds, "And I think other teams are good to."

"The Utah Jazz Rule," says Tina Merrell. "I also like Karl Malone. I also have his poster."

The youth market has always been important to NBA promoters, partly because they know that if they capture attention and loyalty when kids are young, those kids are more likely to maintain that interest throughout their lives. Research has shown, for example, that if a child plays basketball at age 11, he or she is eight times more likely to be a fan at age 25.

That's one of the reasons behind the Jr. Jazz program, which involved 50,000 kids ages 6-18 in five states this season. And for the Jr. Starzz program that will be launched this summer.

"But we also wanted to give back to the community, to give kids a chance to rub shoulders with some of our players," says David Allred, vice president for public relations for the Jazz.

Charles Barkley may say he is not a role model. Dennis Rodman may be trying to set new standards for outrageous behavior, but the Jazz encourage their players to be on a higher plane, partly for these little fans.

"That's very important to us," says Allred. "Given the nature of this market and how many kids we have, we're grateful that we have good role models. We're not embarrassed that the players and the team mirror the values of the community. Those are good values."

And, he says, the team has shown us that "good guys can finish first."

The message that sportsmanship and hard work are important is one that the Utah Jazz are happy to have out there. And it is being received.

"I like the Jazz. They are good sports and good players," writes Xanthe Webb. "They work hard and do a lot and make it fun. There is a lot of excitement since the Jazz have been wining. The Jazz are cool! so I say let's go Jazz!!"

"The Jazz are great! They work as a team and work together. The Utah Jazz are the best team in the world," according to Catherine Lambe.

And from Whitney White: "My feelings about the Jazz are that they work their hardest. I don't really like basketball that much, but I like to watch the Jazz on television. I don't really have a favorite player because I like the whole Jazz team! The Jazz really know how to play basketball!"

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the negatives in sports. But, says William Russell, an educator, sometime Bulls fan and author of a book called "Family Learning," parents can use sports to help teach kids a lot of positive things. Especially, he says, parents of young Jazz fans. "You have a wonderful opportunity in Salt Lake to see some of the best players, some of the really good guys."

And basketball has both the good and the bad, says Russell, who lives and works just outside of Chicago. Parents have to help their children learn the difference.

"Everybody needs a hero, and they are hard to come by these days," so Russell encourages parents to look for heroic acts.

Parents need to look at themselves, too, and messages they might be sending to their kids. "If you emulate people who only make a lot of money or get a lot of rebounds, kids are likely to get the message, `Just win, baby.' " And therein lies danger. Instead of looking up to whining, overpaid brats, he says, look for and talk about people worth emulating for their character and the good things they do.

Sports provide a number of opportunities to teach important lessons, says Russell. "In sports, it's easier to isolate moments of great challenge. Sports are like life but more compressed. In life, in business, you face challenges, but sometimes they take months and years to deal with. In sports a lot happens in a matter of hours. You see people behave badly and behave nobly. You see those who who win and gloat in an unsportsmanlike way, and you see those who are strong enough to win gracefully."

Jonathan Yardly, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, sometimes worries about how the entertainment culture in this country may be shoving aside the work ethic and that we may be venerating too many people who don't deserve it. But he doesn't worry for a moment, he writes in Sky magazine, over the admiration we lavish upon people like Michael Jordan (or Karl Malone or John Stockton, for that matter). What matters about people like this, he says, "is not that they are athletes but that they have developed their natural gifts to the fullest, that they are steadfast in their loyalties and solid in their convictions, that they work hard and meet the challenges before them."

Cami Marie Clayton, at Washington School, may not yet understand the finer points of all that. But she's well on her way. "What I like about the Jazz is they try there best to win!" she writes. "Karl Malone, Jhon Stockton, Jeff Horniseck, Big Dog, Chris Mores and the hole gang rules! I think next year we should not change our player's cuse they are the right ones for us!"