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Jazz talk

Local radio station KIQ 1010-AM personality Chris Tunis recently conducted an interview with Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, who offered candid observations on a variety of topics, from Greg Ostertag to the current state of the NBA. Here are some excerpts:

On whether he has any regrets about giving center Greg Ostertag a lucrative contract extension:

"To be honest with you, yes. But let me just tell you this: We knew there was a possibility of that happening. In order to justify that contract, Greg would have had to, from about the point he signed it, gotten clearly better every year. Now, to be honest with you, I think he's playing his best NBA basketball the last month or so. He's had a couple really nice games in there. But he's not what we hoped he would be when we signed that contract.

(Former vice president) Scott Layden kept saying, 'Look, it doesn't matter. If he doesn't get as good as we need him to be, for the money we're paying him, he's still always going to be tradeable."' And that guys that are 7-2 — and his wingspan actually plays more like 7-5 — there's going to be a demand for him out there.

Now, I think Scott did a lot of things for this franchise over the years, but on Ostertag he was wrong. Because there have been times — and Greg knows this — there have been times the last year or two that we felt we had to go out on the market to see what was available for him, so that we could kind of move on at the center spot, and there were not takers out there. So we — and I'll say we — misestimated that, and that was a key element in that contract, that if we were going to pay him this much and he doesn't work out we can still move him. That has proven not to be the case. And so yeah, I have second-guessed myself for letting a contract that big be made on a decision that proved not to be correct two or three years later."

On what the Jazz can do to get Ostertag on a conditioning program that might result in a more dominating physical presence:

"Three years ago, I would have probably answered that question . . . in about a two-minute dissertation. . . . But today I think I say, 'You don't.' You know, Karl (Malone) really got his fuse lit about three years ago, in an interview in Sports Illustrated, where Greg Ostertag made a comment something like, 'If I had the work ethic of Karl Malone, I'd be the greatest player in the NBA.' Which is true, by the way, if he had that kind of work ethic.

So Karl's comeback to him, and not in Sports Illustrated but privately, was, 'So why the heck don't you?' And that's the thing with Greg. What I've come to learn about him, he's a good guy. He's a good person, a good husband, a good father, a good human being. But he plays, he used to play about one game in 10, now he's playing — and this is subjective, my opinion — about one in three. We know a lot more about what we're going to get out of him when he goes out there now, but he doesn't have the competitive fire. He plays basketball because he's big. If he was 6-8, he wouldn't play. But he's 7-2 and (has) a large wing-span and he does (play).

And I don't say that critically. I like him, I think he's helped us more this year than he has before. But he's still got so much more to give. Greg now is having a big night a little more frequently, and Karl and I always are in the back (of the locker room) where the media can't go, back in the workout room, and on those nights when Greg has a good night he says, 'Do you know how good we could be if (Greg) did this every night?'

And I don't even say that to put pressure on Greg. It's just that we've done everything we know how to do. Somehow, he's going to have to reach back, if it's ever going to happen, and develop some fire within . . . That fire is a thing that's there naturally. It's part of what makes John Stockton so great. And I don't know how to teach it, I don't know how to threaten it. He's just going to have to make the decision himself. To me it's simple — I can really see it now, in a way I couldn't before — if he'll go out there and do two things: (A) Run up and down the floor, to get position on transition defense, and (B) be willing to step into the lane when a guy gets by — let's say a two guard, when he beats (John) Starks or (John) Stockton on defense, the center has to step up. Darrell Griffith never played very good defense for us, but Mark Eaton was always back there to cover him. He stepped into the lane to change the shot. Ostertag doesn't always do that. When he does he's terrific, because he changes the game, he changes the path a guy has to take to the basket."

On what Starks has brought to the team:

He's brought toughness. I used to hear Scott Layden refer to a shooter's mentality when I first got in the league, and I didn't understand it. The first one I really saw it in was (former Jazz guard) Jeff Malone. But I've come to understand that more in John Starks. It's a couple of things that (make up) a shooter's mentality, and not many guys in the league really have it. One is, that they can go 2 for 9 and never give up on themselves, and the next night be 7 for 10. They're willing to keep putting it back up.

You watch John Stockton, for example. If he misses a good open jump shot, three points or 12-footer or whatever, he misses it, the ball can come right back to him and he can still be open, he will not put it up a second time. Even Karl will rarely put a shot up a second time . . . . Most guys won't do that. But a guy with a shooter's mentality, he'll believe he can make anything from anywhere and just keep launching it. Some nights you'll feel like he shoots you off the floor, and then he'll turn around the next night and win the game for you."

On how concerned he is about not selling out games at the Delta Center:

"I listened to one of your cohorts last night . . . and I gotta tell you, I listened for about 40 minutes because occasionally I think it's good for me to hear what the fan has to say . . . The thing is, 19,911, that's a sell-out, and we're playing to 19,448 and 19,625, 19,040. And they're making it sound like you can hear echoes in there. It's kind of like, give me a break, we're at 97.2 or 98.1 percent capacity, with 25 percent sell-outs.

Now having said that, I am concerned because what I'm worried about is what the NBA players — whether you look at just the Jazz or the whole league — mean to our society. For a number of years, we represented what a young man could become if he was willing to work hard, pay attention to his lessons, take care of his body, and practice a lot. That he could aspire to something good that could then be held up in front of other youngsters in our society, and adults too, as role models.

Then I saw an emergence over time of attitudes, of work ethic and so on, that made me think, you know, we used to be what young people could aspire to, now we simply reflect society. I hope that I'm wrong. I hope that was only a phase. I felt it was a worse problem, personally, four or five years ago. We had a whole run of players with problems, drug problems, alcohol problems, babies out-of-wedlock problems, Charles (Barkley) not wanting to be a role model, (Allen) Iverson not wanting to respect anybody and so on, Derrick Coleman doing all his stuff, and then it has seemed to me to have gotten a little better.

But now I think we're reflecting the effects of those attitudes in the NBA fan today. So I worry about pro sports, and I worry especially about the Jazz, that the value-to-cost ratio has got to be there, the entertainment value. It's something we've never experienced before, and because of that I do have some concern. I don't think the sky is falling in. I think we just have to make sure we're offering a good product as a franchise, and a good product as a league, and we've gotta do better than we're doing now, because we should have more full arenas.

On who is responsible for Jazz's continuing chemistry:

"I remember 10 years ago — now keep in mind this is Karl's 16th season and John's 17th — we had already begun our (consecutive) playoff-year run, we maybe had three or four years consecutive into it, and still there was a lot of commentary — I won't say criticism, maybe that too — in the media that the Jazz have no floor leader. That was very offensive to John and Karl, because they both felt that just by playing well, that created the leadership the Jazz were supposedly lacking. I think two things emerged out of it: One, that they got so good that became largely true but also they both became more vocal toward the team. And with the standard of play they set, both on the floor and in the locker room, it was pretty tough to buck the, let's say locker-room culture or the team culture that was established."

On which players are trade untouchables:

"Just because of personal commitments I've made, John and Karl are. I think right now we'd have to probably say Donyell (Marshall) and probably Bryon Russell as well."

On being happy to have Marshall on the team:

"We are. For obvious reasons, if you look at his stats, it's neat, but it's also just because of how he is, his demeanor, the fun he's having on the court, his athleticism. He's brought a new dimension to us in a lot of ways."