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Utah v.p. here through ‘the end’

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I was with the family at the Epcot Center three summers ago, near the end of one of those OK-we-saw-it, can-we-go-home-now? kind of days. As we walked by a staging area, a sign said, " 'Lord of the Dance,' now playing."

That interested me about as much as the street mimes, but when my daughters saw the sign, forget it. We were going in for a look. But just as we stepped toward the seating, the lights came up and the crowd began leaving.

We had missed all the excitement.

I imagine that is something like Kevin O'Connor felt when he joined the Jazz 2 1/2 years ago.

Just as he arrived, the party was letting out.

The Jazz signed their vice president of basketball operations to a multi-year contract extension Wednesday, thus assuring he will be around for "the end" anyway.

What "the end" means is up to conjecture. It could simply mean the end of the Stockton-Malone era. It could mean the end of the Jazz's long string of playoff appearances. In a worst-case scenario, it would mean the end of life as we know it — i.e. the loss of respectable professional basketball in Utah.

But not if he can help it.

O'Connor isn't a guy to take things sitting down. When the Jazz were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last spring, he stood with his head pressed against the cool concrete walls of the Delta Center, eyes squeezed shut. A genuinely nice man, he nevertheless doesn't take losing lightly.

In some ways, re-upping with the Jazz on a year in which they are a .500 club is like signing up for the Apollo 13 mission — you know there are risks and you might not be coming back. But you believe you can succeed, no matter what the odds.

Whether the Jazz end up returning to earth safely is another matter. It's also like signing on with Amtrak.

They're still viable, but the their scope isn't what it once was.

It's his job to get things running smoothly again.

O'Connor arrived at a time when others were jumping ship on all sides. Frank Layden retired, G.M. Tim Howells left for an unrelated business opportunity and Scott Layden left for a similar job in New York. Jeff Hornacek retired at the end of O'Connor's first year.

Though each had a logical reason to move on, it's doubtful any of them would have left, had they felt the Jazz were still a title contender.

As it turned out, they may have been right. Even perennially optimistic owner Larry H. Miller admitted after last year's early playoff exit that he wasn't certain his team could win a championship.

O'Connor hasn't reversed the slide, but he may have dodged an all-out collapse. At least he infused some interest into a stagnating story.

Long known as a closed-mouth team that rarely made major moves, O'Connor admitted he was looking for a few good men.

He traded for Donyell Marshall, in a move that delighted Jazz fans and gave the team an added threat. In a decision that shocked many, he drafted prep sensation DeShawn Stevenson.

Among his other moves were the additions of John Starks, Pete Chilcutt, John Amaechi, John Crotty and Jarron Collins.

Some turned out to be nice acquisitions, others did nothing. But he also facilitated the arrival of Andrei Kirilenko, whom the Jazz drafted in 1999 under Scott Layden but had remained in Russia.

In his prior job in Philadelphia, he was known as a man willing to make any move that might improve the team. Jazz fans seemed heartened to have someone interested in reshuffling the deck.

So far, O'Connor's work is far from done.

The Jazz are a team whose two best players are still great but middle-aged nonetheless.

Team president Dennis Haslam declared the contract extension "a commitment to the future of the Jazz organization when we will be undergoing some changes, and we need an architect to help us make those changes — and Kevin's the man."

He's going to take them where no one has gone before.

Perhaps O'Connor will be unable to keep the Jazz afloat. They may still end up missing the playoffs.

They might even end up in the Draft Lottery. But don't expect them to go quietly into the night.

He doesn't take bad news sitting down.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com