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Sloan sitting more and saying less now

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The man with the gray hair and even grayer face has never been here before, a stranger in a strange land. Jerry Sloan has seen tough times in basketball, sure. But nothing like this.

Of course, Sloan, the gladiator, isn't about to admit the Jazz have passed the point of no return, that the days of sold-out games and lofty aspirations are gone. But the facts are as clear as the tattoo on Greg Ostertag's leg. (You know, the one with Fred Flintstone dunking the ball. Indeed, the losing margins are starting to take on a cartoonish cast.)

Two straight losses to the Sacramento Kings by a combined 57 points.

"So much for back-to-backs, right?" Sloan says.

He continues, "We haven't had tough times like this for a long, long time. Nobody has seen this kind of tough times for us."

It's true. Nobody has seen this shade of midnight blue. Nobody has, in at least a decade, seen a Jazz team that knows it can't play with the top teams in the league. A team that is now 1-10 against the best teams in the West. Nobody has been to this sort of place.

Even as Sloan talks about defense and execution and competing, he knows what this team is. It's a team trying not to slip beneath the surface. This is not a funk from which the team can extricate itself. It is a team that is overmatched many nights. A team too young to avoid the thoughtless mistakes of youth — a basket on one end but a score on the other, a rebound that should have been tipped, one too many passes one trip down, one too few the next.

At the same time, it's a team with too much age in its limbs but also too much in its eyes. Karl Malone's eyes still bear the pride but lack the defiance they once had. They still carry the determination but lack the conviction. He knows, too, that 17 points against a team like Sacramento, won't be enough. That's why Malone has admitted publicly he would consider a trade to a contender — he's no longer with one.

Thus, when Malone is replaced by Scott Padgett late in the third quarter, with the Jazz trailing by 19, Malone ignores Padgett's extended hand. Nothing personal, but who wants to slap hands over this?

The good news for the Jazz is that there are only three home games before the relative obscurity of the road. Not so many questions, fewer people trying to say something encouraging. It's not the future of the Jazz that is so hopeless, it's the present. Boos rain down from the upper bowl as the Kings extend the lead to 31. With five minutes to go, the place looks like a strip mall on Sunday — nothing but blowing newspapers and stray dogs about.

This isn't to say Sloan has given up. In recent years, he has shown full willingness to accommodate his changing team. But now he must settle for smaller victories: a rare 18-point night by John Amaechi, DeShawn Stevenson's improving shot selection, Andrei Kirilenko's blossoming defense, an occasional surge from Greg Ostertag, a 36-point explosion by Malone.

But there is no place here for the old battles with officials, or red-faced tirades at players. He doesn't get so much as a single technical in the 114-90 loss on Saturday.

So when Bobby Jackson steals the ball from Stevenson for a breakaway, Sloan stands with hands on hips, face grim, but says nothing. He sits quietly on the bench in the second quarter as the Jazz lose their lead, chin resting on his palm, only occasionally rising from his seat. When Kirilenko takes a twisting, ill-advised shot, Sloan barely moves.

His is the look of one who knows no matter how long he yells, he can't yell this team back to the top.

It is indeed a place Sloan has never seen. Even his early Jazz teams were teams of promise. This is a team of decline.

Now after games, Sloan arrives promptly to talk with the media, without fail. He handles the questions of failure and frustration. Soon its over, the duty fulfilled. He is off, down the concrete halls of the Delta Center.

Gray on the walls. Gray on the floor.

The color of his world.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com