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Jazz sent out with cheers, ovation

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The season out of nowhere ended for the Jazz the way everyone expected last fall — with a loss.

But it also ended in a way no one could have expected six months ago — with cheers.

As the Jazz left the Delta Center after an 89-84 loss to Phoenix, Wednesday, the fans stood and applauded. Not polite, patronizing cheers, either, but calls of appreciation.

It ended with signs saying, "Jerry's Kids play hard! Go Jazz" and "Thanks for a great year. You guys are FUN!"

It ended with the fans on their feet in the waning minutes, hoping for one last chance to be surprised. The game was anticlimactic, even meaningless. Their hopes of making the playoffs ended Monday night in Minnesota. Still, that didn't stop 17,000 fans or so at the Delta Center from taking home more from the game than they might have.

Even Mr.-Never-Admit-Defeat himself, Jerry Sloan, had kind words.

"The season's over," said Sloan. "Our guys have done a terrific job. They deserve a lot of credit."

Forty-two wins merit praise? Isn't that like cheering at the end of a Kevin Bacon film? He, like the Jazz, isn't the most gifted at his trade, and has limited range.

But boy do they both have regular-guy appeal.

Who would have figured on 42 wins?

In the stands there were few complaints to be heard. Though there were some empty seats, the game went down officially as a sellout. To those who followed this year's team through its improbable journey, the 2004 Jazz were as beautiful as a first kiss. This year's team actually outdrew those of the last two seasons.

And so the fans cheered. Because the Jazz were supposed to win 20 games, tops. Because they were supposed to miss the playoffs, but hung on until the next-to-last game of the season. Because the greatest players in team history were, well, history.

But the Jazz didn't despair. They played the way highly paid professionals are supposed to play: with a lot of attitude. This was the sludge at the bottom of the fish tank? You'd have a hard time convincing Sacramento, Minnesota, New Jersey, Detroit and other playoff-bound teams the Jazz beat during the season.

They finished just five wins behind last year's total, earning the respect nobody gave them in October.

They highlighted once again the old adage that unrelenting hard work can overcome a lot of shortcomings.

They made even cynics smile and shake their heads.

For the first time in more than a decade, announcer Hot Rod Hundley's catchphrase "How 'bout those Jazz?" again had meaning.

Prior to tip-off, owner Larry H. Miller took the microphone at center court and tearfully thanked the fans for their support.

"It's been a better season than most of us thought," said Miller.

It was a season that will never look good in the books, but will fit nicely in the memory.

Flat finish notwithstanding, what the Jazz did this year was a shock. But the fan reaction really wasn't. That's because most people are suckers for an underdog. That's why everyone still remembers the Amazin' Mets.

This wasn't exactly the 1969 World Series. The Jazz didn't even make the playoffs. But they did make their point. When their key player, Matt Harpring, went down for the season, they kept bucking against the storm. The loss of Curtis Borchardt left them thin on the front line. They suffered through a five-game losing streak, when it seemed the odds would finally catch up.

They were getting paid for 82 games and doggone if they weren't going to earn it.

They fell behind by 16 on the final night but took the lead in the final eight minutes.

Did anyone on the team seem bored this year? Even notorious slacker Greg Ostertag was more intense, for longer periods, than usual.

So now they actually have a next year to look forward to. There is a future, whereas six months ago it wasn't a sure thing. A year from now they might even be better than they were in the waning years of the Stockton-Malone era.

But it wasn't just the 42 wins that told the story of the 2004 Utah Jazz. Or that they almost made the playoffs. It wasn't even that Jazz fans ended the season feeling happy.

It's that the players weren't pleased at the end.

"We really wanted to make the playoffs," said guard Raja Bell.

Music to their fans' ears.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com