The Utah Jazz rallied in the second half but still couldn't beat the Phoenix Suns in the Delta Center on Wednesday night. The 89-84 setback marked the 21st straight year the Jazz finished the season with a loss.
But there was one major difference.
This was the first time during that decades-long streak that the final loss of the season didn't come in the playoffs.
Utah finished the year with back-to-back defeats. Still, the crowd at the sold-out Delta Center seemed to appreciate the scrappy team that achieved a winning season, which almost nobody thought possible when the season began.
Jazz fans Brett Mccausland, 17, of Springville, and 19-year-old Brandon Jackman of Santaquin watched the season finale from prime seats on the third row behind the Utah bench. Even if the game was a meaningless affair between two lottery-bound also-rans, being close enough to hear Jerry Sloan berate the officials made it a night to remember. Like most people in attendance, the teens — who weren't even born the last time the Jazz failed to qualify for the postseason — were pleasantly surprised with the relative success the Jazz had this year.
"They did a lot better than I thought they would," said Mccausland. "They are really improving, and they gave it a good shot — even if they didn't make the playoffs."
His friend agreed. "It was heartbreaking when they didn't make (the playoffs)," said Jackman, "but they had a good year. Next year will be even better."
The Jazz ended the season 42-40, increasing their NBA-record of .500 or better finishes to 21 straight. The failure to make the playoffs was hardly a surprise. Utah was expected to struggle in the first year without the two mainstays from the previous two decades, John Stockton and Karl Malone.
"They exceeded everyone's expectations," said season-ticket holder Andria Joiner. "They were wonderful this year. They were so focused and team-oriented. Even though I loved John and Karl, I loved watching this team too."
If Utah fans were disappointed about the the team's failure to reach the playoffs, it didn't show on Wednesday. Fans lined up five deep ready to buy merchandise at each cash register about a half-hour prior to tip-off at one of the Fanzz stores on the concourse level. Of course that might have had something to do with the late-season deals — including buy-one-get-one-free replica jerseys.
One person clutching a Fanzz bag didn't care at all that the Jazz and Suns were playing a meaningless game. For Charisse McDonald, who was visiting Salt Lake City from Calgary, it was the first NBA game she'd ever been to. Even though it was her first trip to the Delta Center, the Canadian knew a thing or two about the Jazz.
"I've always been a fan of the Jazz," said McDonald. "I watched Stockton and Malone for 15 years, but I just never made it to a game until after they were gone."
While most at the Delta Center seemed pleasantly surprised with the Jazz this season, brokers hawking tickets on the corner of John Stockton Drive and South Temple weren't exactly finding it a seller's market on Wednesday. Then again, that's been the case all year.
"It's been terrible," said ticket broker Zell Bach. "Going to a Jazz game has become like going to the zoo. You may go once a year or twice a year, but that's it. The team was making a run at the playoffs, and it still didn't get any better. But that's what happens, I guess, with a team that has no stars."
Bach joked that he was selling Wednesday night's game as "Greg Ostertag's going-away party."
Indeed, Ostertag, after nine years as an inconsistent Jazz center, may never again play in a Utah uniform. He is a free agent. Many other changes are in store this offseason as well — with Sloan's status as coach being one of the most closely watched. Sloan is still under contract, and Jazz owner Larry H. Miller would love to have him back. But Sloan's wife, Bobbye, is battling cancer, and he's uncertain about if he wants to return.
Wednesday's game — being the first time in more than two decades that the team knew for a fact that it would be the final one of the season — seemed a little like the last day of school. Miller, with his wife Gail at his side near center court just prior to tip-off, tearfully thanked the Jazz fans and sponsors for their support this season. A few fans held up signs, like the one that read "So long Jazz. Thanks 4 a great year."
There will certainly be several new faces on the Jazz team when camp opens in October. Utah has three first-round draft picks — including its first-ever lottery pick — in June's draft. It also is one of the few teams that has plenty of money under the salary cap to attract a big-name free agent or two.
Those facts have many Jazz fans feeling optimistic about the future — and the immediate past.
"I was disappointed for about an hour when they didn't make the playoffs," said Joiner. "But that feeling has gone away, and I am so proud of them. I hope they don't hang their heads. I hope they hold their heads high, because they had a great season."