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Jazz prepared to do sales job

They’re aware that Utah is not a preferred NBA destination

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Twenty-seven percent of 248 players questioned by Sports Illustrated earlier this year identified the Jazz as the NBA team for which they'd least like to play.

One need not remind Kevin O'Connor of precise poll results before he offers a response.

"I'll take that," the Jazz's basketball operations senior vice president said, "and say, 'OK, you know what? I'm going to go after the other 73 percent of the guys.'

"That's how I approach it."

He has little other choice.

It was a year-and-a-half before O'Connor was hired in 1999 that Rony Seikaly wormed his way out of coming to Utah in a trade. It was in 1997 that Derek Harper, before later apologizing if he offended anyone, told ESPN, "There was a Utah deal, but you go live in Utah. Nothing against Utah or their team, but I don't want to live there." And it was back in 1994 that Brian Williams, a k a Bison Dele, said Salt Lake "smelled like brine shrimp" and added he would rather play in the CBA than come to Utah.

The attitude, in other words, is nothing new.

So be it, O'Connor suggests.

"I think there's a grouping of guys that would say, 'You know what, I don't want to go to Utah,'" he said. "That's fine — as long as there's enough of a grouping that we can go out and sign to make us a very competitive team.

"That's what we look for."

With NBA's summer free-agency market having opened late Friday night, and Utah shopping for both a shot-blocking center and a sharp-shooting guard, that's how the Jazz will try to fight the perception problems stacked against them.

They do so, though, thinking it was a battle they already had won once.

"I think we've proven that there are a number of very good NBA players who would want to come to Utah," team president Denny Haslam said, "and Corey Maggette is a good example of that, and Jason Terry is another good example."

The Jazz got Maggette and Terry, both restricted free agents at the time, to sign contract offer sheets in 2003 — and both would have voluntarily come to Utah had their own teams at the time not matched proposal terms.

The SI poll, however, proves the Utah stigma lives on.

Next-closest in the survey was Toronto at just 16 percent, and the next-closest United States-based team was Atlanta with 10 percent.

Jazz franchise officials can't pinpoint why the numbers went that way, but they have some suspicions.

"You might recall the Karl Malone comment," Haslam said, "that (indicated) he wasn't sure if Utah was a city or a state."

That was in 1985, when Malone — who played 18 seasons in Utah, and retired in 2004 as the NBA's No. 2 all-time scorer — was drafted by the Jazz.

Twenty-plus years later, Malone — who lives now in his native Louisiana but recently was here to watch the Jazz work out NBA draft prospects — is one of the state's biggest cheerleaders.

"He had commented to some of the kids that Utah is a good place to live, and he and his family were treated very well during his stay in Utah," Haslam said. "I think that's a pretty good report card from the best power forward to play the game — without any prompting on our part."

Still, little has changed.

"I don't believe that many players," Haslam said, "are well-educated about the state of Utah."

Nightlife. Religion. Racial diversity. Weather. Geographic isolation. Politics. Unconventional alcohol-consumption rules. A longtime coach, Jerry Sloan, with old-school demands like tucked-in shirts, no headbands and no sass back.

Some of the aforementioned issues are precisely as outsiders imagine. Others are far from it. Some are attractive to those drawn to Utah from any lot in life. But any, perhaps even many, may also play a significant role in scaring so many NBA players away.

"I'm not sure I know what the biggest misperception is — because guys are guarded about telling," O'Connor said.

Whatever it is, O'Connor also knows he can do nothing to change reality.

"We're not going to move Salt Lake any closer to the beach," he said. "We're not going to get it any warmer (in the winter)."

Yet the Jazz's basketball boss also believes something as simple as a first-hand visit can dispel myths. For that reason, the franchise often brings both draft prospects and free-agent targets to town.

"They get a chance," O'Connor said, "to see what it is and what it isn't — that it's not at the end of the world, and that it is cosmopolitan to the point where there are good restaurants and there are great hotels and there are nice places to live."

Once here, O'Connor also presents the free agents with a pitch that goes something like this: Utah is the place for you . . . "if you're interested in coming to a team that is competitive, that's had one losing season in 20 years, that's been in a situation where they've got a coach that's stable and they've got an owner that has owned the team for a number of years and is a single owner and is stable."

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it does not.

"It you look at all those things, I think they look at it from a basketball point favorably," O'Connor said. "If they look at it after they come here and say, 'That's not the place I want to be,' that's OK. We'll go after the other 73 percent."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com