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Utah ruled the basketball world back in 1998

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I was outside the Jazz locker room, 10 years ago this week, when a writer from USA Today said with a wry smile: "Utah rules the world right now, doesn't it?"

Darn straight.

And don't forget it.

The state was on an all-time roll in 1998, enjoying its best sports year ever. The Jazz were in the NBA Finals for the second time, having tied for the best record in the league. Meanwhile, Rick Majerus and his Utes were coming off a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Blond hair, bright smiles and oh-my-hecks were everywhere, it seemed.

If Utah didn't rule the world, at least the world was hearing about Utah.

In both cases, the Utah

teams actually finished second. Which certainly wasn't bad; it just wasn't No. 1.

That's how it goes around here. With the exception of some long ago NCAA and NIT basketball championships, and BYU's 1984 football title, Utah is a Susan Lucci kind of place.

Respectable, but a little short on wins.

Even the 2004 Ute football team, which crushed nearly everyone on its schedule, still finished only fourth-ranked.

It took Lucci 19 tries before she won a Daytime Emmy.

But the Jazz have been trying for nearly three decades.

Ten years after the Jazz were last in the Finals, the brass ring still eludes them.

Which makes their close call all the more memorable.

· · · · ·

Utah teams weren't the fanciest in 1998. Both the Jazz and Utes employed grinding defense and patient offense to subdue opponents.

Never mind that watching them was like watching ice melt. It worked.

Yet neither the Utes nor Jazz could overcome quicker, more athletic opponents (Kentucky, Chicago) in their title games.

Still, the surrounding publicity brought the kind of attention only mega-events could. Majerus was a bona fide celebrity, entertaining the media with restaurant reviews and jokes about dating Cindy Crawford and Ashley Judd.

Dennis Rodman, the incorrigible Bulls forward, offended Mormons during the 1997 Finals by profanely claiming they were messing up his karma. That week I got a call from an East Coast writer who wanted to know why the Rodman quotes hadn't become a gigantic story in the Salt Lake media.

"You can't imagine the uproar that would have caused if someone had said that about the Jews in New York," he said.

By '98, not much had changed. The Jazz and Bulls were back in the Finals and Rodman was still disrespecting Mormons and Utahns.

"I have no business in Utah at all," he said. "Those people are a different breed."

Those people.

Like he was talking about lab animals.

Those mice. Those gnats. Those rats.

Teammate Scottie Pippen was only slightly less disdainful.

"How long do you want to stay in Utah?" he told reporters.

Nonetheless, the Jazz kept the series respectable. They didn't own the court, but they certainly owned Utah, week after week.

Strangers became friends. Stores emptied when games were played.

Friends I hadn't seen since high school called to see if I could get them tickets. Conversely, another said he and his wife purposely made restaurant reservations during games. That way a table by the window was guaranteed.

For most Utahns, though, game night was an obsession. Late into the night, cars cruised 300 West — now John Stockton Drive — with passengers howling deliriously. People painted their driveways Jazz colors. Thousands welcomed the team home to the executive airport.

Being a Jazz fan was mandatory if you wanted conversation.

It was then the Jazz became the undisputed darlings of the state of Utah, everyone's favorite team.

Even though they lost.

Sure, winning would have been nice. But this was Utah, the pretty great state.

With only a pretty great team.

· · · · ·

Yes, referee Dick Bavetta flubbed those shot-clock calls in Game 6. But Michael Jordan had a lot to do with it, too. In fact, everything to do with it.

He stole the ball from Malone late in the game, while an entire state screamed, "Behind you! Behind you! LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!"

Then he laced the jumper.

What many Jazz fans don't recall is that Stockton had a decent look on a 3-point try at the buzzer, but it was short. Yet Malone has taken the blame in the years since. It's true he lost the ball down the stretch. But he also scored 31 points, got 11 rebounds and made nine of 11 free throws.

Stockton had a sub-par, 10-point, five-assist night and made one of two free throws.

That's how it goes sometimes.

Perception eclipses reality.

So for the second straight time — third counting the Utes — Utah was second-best.

Which was fine with everyone, right?

"No, no, no, it stinks," insisted backup center Greg Foster, when asked if second place was good enough. "It's sad because . . . you know . . . it would have been icing on the cake with a cherry on top. We've been through a lot of BS this year, and we stood strong through it all, and this would have been a nice cap on it."

But looking back, you know what?

It was pretty great entertainment, even at that.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com