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Utah Jazz: Time for a 15-year flashback on the Jazz’s last trip to the NBA Finals

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SALT LAKE CITY — Recent headlines with Utah Jazz legends' names in big font might have fans a bit nostalgic for a Beehive State basketball era that simultaneously included Jerry Sloan, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek.

Pardon the omission — and Greg Ostertag.

Oh yes, and The Big Dawg (Antoine Carr), Larry H. Miller's passion, Hot Rod Hundley's descriptive flare, an earsplitting arena and perennial contender status.

Don't look at the deeper wrinkles that stare back at you in the mirror nowadays, but a decade and a half has indeed elapsed since "Saving Private Ryan" was on the big screen, Bill Clinton was defining the word "is," gas was $1.15 a gallon, TV dials were tuned to top-rated "E.R." and the Jazz last played in the NBA Finals.

If it makes you feel any better, the Chicago Bulls haven't been back on basketball's biggest stage since then, either.

"Fifteen years?" Sloan pondered out loud during an interview this week with the Deseret News.

Time flies when you're having, well, flashbacks and wondering what might have been had Michael Jordan not pushed off.

Or if Dick Bavetta hadn't called off Howard Eisley's 3-pointer or if Ron Harper's shot-clock violation had been enforced.

Or if the Jazz had held home court in Game 2 or not been blown out 96-54 in Game 3.

Or if Dennis Rodman hadn't hit clutch free throws in Game 4 after missing practice to attend a wrestling event the day before the Bulls took a 3-1 lead. Or if Utah could've taken advantage of the injured Scottie Pippen's absence and Stockton not missed the last-second long ball in Game 6.

Or … or … OR!!!

Sloan, ever one with messages that range between blunt, self-effacing, humorously folksy and non-sentimental, balked at the notion he might occasionally reminisce about the Finals with old Jazz guys.

Want to talk about the family in Louisiana or the farm in southern Illinois?

Great. Just don't take the conversation back THERE to June 3-14, 1998.

He'd rather get a Barney Rubble tattoo to match the Fred Flintstone ink on Ostertag's right calf.

Really, that's not surprising considering 10 years after the second Finals happened, Sloan admitted to having never re-watched a second of the series. Fans continue to lament over lost golden opportunities, which is what fans do — at least in places like Salt Lake City, Buffalo, Seattle and Minnesota. But the 71-year-old has emotionally moved on. He's not about to spend any of his spare retirement (job-hunting?) time wondering "What if?" If the headstrong Sloan can forge forward after selling his entire collection of beloved, antique tractors, he can surely get over the stinging setback to The Worm & Co.

"There's not much to think about," Sloan said. "We lost and went home. That's what happened."

But isn't there a memorable part of the Jazz's last Finals experience that stands out?

Maybe how Stockton scored 24 points with eight assists as the Jazz jumped ahead 1-0 despite being rusty from a 10-day sabbatical after sweeping Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals?

Or how Utah forced a Game 6 when Malone scored 39 points and Stockton dished out 12 assists in Game 5 at the United Center to prevent the series from prematurely ending with Phil Jackson and crew smoking championship cigars in the Windy City?

Or even the bitter memory of Malone struggling for only 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting in that pivotal Game 2 loss at the Delta Center or simply just falling to Jordan and Pippen for a second straight postseason?

Or the time you met Jack Nicholson in the bathroom by the pressroom, sat by Laverne in Chicago, were offered a Size 17 shoe from Joe Kleine or became quite embarrassed to be seen by a colleague while jogging after Rodman down a Delta Center hallway with a few dozen of your closest media friends? (Oh, wait, those are this writer's recollections...carry on.)

But, c'mon, no soul-piercing painful memories stand out?

"It's painful to still be alive," Sloan said, chuckling. "That's part of sports. You couldn't ask for guys to play any harder. They made some mistakes. That's what basketball is about — a game of mistakes."

There is one prevailing thought for Sloan 1.5 decades after Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington and Scott Burrell all received one more championship ring than any of the Jazz Hall of Famers ever got.

Sour and forgotten plays be darned, one sweet memory remains.

"The fact," Sloan convincingly said, "that we were there."

Everybody automatically assumes "The Shot" in Houston by Stockton in 1997 was the crowning achievement for a franchise that had a history of early exits in the postseason.

And who not affiliated with the Rockets doesn't enjoy watching that sweet buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Stockton soar over Charles Barkley and drop to the bottom of the net, eliciting an infamous "Uh, oh!" and an oh-so-famous happy dance on Houston's hardwood?

It still fires up the proud warm-fuzzies in Sloan's bosom to think about what the Jazz did after falling to M.J. four games to two in their first championship showdown.

The next year, the Jazz bounced back with resolve, going 62-20 and only losing three games in the Western Conference playoffs en route to earning a rematch with the Bulls.

If anybody could knock Jordan off of his perch, a group that included MVP Malone (now the Jazz's part-time big man coach), Mr. Assist Stockton (now an author of an upcoming autobiography "Assisted") and Smooth-Stroking Hornacek (now the Phoenix Suns head coach) seemed up to the task.

On this date in '98 — a day before the series' June 3 tipoff — an elusive title in Utah seemed like a distinct possibility.

"A lot of people talk about winning a championship, and that's an amazing thing," Sloan said. "But the more amazing thing is to lose and then come back and try to do it again, which our guys did.

"They put everything they could in to try and have a chance to win, and that takes a tremendous amount of concentration and desire to even get to that point again."

More impressive, the gritty man who coached the Jazz from 1988-2011 believes, is that they did that while supposedly being over the hill — when Stockton was 36 years old, Hornacek was a year younger but without knees, and Malone was almost 35.

"It had been reported that we needed to get rid of Stockton and Malone because they were getting too old," Sloan recalled. "And that's when they pushed up and made it to the Finals a couple of years in a row. I don’t think they showed any signs of being too old to play whenever we got there."

A commendable achievement, no doubt.

But that still might not provide solace to fans who continue to be rankled about being on the losing end of what's considered to be the greatest NBA Finals game ever — to be commemorated for eternity thanks to Jordan's career-capping moment with that push-off-aided historical jumper with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 at the Delta Center.

Sloan might not have watched basketball's most famous shot over and over again (outside of replaying it in his mind, at least).

But Jazz fans have. A lot. A maddening amount of times.

The closest Utah has been to returning under the glaring championship spotlight was in 2007 with a new point guard-power forward combination. Six years ago, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer pushed the Jazz into the Western Conference Finals, but a 4-1 smackdown by San Antonio ended that surge.

Now in the midst of a major rebuilding effort — after missing the playoffs twice in the past three years — who knows how long it will be before Utah again soaks in a Finals atmosphere that Sloan described as "unreal."

But 15 Junes ago, they were there.

The Jazz had a chance to beat the best player who's ever stepped on the court. Basketball's biggest prize — the golden Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy — was within their reach.

A parade down State Street was only two wins away.

Blame it on fate, Jordan, conspiracy theories, pressure-packed shortcomings of Utah's stars or whatever.

It just didn't happen.

"Our players played hard," Sloan said. "I thought we got beat by a great player."

He's long since learned to live with that fact.

"Whenever you've done the best you can do and you feel like you put everything you had into it, I don't think you can ask for any more from people," Sloan said from his Utah home. "That's like asking a guy to be alive when he's dead."

Or to be Michael Jordan when you're not.

Perhaps the lyrics from one of the popular rock songs from 1998 — Green Day's "Good Riddance" — best sums up the NBA Finals nostalgia many in Utah still have in their hearts from that oh-so-frustratingly-close experience.

And, while remembering the life lessons about enjoying what you have while you have it and the importance of practicing carpe diem, please sing along.

"So take the photographs and still frames in your mind, Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time, Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial. For what it's worth, it was worth all the while. It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life."

EMAIL: jody@desnews.com