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Looking back: How John Stockton sent the Utah Jazz to first NBA Finals... and this sports writer to a barstool in Chicago

The 1997 championship opened with Game 1 in Chicago.

Utah Jazz’s John Stockton (12) leaps in the air after sinking a 3-point shot a the buzzer to beat the Houston Rockets 103-100 Thursday, May 29, 1997, in Houston. The Rockets’ Charles Barkley walks off the court at left. The Jazz advance to the NBA Finals to play the Chicago Bulls.
Associated Press

Editor’s note: This is the third article in an occasional series reminiscing about games not to be forgotten.

SALT LAKE CITY — My first trip to Chicago was a bit of a whirlwind. It was May 29, 1997 — a day Utah Jazz fans remember well. That was the night John Stockton sent the Utah Jazz to its first NBA Finals with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. It gave the Jazz a 103-100 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 6 and set up a winner-takes-all series with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

I wasn’t in Houston that night. I caught the end of the game sitting on a barstool far from home. No, I wasn’t a raging alcoholic or even someone that enjoyed a little taste of the bubbly. Instead, I was just a sports writer — more specifically the Deseret News prep editor — who woke up that morning in Davis County and unexpectedly wound up in Chicago at historic Miller’s Pub on Wabash Avenue by the time Stockton hit the most famous shot in Jazz history.

Utah Jazz’s John Stockton is lifted on the shoulders of his teammates after sinking a three-point shot at the buzzer to beat the Houston Rockets 103-100 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals Thursday, May 29, 1997, in Houston. The Jazz will advance to play the Chicago Bulls in The NBA Finals.
Associated Press

How it all happened was a bit of a blur — it still is nearly 23 years later. However, any fuzzy details should be attributed to the soda the kind bartender gave me as I watched the end of the game. As I caught the last few minutes, I took some good-natured ribbing for my choice of beverage, especially when folks learned I was from Utah.

Stockton’s game-winner capped a furious comeback by the Jazz, who rallied from 13 points down with less than seven minutes remaining. It left me scrambling to gather some reaction from folks in the Windy City about a Utah-Chicago matchup before running back to the hotel to write a story about it.

That’s how the day ended. How it transpired was just as memorable. I went to the Deseret News offices in downtown Salt Lake City and was working on some high school sports projects when my boss, John Robinson, returned from a meeting and informed me the paper was sending me to Chicago — almost immediately. Shortly thereafter I was handed a plane ticket and sent home to pack my bags.

After working out the logistics with my schoolteacher wife, who would be caring for our two young children without my assistance for several days, I was on my way to Illinois. It was getting dark by the time I picked up a rental car and headed for the belly of the beast.

I had no idea where I was going. I just headed for the skyscrapers. I accidentally found the designated media hotel for the NBA Finals, the Palmer House Hilton. I explained the situation and luckily there was a room available. I quickly dropped off my bags and hit the streets in search of a place to watch the Jazz and Rockets play on TV. Miller’s Pub was nearby and extremely accommodating.

After netting some fan reaction to a Jazz-Bulls series, I filed my story.

“It’s somebody different and it should be a great series,” said bartender Kevin Mongoven of suburban Park Ridge. “The Bulls will take it in six just because of their experience. They will have to be on their toes, however, because the Jazz are tough.”

The next morning I had another white-knuckle drive (because of heavy traffic) on the expressways around Chicago. I headed up the road to the Berto Center in suburban Deerfield. That’s where the Bulls practiced. While waiting in the building’s lobby for media availability to begin, I recall listening to the Chicago press corps complaining about going to Utah for games. Houston, go figure, was their preferred destination.

When Chicago coach Phil Jackson spoke with the media that day, he emphasized the need to keep Stockton in check.

“He may not score (a lot), but he’s going to run their offense,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to get the ball out of his hands. Stockton is the one you have to defend. (Karl) Malone is the beneficiary.”

The Jazz arrived in town later in the day and spoke with the press at a hotel ballroom downtown. Jerry Sloan, a former Bulls great, was a man in demand.

“I had a great time in Chicago. It’s a great place to play basketball,” Sloan said. “It’s nice to come back where I played, but the most important thing is that (the Jazz) are still playing.”

The series was on.

Game 1 took place at the United Center the next day, May 31, 1997, to be exact. It went down to the wire. Jordan hit a shot as time expired to give Chicago an 84-82 victory over Utah. Malone had a chance to put the Jazz ahead with 9.2 seconds remaining but missed two free throws, setting the stage for Jordan’s heroics.

Turns out, Malone had reinjured a floor burn at the base of his right thumb on a dunk earlier in the game. However, he declined its significance.

“When I suit up I’m ready to play and I don’t have any excuses at all,” he said. “You play through a lot of things. Besides that it’s the NBA Finals. What am I supposed to do about it?”

The Bulls, in case folks forgot, wound up winning the series in six games. They needed a similar amount of contests to prevail again in 1998. I was fortunate enough to cover all 12 meetings. Obviously, there were plenty of special memories along the way. However, the first game is tough to top — for me personally — because of the circumstances involved.