With three games to play, the chase for the last playoff spot in the West has spiraled into a race between the Jazz and the Lakers because … well, it had to. It’s written — or texted or tweeted or instagrammed — across the heavens that way. The two teams’ paths have crossed in meaningful games and playoff series often enough that some kind of showdown is almost expected. The problem with that kind of connected destiny is that the Jazz have ended up playing the role of the Washington Generals to the Lakers’ Harlem Globetrotters. More often than not, they get rolled. If this is a rivalry, it’s as out of balance as a Brooklyn Decker somersault.
And, yet, the way people here view it — not unlike fans in every Western Conference town — it is a big rivalry, second on the Utah sports landscape only to the Cougars and Utes. The Lakers and their fans may see the Jazz as a speed bump, but here, no other pro team stirs the same emotional energy as You-Know-Who. Try uttering two little words to the man on the street in Salt Lake City and sit back and watch the reaction.
Chuck in an oldie-but-goodie.
No one in sports is as disliked around here as Kobe. Some of that is rooted in the Bryant attitude, the Bryant smugness, the Bryant aura. Some fans have never gotten past the Colorado incident. Some can’t stand it when Bryant protrudes his jaw and puts on the Kobe-face. But most have a disdain for Kobe simply because he has repeatedly kicked the Jazz’s trash. The fact that he plays for the Lakers makes it darn near intolerable.
Fans in Utah have a high enough basketball I.Q. to appreciate Bryant’s brilliant skills, his stellar career, his mix of greatness, but it’s still hard for them to come to terms with it, let alone come right out and say it.
So now, they’re forced to watch what the Jazz do, then watch what Kobe and the Lakers do, back and forth and forth and back, just to see who’s going to get that last playoff spot.
The Jazz’s history is filled with ties like that.
Starting from the beginning, the teams were tangled up, in both positive and negative ways. For instance, the Jazz gave up the draft pick with which the Lakers selected Magic Johnson as compensation for signing Gail Goodrich. Larry Miller credited late Lakers owner Jerry Buss with helping him gain approval from the NBA board of governors for his purchasing the team. Without that nod from Buss, the Jazz might not even be in Utah.
Jerry Sloan had his problems with the Lakers dating back to his playing days with the Chicago Bulls, when he looked down the barrel of regular matchups with Jerry West: “Had to play against him,” Sloan once said. “Got my ass kicked.”
The playoff series between the teams in 1988 was a significant benchmark for Utah, raising the Jazz’s profile against Magic’s Showtime. John Stockton and Karl Malone, et al., pushed the favored Lakers to seven games in that series, which included everything from Frank Layden saying after an initial loss that the Jazz had no business being on the same court with L.A. to the Jazz taking a 2-1 lead to Michael Cooper hitting a game-winner in Game 5 to Malone guaranteeing a Game 6 victory, and delivering it, to the ultimate Game 7 defeat. That series left a big impression in Los Angeles. Chick Hearn from that time on was an unabashed Stockton fan, a fact that was clear in his broadcasts. Members of the press there actually predicted the Jazz would win a title the following season. The team the Lakers never wanted to face in the playoffs, due in part to the presence of Mark Eaton, was the Jazz.
The teams played twice in the playoffs in the 1990s, with the Jazz winning both times on their way to the NBA Finals, taking eight of nine games. The sweep in ’98 may have been the best basketball the Jazz have ever played. So dominant were they that, in a practice before Game 4, when the Lakers huddled up and extended their hands for the team shout, guard Nick Van Exel, instead of yelling “defense” or “Lakers,” hollered, “Cancun.” Classic.
The three times the teams met in the playoffs since have been bad news all around for the Jazz. They got tossed 4-2 in 2008, 4-1 in 2009 and 4-zip in 2010.
All told, the Lakers have won four series and 17 playoff games to the Jazz’s two series and 14 games.
Now, they’re doing their battle — without playing head-to-head — just to get to the playoffs.
When Al Jefferson first came to Utah, he was quickly indoctrinated in the rugged emotion all Jazz players and fans are supposed to have for the Lakers.
“Hate ’em,” he said back then. “At least now I do. My teammates hate ’em, I hate ’em. I have respect for them. But I’ve got to get on that page. You’ve got to beat them. So … I hate ’em. Hate ’em.”
Same as it ever was.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM, 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.