Wrapped up in the excitement of opening night, John English watched anxiously from his seat in EnergySolutions Arena as Gordon Hayward launched a half-court shot at the buzzer that could have forced overtime with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A few months later, with the Jazz in San Antonio, 20-year-old Jordan Nelson was glued to his television set in Draper while Trey Burke mounted a furious comeback — scoring 11 points in just over a minute — to give the Jazz a chance against the vaunted Spurs.
In the end, both the shot and the rally came up short, ultimately allowing English and Nelson to experience the kind of relief and triumph only a certain subset of Jazz fans will feel this year.
For some, it’s better when they lose.
“I am as upset with a win now,” says lifelong fan Tyson Smith, of Salt Lake City, “as I was with a loss a couple years ago.”
The playoffs have seemed unreachable since before the season started. And now, with a record of 16-32, the Jazz are well on their way to just the franchise’s second losing season in the last 20 years.
But with each defeat, there are plenty who rejoice.
Rooting for losses is a long ways removed from Smith’s childhood, when his father would hang a Mark Eaton poster on the wall before every game and his family would crowd around their television.
Smith “cried like a baby” when the Jazz lost for a second time to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA Finals.
But while he’s cheered for playoff teams nearly every year since, Smith, along with a number of other fans, expressed frustration over what they see as mounting “mediocrity.” Had the Jazz front office brought back Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and some other key pieces, perhaps there would be more wins to cheer about. “But not only is that team not a championship team,” Smith said, “it’s not a second-round playoff team, and then it’s like, ‘What’s really the point?’”
English, of Orem, quickly became a fan upon moving to Utah as a child. He recalls vividly Greg Gumbel’s call of the John Stockton 3-pointer that sent the Jazz to the ’97 Finals; the chills he felt when Derek Fisher arrived late and hit a clutch shot for the Jazz in the 2007 playoffs; and keeping the TV on during a one-sided game in 2010 and being rewarded by watching Sundiata Gaines hit a game-winner.
Now, the 40-year-old English compiles a weekly Tank Watch for the local sports website TaxiSquadShow.com, tracking closely who is winning when it comes to losing. The Jazz, 9-11 over their last 20 games, have done too much winning of late, climbing up the standings — and thereby falling in projected draft position — ahead of four other teams. Too many wins and some fans fear it will cost the Jazz a shot at Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid or another player who draft experts believe might help turn a franchise into a contender one day.
“You have to give yourself the most talent to win, and the best way to acquire talent is through the draft, especially for a small-market team,” says Smith, an economist by profession. “It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but at a certain point you have to play the probabilities.”
One fan likened the situation to a Stanford study of delayed gratification in which children were given the choice between one marshmallow now or two later.
“This is our marshmallow season,” he said.
Peter Morrison, of Park City, wants to wait.
“I’m tired of mediocrity,” the 27-year-old said. “But, more than that, I’m tired of rooting for a team that doesn’t have a face.”
Morrison didn’t anticipate he would be someone who might wish for the bottom to fall out for his favorite team. But sometime between the Jazz’s 1-14 start and their next 15 wins, he noticed a change as he watched on TV or followed along on his phone.
“I found myself, it seemed almost unconsciously at first, rooting to lose the close games,” he said.
It’s been something of a crisis of faith, Morrison said. “I do honestly feel like a bad fan. I kind of try to make a joke out of it. But I’m taking more of a long view.”
He has three young sons, and said he enjoys taking them to EnergySolutions Arena.
When they’re old enough to understand the game and follow along, Morrison said, he hopes they’ll be rooting for a winner.
The bottom 10
(As of Thursday night)
1. Milwaukee 9-40
2. Orlando 14-37
3. Philadelphia 15-35
4. Cleveland 16-33
5. Utah 16-32
6. Boston 17-33
7. Sacramento 17-32
8. L.A. Lakers 17-32
9. New York* 19-30
10. Detroit 19-29
*Knicks’ 2014 first-round pick belongs to Denver
Jazz at Mavericks
O At American Airlines Center
Tipoff • Friday, 6:30 p.m. MT
TV • ROOT Sports. Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM
Records • Jazz 16-32; Mavericks 29-21
About the Jazz • Lost in Dallas 103-93 in November. … Forward Derrick Favors (13.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg) is a game-time decision and has missed three straight games with a hip injury. … Rookie point guard Trey Burke hasn’t scored in double-digits in six of his last seven games.
About the Mavericks • Have won four of their last five games. … Dirk Nowitzki leads the team in scoring at 22 points a game. … Average nearly 28 free throw attempts per game over their last nine contests.