Monson: Disappointment wrapped in dignity — the Jazz’s 1996-97 season is worth celebrating

First Published      Last Updated Jun 19 2017 05:19 pm

John Stockton walked off the court that last night in Chicago, sweat rolling down his face, his body spent, his work put in, the bitterness of elimination circling him like invisible vultures hungry to pick away the remains. But he would not allow it.

He and his teammates suffered defeat in their final game of the 1996-97 postseason, falling in Game 6 to the Bulls, but the lasting image of a basketball warrior leaving the floor of competition, fans at the United Center cheering wildly, straight into the view of a proud man carrying so much disappointment, yet with his head up, never completely has faded.

The Jazz that year had a championship torn from their grasp by Michael Jordan, a fate that was repeated the following season, but two decades of reflection have softened that so-called failure, instead turning it into proper accomplishment, surrounded by appreciation for how good that team really was.

"It was a great team," Bryon Russell said Monday. "It was a great season."

That team and season will be celebrated 20 years later Wednesday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena at the Jazz game with the New York Knicks, coached by Jeff Hornacek. An assemblage of players and coaches from that team, reunited for the night, will be honored.

The subsequent seasons have underscored how difficult it is to do what that particular Jazz team did. And the first of the franchise's twin-peak Finals years is memorable for a whole lot of reasons beyond the 64 regular-season wins, most of them positive. I covered that team closely and remember so many bounces of the ball, including the ones that ricocheted off the foot and out of bounds, all of which spice the mix enough to make it even more legendary.

For instance, that was the season Derek Harper, who would have been shipped from Dallas to the Jazz minutes before the trade deadline had he not blocked the move, uttered the infamous words: "You go live in Utah. I don't want to."

It also was a season during which the Jazz dominated the third quarter of games, badly outscoring opponents in 37 of them over one 50-game stretch. Jerry Sloan marveled at that phenomenon. "There's not much I can say as to why it's happening," he said. "It's not my halftime speeches, I know that."

Sloan knew he had one of the two fastest race cars on the track that season, and he expected players to show up, do their jobs, be professionals. But he was fairly animated, often screaming at officials for their shortcomings. He actually uttered the following phrase in March of that year: "I was madder than a polecat with his tail caught in a John Deere baler."

On a Friday night in mid-April, the Jazz offered up a bit of evidence that revealed that this team was different from earlier teams. The Jazz had been eliminated by Houston in two of the previous three postseasons. But on this night, they crushed the Rockets, who were battling for playoff position, by 21 points. Hold that thought.

A survey among NBA players that year indicated that of all the home-court advantages around the league, Utah's was No. 1.

The Jazz finished that season by winning 24 of their last 26. They had the second-best offense in the league and the eighth-best defense, with an average nine-point margin of victory. And still, they had the demeanor of a road crew coming off a lunch break, getting no credit from Sloan, and accepting none. They just moved forward to the battle they knew eventually would come.

They swept the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, an opponent that L.A. guard Brent Barry described this way: "We're kind of like the Bad News Bears. A bunch of guys who just happened to end up wearing the same uniform who don't know how they came together."

In the second round, the Jazz beat Los Angeles' varsity team — You-Know-Who — with Shaq and a young fellow by the name of Kobe in five games. After a Game 1 win where Greg Ostertag limited O'Neal, the goofy center with the funny name, which sounded like … what, a Swedish bowling ball manufacturer? … a kitchen appliance? … a German holiday? … a Prussian hound dog? … looked around at the crowd of reporters surrounding his locker and said: "Where y'all been?"

At the first game of the Western Conference finals against Houston, Karl Malone was awarded by David Stern the league's MVP trophy over Jordan, which seemed like a good thing at the time. Malone averaged 27.4 points, shot 55 percent, had 4.6 assists and hauled in 10 rebounds.

The strongest memory comes from Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in Houston when, after trailing nearly throughout, the Jazz were brought back by Stockton, who took over offensively in the final minutes and famously hit the game-winner at the end from just to the left of the top of the 3-point arc. The Summit was loaded with Rockets fans, and when Stockton hit that shot, the place went absolutely silent, except for the voices of Jazz players and coaches jumping up and down on the court, looking like kernels of JiffyPop on a hot burner. Those sounds of victory echoed through the building.

Said Stockton, afterward: "I don't know how to explain the feeling I have. It's tremendous. I want to savor it … enjoy it."

At that exact moment, 1,500 miles to the northwest, Larry Miller was sitting in his car with his wife, Gail, and 8-year-old grandson, Zane, parked outside the old Cowboy Grub restaurant, listening on the radio. When Stockton's shot swished, Miller said:

» Next page... Single page