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Kragthorpe: Jazz’s 20-year reunion brings NBA Finals season to life

First Published      Last Updated Apr 24 2017 09:51 pm


Players who made the NBA Finals 20 years ago recall Stockton’s famous shot — and more.

John Stockton faked inside, then popped back and caught Bryon Russell's pass. The Utah Jazz legend dribbled once and launched an unforgettable shot.

Wouldn't you know, he made it again.

So maybe the screen came from an imaginary Karl Malone, freeing Stockton from an invisible defender. What matters is Stockton's re-enactment succeeded on the first take Wednesday morning at the Jazz's practice facility. His attempt to replay the ensuing celebration may have failed to capture the pure emotion of 20 years ago, but everything else about the Jazz's reunion of the franchise's first NBA Finals team was authentic and heartfelt.




Stockton's buzzer-beating shot in Houston in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals remains one of the greatest plays in Utah sports history. Nothing ever has united Utahns quite like that moment, when the Jazz elevated an entire state.

"Everybody," said Jazz owner Gail Miller, "remembers where they were that night."

Ask anybody, and the memories flow readily. One father was kicked out of his house during the game, because his yelling awakened his newborn twins. Another Jazz follower jumped and cut his hand on a ceiling fan. A missionary in Poland learned the outcome by watching a replay two days later through an electronics shop window. A Little League baseball umpire ran a radio earpiece underneath his chest protector, behind home plate.

Miller has her own story of listening to the radio broadcast in a restaurant parking lot after watching the telecast became too agonizing with the Jazz trailing by 13 points in the fourth quarter. As her late husband, Larry H. Miller, detailed in "Driven," his autobiography, "When Stockton hit that shot, we shouted like little kids. I mean, we hollered and screamed. I was surprised by my emotions. I guess it was all those years of suppressing my feelings and working hard to create a championship-caliber team. … Suddenly, everything was released with that single shot."

And it all came back for Utahns this week, with a reunion of nine players at Vivint Smart Home Arena timed for Wednesday's visit of Jeff Hornacek, now the New York Knicks' coach, and Howard Eisley, one of his assistants. Malone, the '97 league MVP, was the most notable absentee. In a video message, Malone told fans he "owed it to you guys" to play at a high level every night.

Stockton thanked the crowd for its role in "one of the greatest times of our lives."

Coach Jerry Sloan, who was introduced to big cheers, revealed his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease nearly one year ago. Appearing at a pregame news conference, Sloan eagerly responded to questions, once asking Stockton to finish his answer as his mind wandered. Stockton, always ready to deliver an assist, chimed in helpfully.

Sloan had lingered after a team dinner for about 90 minutes Tuesday, though, as everyone rehashed old stories. "Jerry remembers all of 'em," Hornacek said.

Describing his winning shot, Stockton marveled about how the court opened for him as he dribbled closer to the 3-point line and sized up the shot. His reminder to himself: "Follow through."

The Jazz couldn't complete their playoff run by beating Chicago in the NBA Finals, and they lost to the Bulls again in the 1998 NBA Fnals. Even so, coming close to a championship remains worthy of a celebration, amid all of the memories this reunion evoked — for fans, as much as for the players and coaches themselves.

Brett Jewkes, a former Utahn who has been a NASCAR executive and now is in senior management of the Atlanta Falcons' ownership group, almost experienced a Super Bowl victory in February. Game 6 in Houston remains indelible to him. Jewkes remembers calling his father and brother that night and "screaming into the phone," he said. "No moment in sports will ever top that for me."

In 2007, the Jazz shocked Houston on the road in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series, thanks to clutch shots from Mehmet Okur and others. Another 10 years later, the Jazz may be paired with the Rockets again in April.

If that happens, they'll do well to reprise Stockton's shot. Approaching his 55th birthday, he again showed how it's done.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

 

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