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Monson: 2017 was mostly a bummer for sports in Utah, but the year was not without some significant highlights

Gordon Hayward’s departure to Boston was a huge blow, overshadowing almost everything else that happened<br>

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward's departure for Boston in free agency this past summer signaled rock-bottom for a sports year in Utah that had too many lowlights. But there was a glimmer of hope, arriving in the form of rookie guard Donovan Mitchell.

It was Phyllis Diller who once said she was so ugly as a kid that her mother had to tie a pork chop around her neck to get the dog to play with her.

As sports years in Utah go, 2017 needed that slab of meat.

It had its peaks, such as they were, and its nadirs, more of the latter than the former.

The Jazz helped build an All-Star, then lost him, then probably drafted one in embryonic form; BYU football was terrible and fired a school legend; Utah football was OK in a limited sort of way; BYU and Utah basketball didn’t do much; the NCAA Tournament returned to Salt Lake City; RSL failed to make the playoffs; a new women’s professional soccer team was founded; a BYU basketball player was investigated by the NCAA and left school; and an old arena was made new again.

The best of 2017 came when the lights stayed on in Vivint Arena in April and early May as the Jazz returned to the NBA playoffs for the first time in a fistful of seasons. They didn’t just qualify for the postseason by winning 51 games, they beat the Clippers in the first round.

That was a beautiful thing, although the road to victory was bumpy. Rudy Gobert injured his knee all of 11 seconds into Game 1, and when that happened, despite a win in that first game, it looked as though the Jazz would have to be content just to have made the playoffs.

They instead fought back and took the series, a series that featured highlights that included Gordon Hayward scoring more points in a single quarter — 21 — than any Jazz player ever had, the return of Gobert in Game 4, only to have Hayward suffer from food poisoning, causing him to miss most of that game, a scrum that broke out between Hayward and Chris Paul in Game 5, a Jazz loss at home in the sixth game, then their signature win in Game 7 in L.A.

Thereafter, the Jazz were eliminated, just like every other foe, by Golden State. But Kevin Durant did compliment the Jazz by saying they played the Warriors tougher than any other postseason opponent.

Hayward was named an All-Star, Rudy Gobert narrowly missed out on being the NBA’s defensive player of the year and Quin Snyder emerged as a great coach.

It was all a building block for the future — until it wasn’t when Hayward blew off the Jazz in favor of the Boston Celtics. In a story that garnered more attention than any other in 2017, the free agency of Hayward dominated the summer, and collapsed on July 4, when the seven-year pro announced — or didn’t announce, but then did — he was leaving in a dragged-out fiasco dubbed “The Indecision.”

Jazz fans had poured out their love to Hayward in the forms of posted billboards, standing ovations, messages on social media, attempting to sway him to stay.

It did no good.

The Jazz had built around Hayward for so long and then … when he left, the team was forced to manage what remained. They acquired guys like Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. But most significantly, they moved up in the draft to take a kid out of Louisville with the 13th pick: Donovan Mitchell.

After a stellar Mitchell workout before the draft, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey threatened every staff member who had witnessed the workout that he would fire anyone who opened his big mouth about the remarkable, promising showing that had transpired. Nobody did, and the Jazz got their burgeoning star.

Injuries continued to plague the Jazz, what with Dante Exum suffering another major blow, missing the season, and Gobert being sidelined for much of the early going. At this point, if locusts or frogs or plagues showed up, no one around the club would be shocked. Still, the Jazz battled on.

And they did so in the newly freshened confines of a building that has transformed from the Delta Center to EnergySolutions Arena to Vivint Smart Home Arena, which underwent a vast renovation over the summer. In so many respects, the place looks different and … new.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jazz unveil renovations for the arena, starting with the J-Note statue and then offering self-guided tours of the venue on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. The arena features new seats, new concourse areas, new anchor restaurants and open spaces for more social experiences at Jazz games and events.

The Jazz also celebrated the 20th anniversary of their first trip to the NBA Finals, a celebration that brought back memories of the team’s most successful run. As a part of that reminiscence, people toasted John Stockton and Karl Malone, and former Jazz center Greg Ostertag, in a burst of honesty, publicly confessed that he had regrets about the way he prepared himself as a player and that he might have contributed more, and if he had contributed more … well, who knows what might have been?

One thing that in fact will be is the Utah Jazz themselves. That was made certain when owner Gail Miller announced that the team had been put in a rare trust, ensuring its stay in Utah for generations to come. It darn near killed any unborn thought by any future member of the family that the team would be sold.

Given the escalating values of NBA teams, that move may have been the most important of anything that happened in Utah sports this year. In an environment of greed in professional sports, that move stood out. A tip of the cap to the Millers for their gift to the community.

As for college football in the state … does anyone outside of Weber State and Southern Utah really want to go there?

BYU football suffered its worst season in about half a century with an offense that either pulled the shades over everything LaVell Edwards did or made people appreciate even more what he did. The Cougars were without dispute one of the most anemic attacks in all of college ball. They suffered injuries and player losses for other reasons, but to play under the banner and brand of a program that was raised and built on the forward pass and to crumble in such a dramatic fashion was … unexpected.

Emblematic of that fall was the fate and firing of the man who orchestrated the offense: Ty Detmer.

Even a Heisman Trophy-winner couldn’t survive an offense that flat could not move the ball. Couldn’t run it, couldn’t pass it and nobody could figure out any other way to attempt to advance it.

Now it’s Jeff Grimes’ turn.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes speaks during a press conference at LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday, December 16, 2017.

Like a melon sliced in half and plopped back together, Utah football was half-good and half-bad, which made it … mediocre. The Utes went 6-6 in the regular season and finished with a Pac-12 record of 3-6. A bowl win over West Virginia gave Utah a seventh victory, but those league shortcomings were difficult to dismiss or defend. The Utes dropped games to Stanford, USC, Arizona State, Oregon, Washington State and Washington.

They did beat all the teams they played in out-of-conference games.

And Matt Gay, a walk-on, continued the Utes’ fine special-teams tradition, winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top placekicker.

Utah State bounced back — a slow, low bounce — after a three-win 2016 to finish at 6-7. It was nothing to shout about, but it did manage to keep coach Matt Wells employed at the school.

Weber and SUU were the two biggest winners, both qualifying for the FCS playoff, with WSU winning two postseason games before being eliminated by defending FCS national champion James Madison. The Wildcats finished 11-3, including a win over SUU in the playoff’s second round.

None of the major instate schools did much in basketball, although BYU did manage to beat the No. 1-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs at the end of the regular season. And another distinction: Cougar player Nick Emery was investigated for receiving improper benefits from a BYU booster, an investigation the results of which have yet to be announced.

Former Ute and NBA rookie Kyle Kuzma, a late first-round draft pick of the L.A. Lakers, is tearing it up at the turn of the year, and former Cougar Jimmer Fredette is doing all kinds of damage in the Chinese League, where he has found a hoops home.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, right, drives against Sacramento Kings forward Skal Labissiere during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The NCAA Tournament came to Salt Lake City in March, where first- and second-round games were played. Gonzaga, South Dakota State, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Saint Mary’s, VCU, Arizona and North Dakota rolled in, and Gonzaga rolled out on its way to a Finals appearance. It was cool to see the big-name programs and the small-school teams face off at the Viv. Good stuff all around.

In a year of transition, Real Salt Lake battled for an MLS playoff spot and failed.

RSL did gain, though, a partner team — a top-level women’s pro outfit known as the Utah Royals. Whether soccer fans here will pay to watch that team play will be interesting to watch. Club owner Dell Loy Hansen was optimistic, saying: “We have more soccer participation among young women than men [in Utah]. … To me, this will be their rallying point. Among women, this will be their epicenter.”

Brain trauma in sports, especially in football, remained a topic of discussion around here in 2017, with some parents growing more and more concerned about having their kids participate at junior levels.

And speaking of trauma to the brain, in March some genius connected to a local indoor football team known as the Screaming Eagles decided it would be a good idea to put to fans a vote on whether the club should sign former NFL defender Greg Hardy. The problem was that Hardy essentially had been run out of the NFL for his involvement in a horrific domestic violence case in which he allegedly choked and beat his ex-girlfriend.

The announced vote-to-come gained national attention and, after further review, not the kind the club wanted. The fans, and probably a suddenly enlightened executive in the team’s front office, voted the idea down.

It was that kind of year.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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