The University of Utah basketball players returned to the campus from the Final Four in San Antonio and 4,000 fans greeted them during a rally as Gov. Mike Leavitt declared the Utes “America’s Team.” The next day, thousands of admirers lined a parade route in downtown Salt Lake City.
Imagine what would have happened if the Utes actually won the championship game.
That team was endearing enough to merit major festivities, even in defeat — a tough loss to Kentucky, after Utah (30-4) led for most of the game. Twenty years later, with no men’s college team in the state having advanced past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament since then, the 1998 Utes’ achievement of coming in second looks better all the time.
That’s why the 20th anniversary of that season was worth celebrating Saturday, while the campus and the community mourned the loss of Ute basketball booster Jon Huntsman Sr., whose life story extends far beyond that description.
The accompanying question is when any team from the state will play in another Final Four. History shows the Utes do it every 25 or 30 years, projecting another breakthrough sometime in the next decade. The reality is it takes a remarkable collection of players, uncommon bonding and some breaks.
“We were so good primarily because we all cared about each other,” said Michael Doleac, a center who led the ’98 team in scoring and rebounding, then played 10 years in the NBA and is now Park City High School’s coach.
Could it happen again? Yes, in the sense that the ’98 Utes won five tournament games as a No. 3 seed and two lower-seeded Utah teams have reached the Sweet 16. But it’s not easy, considering two top-three Utah teams were knocked out in the round of 32 since then, including the 2016 team with Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. In BYU’s case, the 2011 Cougars needed college player of the year Jimmer Fredette and current NBA player Kyle Collinsworth just to reach the school’s first Sweet 16 in 30 years, before losing to Florida in overtime.
This stuff requires talent, and more. The ’98 Utes may have been upset by No. 10 seed West Virginia in the Sweet 16, if not for Doleac’s making 13 of 14 free throws and scoring 25 points.
As with any achievement short of a championship, there will always be some degree of regret. The ’98 Utes will be remembered for the thrill associated with how far they got, mixed with the bitter feeling of how close they came to winning it all — leading Kentucky by 10 points at halftime and staying ahead until the last five minutes of a 78-69 loss.
The late Rick Majerus said several years afterward that he could recite the last 6½ minutes of that game, possession by possession. Donny Daniels, who assisted Majerus, once reflected, “We’re right there, and then it gets away from us. There’s a lot of what-ifs and stuff like that. It does beat you up.”
Daniels’ mixture of accomplishment and frustration continues. He made three Final Four visits as a UCLA assistant and reached another title game with Gonzaga last April, only to lose again. He’ll never forget that first Final Four trip with the ’98 Utes, who were not the school’s most talented team in modern history. That distinction belongs to the previous year’s team, featuring Keith Van Horn as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Even so, they were well stocked. Doleac became the No. 12 pick in ’98, point guard Andre Miller went No. 8 in ‘99 and forward Hanno Mottola was taken at No. 40 in 2000. They were complemented by forward Alex Jensen and guard Drew Hansen as starters, with Britton Johnsen, Trace Caton, David Jackson and Jordie McTavish coming off the bench in the title game. The Utes wore down in the end of a remarkable run.
UTAH’s 1998 NCAA TOURNAMENT RUN
First and second rounds
Utah 85, SanFrancisco 68.
Utah 75, Arkansas 69.
Utah 65, West Virginia 62.
Utah 76, Arizona 51.
Utah 65, North Carolina 59.
Kentucky 78, Utah 69.
The game everyone remembers along the way was a stunning, 76-51 defeat of Arizona behind Miller’s 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists against future NBA guards Mike Bibby and Jason Terry in the Elite Eight at Anaheim, Calif. There could be no overstating what making the Final Four meant to the Ute athletic program, coming 32 years after the school’s most recent appearance and before there was any suggestion that Utah’s football team could win major bowl games.
The Arizona game was Majerus’ greatest moment. His triangle-and-two defensive scheme, taking away Wildcat stars Miles Simon and Terry, was masterful.
The Utes then beat North Carolina 65-59 in the semifinals, giving themselves a title shot that got away. Even so, it was an unforgettable sequence of events, during the glory years of basketball in Utah. Salt Lake City joined Los Angeles (UCLA/Lakers), New York (St. John’s/Knicks) and Milwaukee (Marquette/Bucks) as the only cities to produce NCAA and NBA finalists in the same season.
The difference between the ’98 Utes and the ‘98 Jazz? A parade vs. no parade. The Jazz’s loss to Chicago in the NBA Finals felt much different, because they expected to win the title, after having lost to the Bulls the previous year.
The Jazz staged a 20-year observance last season, because the ’97 team’s achievement was a novelty. Not so for their ’98 team.
In the Utes’ case, everything that has transpired in the last 20 years makes what they did in ’98 seem even bigger and better – never mind that they really wanted to do more.