In a downtown hotel ballroom in July, the Jazz introduced veteran forward Thabo Sefolosha, who posed for photos with his new team’s jersey: No. 22.
Losing star player Gordon Hayward to Boston in free agency made the summer rough enough for the Jazz. And now they were replacing him with a player who would wear a number that throughout the franchise’s Utah era has been associated with major injuries, suspension, crime, substance abuse and an 18-game losing streak. Some players have worn the number with a degree of success at times, but nobody’s Jazz tenure ever truly has ended well in No. 22.
Yeah. Good luck with that, Thabo.
Five months later, the Jazz have some issues. They’re starting games poorly, they have a losing record and they’re in the middle of a daunting December schedule that likely will drop them below the Western Conference playoff cut. The only surprise? None of this really is the fault of Sefolosha, or his number.
As the longtime co-curator (with the late Bill Kreifeldt, a former team publicist) of the Jazz’s Curse of No. 22, I’m cautiously close to declaring Sefolosha the hex-breaker. Known as a top-tier defender, he has been dependable at both ends of the court, averaging 8.0 points and serving as a leader and confidant of younger players including Donovan Mitchell and Alec Burks. “I’m really pleased with what he’s given our team,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “You’ll see him, maybe more than anyone, talking to our guys.”
The only remaining criteria in my official evaluation are Sefolosha must remain healthy and the Jazz have to make the playoffs. If those things happen, he will have overcome the litany of mistakes and ill fortune that plagued each of the previous 15 players who wore the number during the Jazz’s first 38 seasons in Utah. Ex-Utah State star Nate Williams played well in No. 22 in New Orleans, but everything changed when the team moved to Salt Lake City. A sampling:
Bernard King, charged with felony sexual assault and suspended for the last three months of the Jazz’s first season in town, having scored only 176 of his eventual 19,655 career points in the NBA.
Carl Nicks, the starting point guard of a team that lost 18 games in a row.
John Drew, triumphantly returning from rehabilitation one year, then relapsing the next season and being waived.
Carey Scurry, released in the middle of his third season, due to off-court issues.
Curtis Borchardt, injuring his knee and appearing in only 16 games in his first two seasons as a first-round draft choice.
Henry James, Dave Jamerson, Brooks Thompson, Malcolm Thomas and Jerelle Benimon. Never heard of them? That’s my point.
Morris Almond became a minor-league star, but appeared in only 34 games in two seasons for the Jazz as a first-round pick.
My favorite story associated with No. 22 is how Louis Amundson eagerly told me about remembering scoring his first two NBA points for the Jazz — except that never happened. And then there’s John Crotty, who originally wore No. 25 for the Jazz. After wearing No. 22 in Detroit, he kept that number when he returned to Utah and promptly injured his knee. He later switched back to No. 25 and enjoyed the best year of his career.
The Jazz’s No. 22 often has been assigned to players working on 10-day contracts, most recently J.J. O’Brien. So it was available to Sefolosha, who signed as a free agent after wearing Nos. 2 and 25 in 11 seasons with Chicago, Oklahoma City and Atlanta.
So when Jazz equipment manager Adam Klauke called to ask his number preference and said Nos. 2 (Joe Ingles) and 25 (Raul Neto) were taken, Sefolosha chose the closest thing: No. 22.
Informed recently of the number’s cursed history in Utah, Sefolosha said, “Nobody told me.” And then he smiled and promised to “change the luck.”
That might be happening. In the absence of injured forward Joe Johnson, Sefolosha has filled a consistent role. “He’s been terrific,” Snyder said. “I think he’s found a rhythm. … Defensively, he’s unique, just his understanding of how to guard.”
Snyder jokes that he wonders what Sefolosha is saying to teammates when he pulls them aside, but he must be a positive influence. Burks, especially, has become a better defender by listening to him.
Good things are developing with the Jazz’s latest No. 22, a son of a Swiss mother and a South African father, who says he’s not superstitious. Even so, having lost three straight games, the Jazz (13-14) need some better luck. If they don’t win Wednesday at Chicago, they may be stuck on 13 for a while.