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The Utah Jazz finally make it to the NBA conference finals, only to find heartbreak — the first of many

(Jeff Robbins | AP file photo) Utah Jazz Karl Malone takes the ball away from Portland Trail Blazers Buck Williams during their Western Conference Finals game, Friday, May 23, 1992, Salt Lake City, Utah. Malone scored 39 points as the Jazz beat the Blazers 97-89 and now trail the Blazers in the best-of-seven series 2-1.

Editor’s note: If not for the coronavirus outbreak, the NBA regular season would be over, and the Utah Jazz would likely be in the playoffs right now. In the spirit of postseason fervor, The Salt Lake Tribune is doing a multi-part series on the most impactful playoff runs in Jazz history. Part 1 — 1983-84: The Jazz save professional basketball in Utah. Part 2 — 1987-88: Trading haymakers with the champs. Part 3 — 1991-92: A huge step forward, but still coming up short.

After the Utah Jazz surprisingly extended the world champion Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game in the 1988 Western Conference semifinals, that performance was viewed as a potential springboard to NBA title contention for an up-and-coming organization.

Except that, in the following years, it didn’t happen.

In ’89, the Jazz won 51 games, but were swept out in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. In ’90, they rocketed to 55 regular-season victories … and fell in the opening round to the Suns. In ’91, they won 54 more games, and dispatched Phoenix in the first round, only for the Blazers to send them packing in five in the second.

In other words, in failing to ever make it beyond the conference semifinals, the franchise also had not yet made that proverbial leap from good to great. And so it was that, as they entered the 1991-92 campaign, some people were starting to wonder if that group ever would.

“Because they had bombed out a little bit there for a few years, I think there was some pressure on them,” said Steve Luhm, The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jazz beat reporter for 16 seasons. “… There was a sense that the Jazz, they’re a good regular-season team but they’re not built to win in the playoffs. And that was fair, given the regular-season records and how they had kind of disappointed a couple of years in the playoffs, especially as a higher seed. So I think there was kind of a put-up-or-shut-up sense of the Jazz.”

The team certainly had gone through its share of changes in recent years trying to navigate an increasingly competitive league.

Coach Frank Layden resigned in December 1988, handing the reins to assistant Jerry Sloan. And while Karl Malone and John Stockton remained the focal points of the roster, subsequent seasons saw substantive turnover in the supporting cast, with longtime staples including Darrell Griffith and Bobby Hansen supplanted by new blood such as Jeff Malone, Blue Edwards and David Benoit.

Progress rained down yet another concussive haymaker upon convention when, after just 13 games of the ’91-92 season, stalwart forward Thurl Bailey — who’d helped change the culture of the franchise upon his arrival in 1983 — was shipped off to recent expansion organization Minnesota in exchange for Tyrone Corbin. For Bailey, it was a harsh and sobering lesson.

“Well, that was kind of the worst day of my professional life, mainly because I didn’t really understand the business side of basketball,” he said. “… When that happens to a player, and it’s not really expected, and you’ve been there quite a while, and you’ve been an impact player, then all kinds of things go through your mind: ‘What did I do? Why this? Why that?’ But what you don’t understand is, all teams do it. They’re trying to get in a better position. … I knew they were gonna take that next step with Tyrone Corbin taking my spot. And you saw it happen. So all in all, it was a good decision for them.”

For Corbin, it was a pleasant and welcome surprise.

“To have an opportunity to come to a team in Utah with Karl and John, and Jerry Sloan as the head coach, man, it was a tremendous honor for me,” Corbin said. “Having a chance to get into the playoffs and maybe having the chance to win it was really intriguing.”

And for the Jazz, it was another catalyst in attempting to get beyond their plateau.

“They added the right pieces through free agency, they drafted well, and they methodically built a franchise that was certainly worthy of competing for NBA championships,” Edwards said. “… The focus was getting younger, more athletic, to help us make that push to get into the Finals.”

“We just had added some more pieces, felt more comfortable. You get a certain feeling when you’re in training camp, and that training camp just felt different,” added reserve big man Mike Brown. “Guys were in great shape, healthy, it was just different. And we was rolling. … We had a good vibe. We was ready to go.”

Utah wrapped up the regular season with seven consecutive victories en route to a 55-27 record, a Midwest Division title, and the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference. Still, they’d been here before. As they prepared to take on the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, though, the question very much remained: Could these Jazz go somewhere they hadn’t been before?

‘We’re watching the city burn down’

On April 24, 1992, the Jazz opened their postseason run at the Delta Center, where Karl Malone poured in 32 points, Jeff Malone added 29 and Utah rolled to a 115-97 victory. Two nights later, they took care of business again, winning 103-92 to move within one victory of sweeping the best-of-five series. In Game 3 at the L.A. Sports Arena, however, the Jazz managed only 88 points in a 10-point loss, and just like that, the pressure was back on.

Of course, “pressure” is relative. And a day later, the true smallness of a loss in a basketball game would be put into perspective. On the afternoon of April 29, Luhm and other reporters were gathered in the lobby of the team hotel, where Sloan and several players were scheduled to conduct an off-day media availability.

“It’s about five minutes, 10 minutes away from starting, and all of these camera crews from L.A., these guys start tearing down their cameras and leaving,” Luhm recalled. “And I’m kind of going, ‘What’s going on?’ I ask one of those guys, and he said, ‘The Rodney King verdict came in.’”

In March of ’91, King had led LAPD officers on a high-speed car chase. When he finally stopped and exited his vehicle, he was savagely beaten by four officers for about 15 minutes — an assault that resulted in skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage. The incident was captured on video by a bystander, and after the footage went public, the four officers were charged with excessive use of force.

But around 3 p.m. PT on April 29, 1992, a jury from suburban Ventura County acquitted them all.

South Central Los Angeles was already a tinder box of sorts, owing to years of racial profiling and harassment from police, high unemployment, rampant gang activity and violent crime, and a drug epidemic sweeping the area. The “not guilty” verdicts became the spark that would set off all the pent-up fury.

A friend had taken Edwards out for a meal at the famed Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, an L.A.-based soul food institution. From his window seat, it quickly became apparent to Edwards that something was amiss.

“All of a sudden we just saw hordes of people, cars zooming by. And we were like, ‘Man, something is going on.’ … Then they turn on the TV and just show pockets where people were starting to congregate, and the protesting, the violence and all that chaos was starting to happen,” Edwards said. “So it was very scary. You didn’t know what was going to happen. And at that time, I was just thinking, ‘Just let me get back to my hotel.’”

The violent reaction of residents saw businesses looted, buildings set ablaze, passers-by in the wrong place at the wrong time pulled from their vehicles and beaten. Police were not immediately dispatched. Around 9 p.m. that night, a state of emergency was declared and some 2,000 National Guard troops were deployed to the city.

(Reed Saxon | AP file photo) In this Wednesday, April 30, 1992 file photo, several buildings in a shopping center are engulfed in flames before firefighters arrive as rioting continued in South-Central Los Angeles in the aftermath of the verdicts in the Rodney King assault case.

The next day, April 30, with no decisions yet made about postponing games, the Jazz opted to proceed with a scheduled practice at Inglewood High.

“It was really one of the weirdest experiences in my life. Scary, actually,” Corbin said. “We had these police escorts going to the high school where we practiced, helicopters flying overhead, armed guards outside the the gym. We didn't know what was going to happen.”

The traveling media contingent, trying to maintain their coverage of the team, were nervously waiting outside for practice to end, as destruction spread around them.

“We were just sitting on the steps at Inglewood High outside the gym, and we can smell the smoke and we can hear the fire engines going up and down Manchester, which is the main street where Inglewood High is, and we’re all kind of looking at each other,” Luhm said. “And the door opens and the security guard says, ‘Coach says you guys should come into the gym,’ which was really nice. And we go in, and the security guard puts a chain around the door and locks it.”

Conversations about logistics and practicality started to happen, as it became apparent that Game 4 would not be taking place in Los Angeles as scheduled. The league suggested moving the game to Las Vegas. The Jazz floated the idea of playing it in Salt Lake but giving the game revenue to the Clippers. The Clippers, naturally, wanted to keep it in California to maintain some semblance of home-court advantage.

In the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait as the riots raged on.

“We’re watching the city burn down, can smell it,” Luhm said. “They put a curfew in effect. And we’re at this Marriott in Marina del Rey, and it’s 6 o’clock — this is a thriving, active, busy area, and at 6 o’clock, there’s nobody in the parking lot, there’s nobody on the road. It’s the closest I’ve come to what we’re experiencing now, as far as vacant streets and people off the streets.”

(Nick Ut | AP file photo) In this April 30, 1992 file photo Los Angeles police form a line to prevent a crowd from going into a building in a day of fires and looting in Los Angeles.

The riots lasted for five days. There were some 50 deaths, 2,000 injuries, and 6,000 arrests. Thousands of businesses were destroyed, with damages totaling $1 billion.

“To actually be there and just see the turmoil in the city, the outrage of the people, the frustration, just the random acts of violence — it was like everybody had kinda lost their mind,” Brown said. “We’re stuck there, all this is going on, you’re watching on the news, you’re on lockdown, you’re not in your regular routine of preparing for a game, we don’t know when we’re going to play the game. I knew we were going to probably lose that Game 4. We’re creatures of habit, and we’re just completely off our routine.”

Game 4 did finally take place five days after Game 3, in front of 7,148 fans at the Anaheim Convention Center. The rattled Jazz hung close on the strength of a 44-point outing by The Mailman, but ultimately fell 115-107, sending the series back to Utah for a decisive Game 5.

As they flew out of California, everyone gazed down at what they were leaving behind: “It looked like something you’d see in the movies about a city that had gotten bombed during a war,” Luhm noted. Still, there was confidence that, back home, away from all the madness, they would take care of business.

The ensuing series-clinching 98-89 victory was almost anticlimactic.

A (blurry) vision of what might have been

Their equanimity restored, the Jazz’s swagger quickly came back, too.

“Coming out of that series, we really felt that we had a chance to do something special,” Corbin said.

Now matched up against a Seattle SuperSonics team led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, the Jazz figured to have a tough battle on their hands if they were to make it as far as the Western Conference finals for the first time.

And it was tough — Game 1 was decided by just eight points. Games 2, 3 and 4 by six points apiece. Game 5 was the only double-digit outcome of the series, as the Jazz prevailed 111-100. Of course, while all the games were close, they were also almost all in Utah’s favor. Practically before they knew it, they’d earned a 4-1 series victory and broken through their supposed glass ceiling.

Utah would now head up to Portland to take on the top-seeded Trail Blazers, four wins away from the NBA Finals. Being blown out 113-88 in Game 1 and 119-102 in Game 2 did nothing to diminish their belief in themselves.

“I distinctly remember the team being very confident,” Edwards said. “And sometimes when you’re confident, you don’t have to beat your chest, you don’t have to tell everybody about it — it’s just a matter of having that quiet confidence that, you know, the team is good enough, we have the right pieces.”

The Jazz rallied back in Game 3, with Karl Malone racking up 39 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a 97-89 victory. In Game 4, Malone had 33 points and 12 rebounds, and Stockton contributed 18 points and 15 assists, and Utah’s 121-112 win tied the series, setting up a pivotal Game 5.

(Tribune File Photo) John Stockton of the Utah Jazz (12) drives past New York Knicks' Gerald Wilkins (21), left, and Mark Jackson (13), right, in an NBA game Jan. 29. 1992.

The series may have been effectively decided on a play right before halftime in Portland. As Blazers guard Clyde Drexler went to make a move, the ball was swiped from him. The follow-through motion of his arm, however, resulted in Stockton taking a finger to his right eye.

“It was a bad one. … Stockton goes off the floor at halftime and and everybody’s wondering, 'Gosh, how bad is it?’” Luhm said. “And Stockton — Mr. Indestructible — doesn’t play in the second half.”

With team doctors determining the point guard’s vision was sufficiently compromised, he was held out. Still, Utah rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to tie the game going into the fourth quarter. Backup point guard Delaney Rudd even nailed a 3-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime. Still, after Utah took a brief lead, the Blazers reeled off an 8-0 run to close out the 127-121 win.

Stockton would return for Game 6, and while he would rack up 18 points and 12 assists, he also was clearly still impacted by the injury — shooting just 5 for 19 overall and 1 of 8 from 3-point range.

“The Jazz said, you know, in typical Jazz fashion, ‘Oh, he’s going to be fine.’ They didn’t really put anything on [the injury report]. Well, Stockton wasn’t fine. He was hurt and he tried to play, but he just wasn’t himself,” Luhm said. “… I saw his eye after the game and it was all bloody and red and it was it was really grotesque. Just the nature of the beast, I guess — somebody got hurt, and it happened to be one of the best players of all time.”

With Utah mustering just 38 points after halftime, Portland earned a 105-97 win, a series victory, and a Finals date against Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the defending champion Chicago Bulls.

The Jazz were simultaneously proud of finally having taken that next step, disappointed about losing a series they felt they could have won, and resolute that, with another new step now to take, they would find a way to make it happen.

“After that, in the locker room, it’s that sense of, we let a good opportunity slip through our fingers; that this was our series to win, and, you know, we blew it,” Edwards recalled. “And so it was a letdown. … We had an opportunity and we lost that focus, we lost a grip on it, and it got away from us. I think, in some ways, that probably made the team even more even more hungry.”

Members of the U.S. basketball team greet center Patrick Ewing (6), left, during the game against Angola in Bandalona, Spain, during the Summer Games, July 26, 1992. From left are John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, obscured, Chris Mullen, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, and Ewing. The U.S. beat Angola, 116-48. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)

And if that series itself didn’t do it, a story the “Brown Bear” brought back from his trip to watch the 1992 Summer Olympics would certainly do the trick.

“Out of the 12 guys on [the Dream Team], I had played with four: currently playing with John and Karl, and I played with Pippen and Jordan to start my career. So I went over to Spain to watch. And I was talking there to Pippen. … We was all eating dinner in Barcelona while the Dream Team was going on; I was able to have dinner with the guys, and they’re playing cards, and [Pippen] said, ‘Brown, man, we was happy as I don’t know what’ [when Portland beat you],” Brown remembered. “He said, ‘Man, we was glad you guys lost, because we really didn’t want to play y’all. We really didn’t know what we was gonna be doing with your pick-and-roll. Portland was a way better matchup for us.’ So that was good information to hear. I wish we would’ve got a chance to play them, but that was definitely good to hear.”

COMING NEXT


• 1996-97: Breaking through to the Finals for the first time


• 1997-98: Finals hopes dashed by the Jordan buzzsaw again


• 2006-07: A new-blood group provides some new hope


• 2017-18: From lottery-bound to a sparkling foundation

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