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The Utah Jazz finally make the NBA Finals — and endure a whole new level of heartbreak

Tribune file photo Utah Jazz's John Stockton is lifted on the shoulders of his teammates after sinking a three-point shot at the buzzer to beat the Houston Rockets 103-100 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals Thursday, May 29, 1997, in Houston. The Jazz advanced to play the Chicago Bulls in The NBA Finals.

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 this spring. 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. Part 4 — 1996-97: Finally breaking through, only to suffer heartbreak.

Another season over, another failure to finally, at last play for an NBA championship.

As the Utah Jazz trudged off the court in Seattle on June 2, 1996, moments after the conclusion of a dizzying, back-and-forth, and ultimately heart-wrenching 90-86 loss to the SuperSonics in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, their acute disappointment was only amplified by the knowledge of what the narrative awaiting them would be.

“The Jazz were knocking on the door, and by that point, not only couldn't they win an NBA championship, they couldn't [even] get to the NBA Finals,” said Steve Luhm, who covered the team for The Salt Lake Tribune for 16 seasons. “… Everybody thought it might be the end of the line for the Jazz's title chances.”

John Stockton was already 34 years old, and Karl Malone was about to turn 33. They both had a lot of mileage on them, and while they weren’t yet showing signs of decline, many figured it was soon inevitable. Furthermore, after reaching the West finals three times in five years but never advancing beyond that, there were legitimate questions once again about whether the team’s core had maxed out what it was capable of.

And so, after the game, in the portal of Key Arena, Luhm pulled Malone aside and asked him directly: “Do you think the window is now shut? It this it for this group of players?”

The Mailman’s answer was dissenting if not exactly defiant.

“His eyes teared up and he said, ‘I don’t think so. No, I think there's something left. I think we will be back and do this again,’” Luhm recalled of Malone’s response. “‘People might not agree, but for some reason, I think this team has some more things left to do.’

“It was kind of a memorable thing because he was confronting his basketball mortality,” Luhm added.

However, center Greg Ostertag, who had just completed his rookie season, disputes that there was any profound soul-searching taking place in the aftermath, any serious consideration of fundamentally altering the roster or its modus operandi for the coming 1996-97 season.

“That's not something you think about at the time, that guys are getting older. You just go into summer, you get ready to go, and you come back and play,” Ostertag said. “And we did the things we needed to get to where we needed to be — in the Finals.”

The road to ‘Uh-oh!’

It turns out that not only was the window not shut for that group, but they were armed with a pile of bricks to bust it out altogether.

The roster came back largely intact, albeit with a couple significant alterations: Gone were former starters David Benoit and Felton Spencer, replaced in the lineup by expanded roles for Bryon Russell and Ostertag, respectively. Rookie second-rounder Shandon Anderson would earn a surprisingly large bench role.

Malone would go on to average 27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, while shooting 55% from the field, en route to winning Most Valuable Player honors. Stockton, meanwhile, contributed 14.4 points, 10.5 assists (marking the first time in a decade he didn’t lead the league), and 2.0 steals.

“Even though Karl and John were, what, 10 years older than me, they were still right in the middle of their prime,” Ostertag said. “I think Karl actually got better those next couple of years.”

With the supporting cast filling their roles perfectly, Utah rolled to a franchise-best 64-18 record — best in the Western Conference, and second-best in the league behind only the 69-13 Chicago Bulls.

Utah’s first-round matchup against a Los Angeles Clippers team led by the misfit likes of Loy Vaught, Lorenzen Wright, Rodney Rogers and Malik Sealy was almost perfunctory, with the Jazz rolling to a three-game sweep in the best-of-five series.

Up next were the ascendant and exciting Los Angeles Lakers, a group featuring the dynamic Shaquille O’Neal and a talented cast of young up-and-comers including Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Robert Horry, and a certain teenage rookie by the name of Kobe Bean Bryant.

While that series was more star-powered, it was not really that much closer. The Jazz dominated Game 1 at the Delta Center, winning by 16. They held on in a taut affair in Game 2, as Malone deflected Van Exel’s winning 3-point try at the horn. Game 3 saw Utah undone by an aberrantly abysmal 28.8% shooting effort, as L.A. prevailed by 20. Game 4, however, saw the Jazz’s offense rebound, as Malone poured in 42 points in a 110-95 rout.

Game 5, meanwhile, remains indelible in Jazz fans’ mind to this day — not so much for ultimately prevailing 98-93 in overtime, but rather because the then-18-year-old Bryant airballed the potential game-winner at the end of the fourth quarter, then fired up three more airballs in the extra session.

FILE - In this May 12, 1997 file photo, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (8) reacts to losing the ball as Utah Jazz forward Antoine Carr hits the deck in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City. The Jazz beat the Lakers 98-93 in overtime. Bryant badly missed four shots in the final moments of the playoff loss to the Utah Jazz, ending the Lakers’ season. When the team returned to Los Angeles that night, Bryant went to a suburban gym and worked on his shot until dawn. Today, he says the Airball Game was a turning point in his ability to handle negativity and self-doubt with hard work. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

Ostertag improbably proved one of the heroes of the series with the defense he played on O’Neal, limiting him to just 22.0 points on 49.4% shooting.

“… Shaq, when he got near the basket, you were in trouble, that’s all I could say. If he got within a foot of the basket, most of the time he was gonna win the battle,” Ostertag said. “My job was to just try to be as physical as I could with him and make his job as tough as possible.”

Still, the Jazz’s reward in the Western finals was a Houston Rockets team that not only had claimed back-to-back championships a few seasons prior, but which now featured a trio of future Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley.

The Rockets were imposing, but the Jazz were ready. They won the first two at home, dropped the next pair in Houston, prevailed again at the Delta Center, then returned to Texas with a chance to close it out and finally earn a shot at a championship.

Game 6 was not going well, however. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Rockets led 94-84, and were looking likely to force a Game 7 back in Salt Lake City.

Stockton had other plans, though.

He drew a foul on Sedale Threatt and nailed both free throws; he found Russell for a 3-pointer; another foul drawn on Threatt, two more free throws; another assist to Russell for another trey; a driving layup; swiping the ball from Drexler and tying the game with a coast-to-coast layup; and tying the game one last time on a short, pull-up jumper with 22 seconds left.

“It was absolutely Stockton down the stretch. I don’t ever remember him on a bigger stage playing a better stretch,” Luhm said. “He dominated the game the last three minutes.”

The Rockets should have played for the final shot; the best the Jazz could realistically hope for was forcing a miss and going to overtime. But then, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, Drexler launched a try with four whole seconds remaining — and missed it.

Jazz ball, timeout, 2.8 seconds on the clock.

Picket fence just inside the 3-point line, Russell inbounding … Carr charges toward the hoop, drawing Olajuwon … Hornacek curls right, around the arc, taking Threatt with him … Malone eases inside of Stockton, effectively screening both Barkley and Drexler, enabling his point guard to take the pass … Drexler, effectively bear-hugged by Malone, is out of the play, and as Stockton races back to the 3-point line, Barkley is out of position, having drifted all the way back to the free-throw line … one dribble, advancing to just left of center … NBC color commentator Bill Walton: “Uh-oh!” … NBC play-by-play man Greg Gumbel: “Stockton … open … 3 … hit it! John Stockton sends the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals!”

Tribune file photo Utah Jazz's John Stockton (12) leaps in the air after sinking a three-point shot a the buzzer to beat the Houston Rockets 103-100 Thursday, May 29, 1997, in Houston. The Rockets' Charles Barkley walks off the court at left. The Jazz advance to The NBA Finals to play the Chicago Bulls.

Ostertag, disconsolate after playing one of the best games of his career, only to foul out with 32 seconds to play, missed the biggest moment in franchise history.

“I was sitting on the sideline with my head down and a towel over my head, so I didn't even see the shot go in. I just heard the screaming and the yelling,” Ostertag recalled. “But it was just fun to watch everybody shoot off the bench. One of the funniest things I remember seeing, Greg Foster and Stephen Howard ran off the bench, and one of ’em was flailing his arms and just basically punched the other one right in the face. It was so much excitement, you didn't really know what happened.”

Stockton, asked by sideline reporter Jim Gray what it felt like to finally accomplish his dream of reaching the NBA Finals, was his usual reticent self: “Nothing to say.” Asked if Utah could beat Chicago, he replied, “We’ll see. Nobody thought we could beat Houston.”

Final delivery denied

Before turning their attention to the leviathan juggernaut that was a Bulls franchise going for its fifth title in seven years, there was some celebrating to do back in li’l ol’ Utah.

After years of trying and coming close and failing, the small-market Utah Jazz would at long last be competing for an NBA championship, and the community could scarcely believe it.

“It was sort of like the stereotypical, first-time ‘Oh my God! Look at the bright lights! Look at the big buildings!’ kind of a thing,” recalled former Tribune reporter Michael C. Lewis. “That was sort of the attitude, because it’d been so long, and they’d been inching and inching closer and closer, and it finally happened.”

Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, noted both the unifying effect that the team’s breakthrough had on sports fans all across the state, as well as the impact it had in showing Utah in a positive light to an international audience, some five years before the Winter Olympics came to town.

“Certainly, I think, before the Olympics, and back in the ’90s, Utah didn’t have the brand awareness status, if you will, and maybe the awareness of sports in the state as we certainly do now,” Robbins said. “… And getting to the Finals really, really did bring the community together. I think everybody rallied. There certainly was a lot of pride. I absolutely think that did bring the community together and kind of galvanized us.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Jazz fans celebrate in the street in front of the Delta Center after the Jazz victory in game 4 of the NBA Finals.

Still, though, good feelings and a good story didn’t mean much going against Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the Bulls. It would come down to basketball.

Utah liked its chances.

“You know, the thing about us is we were always a very fundamental team. That’s what Jerry [Sloan] preached,” Ostertag said. “We were gonna box out, we were gonna set screens — we were gonna try to fundamental you to death.”

The key to the series, he believed, was in not letting the enormity of the situation become bigger than any singular moment.

“I don't know that we took [the Finals] any different than any other game. You just go into it, and you've got seven games to try to win four,” the center added. “You go out there, you practice, you prepare, you watch film, you get ready to go and play when it's time to go — the ball goes up and it's just another day at the office.”

Which sounded great in theory but was quite difficult to actually pull off. As clutch as the Jazz had been against the Rockets, they would falter in several crucial moments vs. the Bulls.

In Game 1 in Chicago, on Sunday, June 1, 1997, Malone stepped to the free-throw line with 9.2 seconds remaining in a game tied at 82, the opportunity for a victory in his hands. Before he attempted his shots, Pippen leaned in and famously whispered, “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.”

The first shot was wide-right. The second caught the front of the rim, crept partway into the cylinder and spun out. Jordan would go on to nail the game-winning jumper at the horn.

“I don't have any excuses, and I'm not going to use any,” Malone told reporters afterward. “I didn't make the free throws. They felt good. I just didn't make them. They were big free throws, but it shouldn't have come down to that.”

In Game 2, the Jazz — perhaps still shaken by the specter of what could have been — seemed off-kilter from the start, and never challenged Chicago throughout, trailing by 19 entering the final quarter before falling 97-85.

Still, the series was hardly over. A resurgent Malone bulldozed his way to 37 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and three assists in Utah’s 104-93 victory in Game 3. And in Game 4, he came through again, calmly draining two free throws with 18 seconds to play, sealing a 78-73 victory that tied the Finals at two games apiece.

Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and Utah Jazz' Karl Malone greet each other before Game 1 of the NBA Finals Sunday, June 1, 1997, in Chicago. Malone was named the league's MVP ahead of Jordan for the season. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser)

With Game 5 in Salt Lake City under the 2-3-2 Finals travel format at the time, Utah seemed in good position to finally turn the tide in its favor. Jordan’s famous “flu game” would intervene, though, as he dropped in 38 points despite a severe illness and powered Chicago to a crucial 90-88 victory after Hornacek missed a 3 in the waning seconds.

It was another missed opportunity that would haunt the Jazz.

“We just didn’t take advantage of the situation,” Ostertag said.

Still, once more, Utah was right there.

The Jazz led by six entering the final quarter of Game 6 in Chicago. With the game tied in the final minute, they even had a couple go-ahead tries. But Malone would miss at the rim, and 35 seconds later, so, too, would Anderson.

Chicago had the ball with 28 seconds to play. Late in the possession, with the shot clock winding down, Stockton abandoned Steve Kerr to double-team Jordan, who went up to shoot but passed to Kerr, the latter burying the go-ahead jumper just past the free-throw line to put Chicago up 88-86 with five seconds to play.

On Utah’s final possession, Russell was inbounding, and Stockton ran toward him but was well-covered by Kerr; Anderson flashed open, but was running away from Russell toward the opposite sideline; Pippen, playing center field in the paint, saw Russell about to throw the ball crosscourt and sprinted to intercept it; he tipped the ball ahead, ran after it, dove to keep it away from Russell, and knocked it sideways to the onrushing Toni Kukoc, who threw down the jam with 0.6 seconds to play.

Game — and series — all over.

“I thought in ’97, everybody kind of expected it to turn out that way, and it did,” Luhm said. “The Jazz were were very good in defeat and very competitive in defeat, but I don't think anybody was real shocked that they lost.”

Of course, neither would anyone be shocked when they ran it back, either.

COMING NEXT

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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