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. Part 5 — 1997-98: A tumultuous season sees unfinished business stay that way.
Having been outscored by all of six total, combined points against Chicago in the six games of the 1997 NBA Finals, the Utah Jazz took a few moments in the aftermath of their 4-2 defeat to heal their wounds, both of the physical and metaphysical variety.
Their first ever foray into championship-level basketball had left them bruised, bloodied and beaten — but not beaten down. They had gone toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan and the dynastic Bulls and they had proved they belonged.
Yes, losing the title series hurt. But knowing that they’d had opportunities to change that outcome with a couple plays here and there motivated. And so it was that, with the 1997-98 season on the horizon, the team returned to action, determined to learn from its mistakes, intent upon getting a chance to atone for them.
“You always look back and think ‘What if?’ or woulda, coulda, shoulda. And then, at the same time, you go into the next season, we’ve been there, we’ve got the same team, and you’ve got 82 games to go out to put yourself in a position to be the best you could possibly be,” said center Greg Ostertag. “Our mentality was, 'Let’s go back. We’ve got unfinished business.’”
No one doubted their resolve to become the first team to get a second crack at the Bulls in the Finals.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that they thought they could. They were in a position to win it in ’97. Now, with that same team, they can win it in ’98, as well,” said Ron Boone, the team’s longtime color analyst for its broadcasts.
Certainly, observers of the team believed that, with the roster returning almost entirely intact, and augmented by having been through the Finals crucible, the Jazz had a chance to finish that business this time.
“The expectation was enormous from the start. They got there before, they've got all the same pieces back, and it just needs to be that one inch more this time,” said Michael C. Lewis, The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jazz beat writer for the ’97-98 season. “Everybody was saying from the start, you know, it's Finals or bust. There's no reason that they shouldn't be back there.
“But, man, it was turbulent,” he added. “The ride was crazy.”
‘A soap opera from the start’
Star forward Karl Malone, seemingly always at odds with owner Larry H. Miller over his salary, invited reporters to his house in the Foothills that summer for a tête-à-tête in which he juxtaposed his own financial situation against the lucrative extensions given that offseason to Bryon Russell and Ostertag. Then, on the eve of training camp, Malone blasted several “fat-ass” teammates — notably Ostertag — for showing up out of shape, calling it “a disgrace” and “literally a damn shame.”
“That’s all a regretful year,” Ostertag conceded in 2020. “I didn’t come into the camp in great shape, and I just struggled all year.”
Then John Stockton, who had missed all of four total games in his career up to that point, underwent arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 13 to remove loose cartilage from his left knee, a procedure that was slated to sideline him for 6-8 weeks, and which would cause him to miss the first 18 games of the season.
When the Jazz traveled to Los Angeles for their season opener against the Lakers, there were yet more fireworks, as a shootaround convergence between the teams escalated to trash talking between Shaquille O’Neal and Ostertag, and a dust-up that culminated with the L.A. big man slapping his Utah counterpart across the face and knocking him to the floor.
Though the Jazz shrugged off the distractions and kept winning, the off-court disarray extended all the way into mid-February, when the team shipped big man Greg Foster, little-used wing Chris Morris, and a first-round pick to the Orlando Magic for scoring center Rony Seikaly — only for Seikaly to fail to report, the deal to be called off, and Foster and Morris to return to Utah.
“It was an awkward moment there,” added Boone. “… Both of them came back, and they kinda laughed about it. But deep down inside, you knew that they were hurt.”
Meanwhile, on top of everything else, there was a more private turmoil going on behind the scenes, as coach Jerry Sloan’s wife, Bobbye, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing treatment.
“It just felt like a soap opera from the start,” said Lewis. “I mean there’s always drama on all teams, right? So maybe I’m overstating the extent to which this was abnormal, but it sure felt like this was way more than the usual amount of stuff. And maybe part of that was because the pressure was so great and the expectations were so high that every little thing turned into a big thing.”
In spite of everything, though, facing the Bulls two times in a span of six games between Jan. 25 and Feb. 4, 1998, would ultimately prove a salve to all the team’s woes — and provide a preview of a rematch hopefully to come.
In the former, in Chicago, the Jazz rallied back from a first-half deficit, eventually pulled ahead, and in the end, pulled away for a 101-94 victory on Super Bowl Sunday. “I always kidded that we flew home from Chicago without a plane, we were so high mentally,” longtime assistant coach Gordie Chiesa told The Tribune.
In the latter matchup, Jordan & Co. came in hot, determined to avenge the previous defeat. The Bulls led 35-13 after the first quarter, but once again, Utah staged a determined comeback, and earned a 101-93 win, plus a season sweep.
For Chicago, that was perhaps just another game. For Utah, however, it was anything but.
From early scare … to scared of no one
The Jazz wrapped up the regular season with a 62-20 record — tied for the best record in the league along with Bulls, though Utah earned home-court advantage by virtue of those two wins against Chicago.
Their reward for outlasting the 61-win Sonics and the 61-win Lakers and earning the West’s No. 1 seed was a first-round matchup against the uber-talented Houston Rockets, who’d slipped to eighth as a result of injuries. Despite going 36-5 at the Delta Center, though, Utah dropped Game 1 at home to the Rockets. The Jazz also lost Game 3 in Houston, incomprehensibly putting them on the verge of elimination in the best-of-five series practically before their postseason run had even started.
Things weren’t looking promising in Game 4 either, when the Jazz scored only 10 first-quarter points, and still trailed by double-digits several minutes after halftime. “They were on the verge of just getting dropped, getting buried,” said Lewis.
However, led by massive bench performances from Russell and Shandon Anderson, Utah closed on a 55-22 run for a 22-point victory. They then dominated Game 5 at home to advance to meet the Spurs.
The Jazz won a couple of close games at home, shook off an abysmal offensive effort in San Antonio, then won two more games to relative ease to take a 4-1 series victory.
“David Robinson couldn’t guard Karl, and young Tim Duncan, he wasn’t ready at that time. He wasn’t ready for the magnitude of the playoffs,” Chiesa said. “People think the playoffs is just like the regular season. It kicks up — every round — three intensity levels. It’s almost impossible to score against good teams.”
Given that the Western finals would pit the Jazz against the Lakers for a second consecutive year, and given the season-opening histrionics between the teams, the intensity figured to be higher still. Except it never happened. Utah crushed L.A. 112-77 in the opener, and while the rest of the series was closer, the Lakers never could find a way to turn the tide, as Utah rolled to a shocking sweep and made it back to the Finals for the second straight season.
“We punched ’em in the face and knocked ’em out,” said Chiesa.
An apropos response for a slap.
And just like that, the Jazz were in the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history — a mere four wins away from their first championship.
“The Jazz were rolling then,” Boone noted. “The way they handled San Antonio, then beating the Lakers 4-0, I don’t think they had to be afraid of anyone in the NBA.”
One last shot
Because Utah had swept L.A. while Indiana took Chicago to the brink in a grueling, seven-game Eastern finals, the Jazz endured a 10-day break leading up to the Finals, prompting questions about whether the team would be rusty.
When the series did eventually get underway at the Delta Center, Game 1 seemed to indicate Utah might be able to shrug off the layoff. Stockton scored seven of his team-high 24 points in overtime, including a key jumper with 9 seconds to play, and two crucial free throws with 3 seconds left to hand Utah an 88-85 victory. It was the first time since 1991’s Game 1 against Magic Johnson and the Lakers that the Bulls found themselves trailing in the Finals.
After Game 2, however, the elation dissipated and the rust questions resurfaced, as Utah managed a mere 15 fourth-quarter points, and Jordan and the Bulls surged ahead, stealing a key game on the road with a 93-88 victory.
While those associated with the organization denied that the extended pre-Finals layoff had any impact — “No. We won Game 1,” said Chiesa — those covering the team remain convinced that Utah’s sharpness had suffered.
“Frankly, they never got that really fine edge back,” said Steve Luhm, who covered the Jazz for The Tribune for 16 seasons. “Maybe that’s a credit to the Bulls, I don’t know. But I think that layoff between series hurt them.”
It seemed hard to argue the point after the absolute abomination of Game 3. Utah shot 30% from the field, committed 26 turnovers, and put up precisely zero resistance as the Bulls dealt them a humiliating 96-54 beatdown that Sloan called “an embarrassment to all of us.”
“They beat the hell out of us,” Ostertag told The Tribune. “It was bad.”
Horrifying as that performance was, Game 4 was perhaps more damaging. Though Utah kept it close throughout, its only lead of the entire game came at 70-69 on a layup by Morris with 5 minutes left — and even that lasted for only 19 seconds. The Bulls prevailed 86-82 to take a 3-1 series lead.
“That one was the real killer,” said Lewis. “You win that game, and you draw it even, and it’s a best-of-three series and you’ve got a couple of home games, and you’re fine. But when they wound up dropping that game, that was pretty much, 'Oh, sh-t, that’s going to be hard to recover from.’”
With Game 5 in the United Center, all of Chicago was poised for a party. It was a fait accompli that the Bulls would clinch the title that night. The Larry O’Brien Trophy was in the building, ready to be presented. Thousands of balloons were secured along the ceiling, waiting to be released.
“I remember being in Chicago, walking the street, and people didn’t know who I was, but I was wearing my Jazz stuff, and people keep saying, ‘You guys are chumps!’ — in different words, of course; they didn’t use very nice language,” Chiesa said. “And I remember saying to myself, ‘OK, that might be true temporarily. But I know our guys are going to come ready to play.’ There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that Karl was going to answer the bell.”
The Mailman, who had struggled for much the series to that point, did that and then some, hitting 17 of 27 shots to pour in 39 points, with nine rebounds, and five assists. Utah’s 83-81 victory not only spoiled Chicago’s party, it sent the series back to Salt Lake City, and gave the Jazz hope that they might yet pull off the seemingly impossible.
“He might've had bigger, better games, more significant games that showed the kind of player he was, but to me, that was Karl Malone at his greatest,” Luhm said. “He got ’em back to Salt Lake. It was just that simple: Malone carried ’em, he was spectacular, and he gave the Jazz a chance.”
That chance seemed to be slipping away early in Game 6, as the Jazz came out tight and Chicago raced out to a 17-8 lead. That seemed to snap Utah’s attention into focus — three minutes later, the Jazz led 19-18 and paved the way for a taut classic.
When a double-teamed Malone threw a perfect cross-court kickout pass to Stockton, and the latter buried the go-ahead 3-pointer with 41.9 seconds remaining, the Delta Center crowd erupted in unrestrained euphoria.
But in that moment, they could not envision the sickening gut punch to come.
The Jazz would attempt to make the Bulls use up some clock; instead, Jordan took the inbound near midcourt, drove right, accelerated past Russell, and got to the hoop for a layup — which took all of 4.8 seconds.
“It was astonishing how easy that basket that brought the Bulls within a point was,” Luhm said.
Still, the Jazz were up, they would chew some clock, and would look to bolster their advantage by running one of their staple plays, “Fist One,” which would culminate with giving the ball to one of the most reliable scorers in NBA history and letting him do his thing.
“You could just tell at that moment that Karl was getting ready to do something special,” said Boone. “No one had been able to stop him from that spot — ever.”
Stockton on the wing, Jeff Hornacek sets a cross-screen in the lane on Dennis Rodman, then cuts baseline to the corner 3 area, looking to draw Jordan along with him to clear room for Malone. Except that Jordan goes only as far as the hoop, pauses, and follows no further. As Stockton throws the ball in to Malone, Jordan sneaks in from the back side and swats the ball out of Malone’s hands, recovering it to set up the climactic finish.
Chicago opts not to call timeout, preventing Utah from setting up its defense. Jordan drifts left on the dribble, Russell coming over to guard him; Hornacek is in the near corner, keeping an eye on Toni Kukoc; the crowd is on its feet, screaming, begging, imploring its team to hang on.
“I’m on the sideline, I’m yelling. The place is absolutely deafening, right? Deafening — you couldn’t hear anything. It was so loud. And so I’m screaming at Jeff Hornacek — who’s guarding [Kukoc], who was an erratic shooter — to go green. ‘Green! Green! Green!’ meaning double-team the dribbler, who was Jordan,” recalled Chiesa. “And Jeff stayed much too long on [Kukoc], because he couldn’t hear me.”
Jordan sizes up Russell, holding his dribble beyond the 3-point line as the agonizing seconds tick away. With about 8.4 to play, he suddenly puts his shoulder down and speeds right, getting a step. With Russell careening left, Jordan extends his off-ball hand to the defender’s backside and supplies a little additional wrong-way momentum, crosses the ball over, and as Russell skids into the paint, Jordan pulls up at the circle …
“You’re just sitting there thinking, ‘This is about to happen’. You know he’s going to come down and, one way or the other, he’s going to stroke that shot, and it’s going to go in,” said Lewis. “You just know — it’s Michael [expletive] Jordan. You know it’s going to go in. And I remember thinking that as soon as he picked Karl’s pocket and got the ball, it was just like, 'This is totally inevitable.’”
And indeed, with 5.2 seconds left on the clock, the ball had gone through the rim and the net, Jordan’s shooting arm lingered aloft for a moment, and Chicago held an 87-86 lead.
“There was no doubt in my mind that when he made that move, it was going to go in,” Chiesa said. “… Jordan scores 45 points in that game, but also he missed 20 shots. Jordan shot 15 for 35. But he made the one that mattered.”
Stockton, on the other end, could not manage the same. With Malone screening Ron Harper, Stockton took two dribbles and launched a 3 with 2.8 seconds to go — front iron, back iron, long bounce, game over.
The unfinished business would remain that way. The Jazz would, for a second straight year, endure the sting of knowing a few plays might have made the difference.
“With both those championship series, the difference was the Bulls seemed to win almost all of the close games — [nine] of those 12 Finals games were decided [five] points or less; the Bulls won six of them,” Luhm pointed out. “That speaks to Jordan’s greatness; I think it speaks to some breaks; I think it speaks to the fine line between the Jazz and the Bulls in ’97 and ’98.”
“It just drains you. It drains you knowing that the opportunity was there, and how small the margin can be between victory and defeat,” added Boone. “You look back and you pinpoint certain situations on the floor, or specific plays, or if this were to happen, that type of thing. Those are the type of things you relive days after, years after, 20 years after.”
“It still breaks my heart for all the Jazz fans, for the Jazz players. Without that play, if the Jazz pull that game off … I mean, who knows what happens? With Game 7 at your place? [If] they pull that game out, everything else is out the window,” Lewis said. “… I mean, there might well be a championship trophy in Salt Lake City by now if that one sequence doesn’t develop almost exactly like it did.”
“I truly believe if we had gone to a Game 7, we’d have won,” concluded Ostertag. “But, you know, you get the best player in the world and give him the ball, good things are not going to happen to you.”
• 2006-07: A new-blood group provides some new hope
• 2017-18: From lottery-bound to a sparkling foundation