***In this two part series, take a trip down with me through the fall of the Utah Jazz. Once a Western Conference powerhouse and title contender, now searching for a winning season and more importantly an identity. Part one…***
The Utah Jazz continue to search for rock bottom. A collaborative effort of front office gaffs has left this once proud and successful franchise wilted and searching for their glory days. Ask a Jazz fan about the good old days, and before you finish your query their eyes light up as they reminisce about the days of Stockton to Malone and Jerry Sloan. They still want an offensive foul called on Jordan for his shaking of Byron Russell in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Jordan haunts Utah more than any other place in the NBA. And as Utahns continue to hopelessly watch their only professional sports team flounder in the Western Conference, all they have to cling to are the memories of Stockton, Malone, and of course, the Jordan push off.
Fifteen years removed from that NBA Finals matchup with Jordan’s Bulls, the Utah Jazz have never returned to relevance. The franchise first arrived in Salt Lake City back in 1979. After struggling to stay afloat in New Orleans, the team’s front office recognized a similar “little big city” market in Salt Lake City with a history of unbridled enthusiasm for professional basketball (see the ABA’s Utah Stars).
The Jazz would struggle the first five years of their Utah residency, but then came the beginning of one of the league’s greatest dynasties. Larry H. Miller bought 50% of the team and ensured the Jazz used their 1984 draft pick on a scrappy, undervalued point guard from Gonzaga and their 1985 draft pick on a six-foot-nine-inch power forward from Louisiana. Both John Stockton and Karl Malone were NBA ready and their impact was immediately recognized by both the front office and the Jazz fan base. To say anyone could’ve predicted what these two would bring to the Utah Jazz and to the state of Utah is an understatement.
Despite Stockton and Malone’s impact on the team, the Jazz were still not quite championship ready. They were close. The playoffs would beckon them every spring, but the Finals would continue to elude them. Jerry Sloan would change that. Sloan arrived just as the Jazz were becoming consistent contenders. Through the early 90s, the Jazz began taking the final steps necessary to title contention in today’s professional sports world. The arrival of key pieces like Jeff Hornacek and Big 12 defensive specialist Greg Ostertag, as well as building a new arena in downtown Salt Lake City, the Delta Center became home to some of the greatest memories in Utah sports.
After battling with the Rockets and Supersonics during the early 90s, 1996 proved to be the year the Utah Jazz finally got out of the Western Conference and into the NBA Finals. With Stockton, Malone, Hornacek, Byron Russell, Antoine Carr, Howard Eisley, and Shandon Anderson, the Jazz appeared poised to bring home an NBA Title. Unfortunately, they had to go through one of the greatest teams in professional sports history: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, and the Chicago Bulls.
The 1997 NBA Finals would be contentious, physical, and competitive. Salt Lake City was fevered with dreams of an NBA Championship. The Delta Center had become one of the most difficult places to play in the NBA, and its fans were disproving the notion that Utah houses, quiet, weirdo religious types. In fact, Utah had shown the world they were one of the strongest and most passionate fan bases in sports, drawing comparisons to Raider Nation.
After a difficult six game series, the Jazz would fall short of an NBA Championship. In 1998 they would return. And again the Chicago Bulls would be standing in their way. It didn’t take long for the contention and bad blood to boil. It was as if the 1997 Finals had never ended and they were back a year later picking up where they left off. Again the series was competitive with four of the first five games being decided by four points or less. Every fan of basketball knows how Game 6 in Salt Lake City ended. It’s the single most iconic memory in Utah Jazz history. But few would realize that Jordan holding his follow through atop the key with 6.8 seconds left would be the start of the Jazz Empire’s demise.
The Utah Jazz would never return to the NBA Finals again. The team that had stole the hearts of millions of Utahns slowly dissembled and Salt Lake City would never be the same. Jordan still haunts the city of Salt Lake and Jazz fans across the state. Sadly, the past fifteen years have offered little to erase that memory.