Saturday, May 19, 2007

Kudos Utah Jazz

Kudos...from the Greek κύδος kydos (literally "that which is heard of") means fame and renown resulting from an act or achievement. Kudos to the Utah Jazz for making the Western Conference NBA Finals after two years of not even making the playoffs.

So I've been a hardcore Utah Jazz fan for twenty years now. In 1987-88, Utah took the then-dynastic Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinal, and I was hooked. I'd been a fairweather fan before then, despite growing up in Salt Lake. I was an undergrad, and my roommates (and debate teammates) Jimmy, Tom, Tony, Howard and I, along with our constant stream of guests, sat and watched every game, transfixed at the transformation of this hitherto underachieving team.

From that time on, I have lived the agony and the ectasy; mostly, as you've already guessed I will say, the agony. It's the soft bigotry of high expectations; it's the serendipity and instability of what success really means. After watching them win most, but not all, then really, really most, but not all, I have concluded that true satisfaction in being the fan of a good (but not the best) team lies in watching them play. John Stockton faking left then going in for a layup, time after time. Jeff Hornacek goofily tossing up another three. Mark Eaton, like a mobile crane, mechanically rebounding, pivoting, and passing. And Karl Malone. Greatest. Power. Forward. Ever.

When Malone left for the Lakers, my wife (also a Utahn, also a fanatical Jazz fan) fell into the "screw him, he betrayed us" camp, while I fell into the "yeah, it's kind of selfish of him, but I can understand that he wants a ring" camp. These were really the only possible camps among Jazz fans. Neither of us were particularly upset about the trouncing the Lakers' took from Detroit that year in the NBA finals.

Nor was I, at least, particularly sad for Utah. Time to rebuild, and the miracle is not only that they have done it so quickly, but that they have made things better than they were. Granted, without the pressure created by the aging (albeit still brilliant and dominant) Stockton-Malone duo in the old Jazz's later years, the players naturally will be more free and energetic. But they have lifted the yoke of old Jazzdom while simultaneously hanging on to the Jazz philosophy of basic playmaking, selflessness and hard work. A couple of things about this philosophy: First, it seems to be primarily Jerry Sloan's philosophy, but he took some of it from Frank Layden, and obviously it's endorsed, if not shaped, by much maligned owner Larry Miller. It's really in the players, and Sloan, though. And second, and related to this, it's a real philosophy, not just a few catch-words. They really are selfless. This time around even moreso. There are leaders on the team but not "stars," and particularly not "star personalities. They run the same plays over and over again and mix it up just enough to make the defense more predictable than the offense. And their own defense is stifling, rough, intimidating, and energetic (Andre Kirelenko is an incredible, prolific shot-blocker, for example). They are the "new and improved" Jazz, and their numbers, if they stay this way, will rapidly be on par with their predecessors. Deron Williams is a John Stockton who can dunk; Carlos Boozer a young Malone who already possesses the outside shot it took Malone years to develop. I could go on. If they play well in this round, I probably will. But even if they lose now, my gosh--the conference finals. Most of the time, the old Jazz couldn't get there even when they were outplaying 99% of their opponents.

One more thing: Although I still hear announcers, from time to time, marginalize the Jazz, it's nowhere near as bad as they would even during the height of the Stockton-Malone years. There are still haters. Militant Jazz-haters are like those irritating militant atheists who raise the nonexistence of God whenever they meet someone new. But the tide of opinion is turning, another reason why losing the stars of the past also means emerging into a low-pressure, high-praise open field. The era of the superstar is over (Kobe, Yao, McGrady, Iverson, Shaq, and more, didn't even make it past the first round of the playoffs). Utah's defeat of Houston even disproves the "two stars theory."

Of the new Jazz, one columnist writes posit the Jazz as some makeshift foil, Aryan-centric, basic and defensive-minded. The Jazz possess style as well, though of a subtler form. Whereas the Warriors emit warmth and color, the Jazz players convey a chilly nihilism -- an indifferent isolation in which one draws the conclusion: I have no one else to live for except me.

I would simply amend this to read "We have no one else to live for except us," because the new Utah team reminds me of nothing if not a family that everyone resents but respects, and who fight for one another even if they don't always know why. It's a communal nihilism.

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