The state of Utah isn’t the first place that comes to mind when it comes to sports. Having only one professional team, the NBA’s Utah Jazz, will do that, even if the state does have successful college programs in both basketball and football. 1998 saw Utah hit both its high and its low in basketball. At the college level, the Utah Utes made a run to the NCAA championship game. The Jazz made the NBA Finals. That was the high. The low was that each just missed on a ring, and did so to opponents who had already become aggravating to the basketball faithful in the state. TheSportsNotebook looks back on what it was to be a college basketball in NBA fan in the state of Utah in 1998…
To understand 1998 we have to look to the years immediately preceding it. The Utes had won three straight WAC titles and reached the regional round of the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons. In 1996 their season ended in the Sweet 16, when Rick Pitino’s Kentucky squad, easily the best in the nation, leveled them 101-70. One year later the Utes were even stronger, a #2 seed and they made the regional final. Again Pitino’s ‘Cats were in the way. The game wasn’t a wipeout this time, but it still ended in defeat, 72-59. Utah lost its star forward, Keith Van Horne, to the NBA draft where he was the second overall pick and it looked like head coach Rick Majerus might have to do some re-tooling.
The Jazz had concluded 1997 on an even more heartbreaking note. Their dynamic duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, as good a point guard/power forward combo as has ever existed, had finally broken through and reached the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan’s Bulls awaited. A six-game series loss doesn’t seem like the end of the world, until you realize just how it unfolded. Utah lost Game 1 when Malone missed two free throws in the closing seconds of a tie game, then Jordan hit the game-winner at the buzzer. The Jazz eventually crawled back to the tie the series two games apiece, were at home for Game 5 and Jordan was playing with a vicious flu bug that doctors said he had no business playing with. Utah got out to a 36-20 lead with the legendary Bull looking weak. Chicago crawled back, Jordan scored 15 in the fourth quarter, including a backbreaking three-pointer off a rebound of his own missed free throw that gave the Bulls the series edge. It ended back in Chicago for Game 6 when the Jazz again let a fourth-quarter chance slip and the Bulls put on a 10-0 run, and ultimately won when Steve Kerr hit a jumper with five seconds left to break a tie game. With just a few more plays, the Jazz could be champs. And now they had the necessary Finals experience under their belts.
Malone and Stockton may have had Hall of Fame resumes and Finals experience, but one thing they did not have was a supporting cast. Jeff Hornacek, Stockton’s running mate in the backcourt was good for a 14 a night, and a good three-point shooter, but no one else averaged in double-digits, nor made an impact with rebounding or assists. It was the coaching of longtime mastermind Jerry Sloan, combined with his two stars, that kept this team afloat in a competitive Western Conference.
On the college scene, Majerus had every reason to think he could put together a winning team in the post-Van Horn era. The coach had a nice guard-forward combo of his own with Andre Miller and Michael Doleac, each of whom would enjoy long careers at the next level (Miller’s still playing with the Denver Nuggets, a team closing in on the playoffs at this writing). And the Utes would find a supporting cast—sophomore forwards Hanno Mottola and Alex Jensen stepped up with rebounding help, and senior guard Drew Hansen could bang home the trey and play defense. It was enough to get Utah flying out of the gate to a 19-0 start. The schedule wasn’t great—they had the good fortune of playing Wake Forest one year after Tim Duncan left for the NBA and Providence one year after the Friars made a run to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Utah would get a further schedule break in conference play. The WAC was a 16-team league at this time and split into two separate divisions of eight. TCU was on the opposite side of the conference and went 14-0. Utah did not have to play the Horned Frogs. Although one can just as credibly argue that was to TCU’s advantage more than Utah’s, given the Horned Frogs untimely first-round loss in the NCAAs. The teams the Utes did have to deal with were New Mexico, the league’s third NCAA team, along with NIT clubs Wyoming and Colorado State, and a probation-saddled UNLV, who was at least NIT-worthy and might have made it four in the Dance, had they been eligible. The Utes took their first loss of the season at New Mexico on February 1, before answering back on the Lobos return visit four weeks later. Utah fell at Wyoming and UNLV, but won the return trips, and the Utes swept Colorado State. They entered the NCAA field as a #3 seed in the West Regional—where mercifully, there was no Kentucky to be found.
On the NBA front, the Jazz didn’t start quite as hot as their college counterparts, losing three of the first four. A six-game winning streak around the Thanksgiving timeframe righted the ship, but they were still just 15-10 on December 21—not bad, but not a pace an NBA championship contender keeps. Then the Jazz won nine of ten. They repeated the feat in early February. Just as important, in a ten-day stretch encompassing late January and early February, they beat Chicago twice, and by almost identical scores, 101-94 and 101-93. An 11-game winning streak upped their record to 48-16 by mid-March. Basketball fans in Utah could let their attention focus on the college game, because the NBA entity was looking like a winner as the playoffs drew near.
The Utes took advantage of their favorable bracket position to take out South Florida and Arkansas and punch their ticket to Anaheim, were the West Regionals would be held. They would not have to face the draw’s #2 seed, the Cincinnati Bearcats. 10th-seeded West Virginia, having first beaten Temple, then knocked off Cincy on a miracle banked-in three-point shot by Jarrod West at the buzzer. The Mountaineers were ready for Utah, and Miller and Doleac would respond like leaders. Doleac scored 25 points and grabbed 9 rebounds. Miller scored 14 and dished 8 assists. The biggest edge Utah enjoyed in the Sweet 16 game was at the foul line, where they outscored WVA 22-10. 18 of those points came from Doleac and Miller. Utah got a 65-62 win and for the second year in a row was a win from the Final Four.
A #1 seed again stood in their way and this time it was Arizona, the defending national champions. A year ago, Arizona completed a miracle run of their own in the NCAAs, winning the crown as#4 seed and becoming the first (and still only) team to beat three #1 seeds en route, including an overtime win over Kentucky in the championship game. Perhaps they liked the underdog role more than that of favorite. Maybe it was just a bad day. Or maybe it was Utah’s time, as the past buildup to this game could credibly argue. The Utes led by nine at the half and pulled away to a shockingly easy 76-51 win. If Doleac was solid, at 16 points/11 rebounds, Miller was stunning, scoring 18, getting 14 rebounds and handing out 13 assists. Utah had dismantled a team that included future NBA mainstays, Jason Terry and Mike Bibby, along with Miles Simon, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s Final Four. Majerus and his crew were on their way to San Antonio for the Final Four.
SAN ANTONIO SHOWDOWN
You would have had to be a hard-core Utah fan to be noting the possibility of another game with Kentucky. The Wildcats had rallied from 17 down to beat Duke and reach the Final Four, but they were in the opposite semi-final against Stanford. Utah drew North Carolina, the #1 seed in the East, and loaded with Vince Carter and Antwan Jamison, two more players who are still in the NBA at this writing. The general public perception was that Utah and Stanford would serve their role as sparring partners, and then let the country get its heavyweight fight of Kentucky-Carolina on Monday night. It didn’t work out that way.
Utah was as prepared for North Carolina as they had been for Arizona. The Utes led 35-22 at half, and the 65-59 final obscures how completely Utah owned this game from start to finish. Miller was seemingly determined to make sure every basketball fan in America remembered him, scoring 16, getting 14 more rebounds (did I mention this kid is only 6’2”? Yes, I’m sure I did) and dishing seven assists. Doleac had 16 points. To fans outside the state of Utah, Stockton and Malone were the guard-forward combo worth talking about. To those inside the state, Miller and Doleac weren’t bad themselves.
Stanford nearly pulled a double-whammy CBS, but undoubtedly the network was relieved that Kentucky survived a double-overtime thriller. The NCAA Tournament Committee is often accused of hotwiring matchups, but no one could accuse them of this one—it just seemed Kentucky and Utah were bound and determined to meet up in March, and now they would do so for the national title.
Utah was making believers out of the country, and a 41-31 halftime lead—to become a 12-point cushion in the second half, had those of us watching thinking they might actually pull this off. This wasn’t the most talented of Kentucky’s great teams—Jeff Sheppard or Scott Padgett was the team’s best player—and Pitino had been replaced by Tubby Smith, but the Big Blue still found a way to get it done. They solved Utah’s defense and hit 51 percent from the floor, enough to overcome a big rebounding advantage for the Utes, as Doleac and Mottola owned the glass. But Utah had nothing offensively down the stretch and Kentucky won 78-69. A great year came up just short against a familiar foe.
ONE LAST HURRAH
With the college basketball appetizer out of the way it was time for the NBA feast, to see if Stockton and Malone, could finally get their long-sought rings at age 35. They concluded the regular season at 62-20 and had the #1 seed in the West. Those wins over the Bulls were more than just confidence-builders—they were also the tiebreakers, as Chicago also won 62 games, but if the two favorites again reached the Finals, Utah would hold homecourt.
Getting to the Finals out of the West would be no easy feat, as Utah had to run a gauntlet of the NBA’s past and present. The first-round opponent was Houston. Normally the first round is tuneup time for NBA favorites, but with a lineup of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, just three years removed from a championship of their own, and joined by Charles Barkley, Houston was a team no favorite wants to face—one with the talent, but just hasn’t put it together. Houston put it together in Game 1, getting a road win and also won Game 3. Their backs to the wall in what was then the only best-of-five round in the NBA playoffs, Utah got a 93-71 blowout win on a Friday night in Houston and then came back home Sunday to wrap up the series.
San Antonio was next, with a young coach named Gregg Popovich and a rookie center named Tim Duncan. The veteran help was David Robinson and Avery Johnson. The Spurs had won 56 games and were one year away from the first of what stands at four NBA championships in the Popovich/Duncan era. And they gave Utah everything the favorites could have wanted on the first two games at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center. Utah won Game 1 by a bucket and Game 2 in overtime. They turned in a horrible loss in Game 3, before coming back the next night to win Game 4 and then clinch at home. A 4-1 win didn’t come as easy as the series win totals make it look.
The #2 seed, with 61 wins was the Los Angeles Lakers. This was the second year in Hollywood for Shaquille O’Neal and the second year in the NBA for a 19-year-old phenom in Kobe Bryant. They were surrounded by a talented supporting cast of Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and Robert Horry. Almost all the pieces of a team that would win three straight NBA titles from 2000-02 were in place, except one—nothing against head coach Del Harris, but he was no Phil Jackson. And the Zen Master was the kind of coach this team needed. Utah’s veteran experience ruled the day in the conference finals and they won the series in four straight. The Jazz were back in the Finals, and Chicago was waiting.
BRING ON THE BULLS
In the years since Michael Jordan’s retirement, it can seem from afar that Chicago’s victories were preordained, and that everyone expected them. In some years that’s true, like 1992 and 1996. In 1997, there might have been thoughts of an upset, but the average basketball fan expected MJ would win. But in years like 1993 and 1998, that wasn’t the case. Both Phoenix in ’93 and Utah in this season, were seen as real threats to finally dethrone the King.
Utah got off to a good start, winning Game 1 in overtime, but there were troubling signs. The Jazz led by eight after three quarters, before letting the lead slip away at home. Could this team close out Jordan? They survived this one, thanks to Stockton stepping up and scoring 24 and Malone delivering a 21/14 night. But the Bulls took homecourt advantage in Game 2, again reversing a deficit after three quarters (albeit only three points), thanks to 37 from Jordan. Chicago also won free-throw scoring 22-15, undoubtedly giving rise to favorable officiating theories.
The Finals went to Chicago for the middle three games and it looked like they might not return west. The Jazz played a horrid game in Sunday night’s Game 3, losing 96-54, with Malone seemingly the only Jazz player who could be troubled to show up. Of particular concern was Stockton, now a non-factor two straight games. The point guard got back on his assists game in Game 4, handing out 13, while Malone, steady as she goes, had a 21/14 night, but the Bulls pulled it out 86-82 in spite of 37 percent shooting from the floor. It looked like this dream season was not only ending in defeat, but going down hard.
NBA buffs have given Utah a lot of heat for its failings in the 1997-98 NBA Finals, but give them this—they didn’t quit in a spot where it would have been easy. On a Friday night, with the Windy City screaming for a sixth ring, and trailing by six at the half, the Jazz came out strong in the third quarter and took the lead. Malone scored 39 points. Stockton dished 12 assists, and Utah grew the lead to seven with two minutes to go. Then surfaced the Jazz their critics always point to. Chicago somehow cut the lead to two and got Jordan a last-gasp desperation trey that only drew air. The Jazz had an 83-81 win and they had homecourt. But if this were baseball, they needed to make a deal for a closer.
It was a Sunday evening in June, and I still remember taking a drive over to my uncle’s house to watch Game 6. Whether you were a hard-core NBA fan or not, this was a classic. You had the heavyweight champ trying to hold on one last time, against the perpetual runner-up desperate and knowing it was his last shot. That a movie hasn’t been made about this game 14 years after the fact is an indictment of Hollywood.
Game 6 was close throughout. Malone had a 31/11/7 line, but Stockton was back to being kept in check. As for Chicago? Coming into the closing minute, he had 41 points, no one else had really registered. Finally, Stockton nailed a three-pointer with 42 seconds left to give the Jazz an 86-83 lead and the Delta Center was ready to blow its roof off. Jordan hit a jumper to cut the lead to one. Utah brought the ball down. It went to Malone, who had his pocket picked by Jordan. The clock ran down. Jordan didn’t even bother looking anywhere else. He brought the ball between his legs, got up inside the circle and let it fly. Swish. Five seconds were left and Chicago had the lead. Stockton got one last three-pointer, and it had a chance, but it rimmed out. The Bulls were champs. Utah had come up just short.
Neither the Utes nor the Jazz have ever scaled these heights again. Malone and Stockton’s window had closed, and they gave way to San Antonio and Los Angeles. In fact Malone, in an “if you can’t beat them, join them” tactic joined forces with Shaq in 2004 to try and get a ring, but the Lakers lost to the Pistons that year. Andre Miller came back for his senior year under Majerus and won WAC Player of the Year, and the team was a #2 seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. They were upset in the second round. Perhaps it’s just as well. The 3-seed in their bracket and awaiting in the Sweet 16 was Kentucky.