Twenty years later, I'm still watching Jazz games. Only moments ago the Jazz finished the 05-06 season with a win over Golden State that brought them up to .500 on the year. It was also Greg Ostertag's last game, which also means our last player connection to those two trips to the Finals is gone.
The first year the Jazz went to the Finals, I wasn't much of an active fan, at least in terms of watching games. I spent the spring and summer of 1997 riding a bike around the south side of Chicago, doing missionary work for the LDS church. So I never even saw that historic shot Stockton hit over Charles Barkley in the Western Conference Finals, the one that replays on every Jazz highlight reel.
No, my role as a fan that year was to defend the team against the people of Chicago, whose team was busily sending my Jazz home from their first Finals appearance still waiting for their first NBA championship. That was the year Rodman made his crack about Mormons, and his Zen Master coach played damage control by calling us a cult. Oi.
Thing is, I loved Chicago. I still think of it as a home away from home. And I don't for a moment regret missing out on some local history because I was a missionary. I wouldn't have regretted missing it even if the Jazz had won the title.
But my time on the south side drove home one long-suspected point: for all the shots, founded and not founded, that people take at Utah, it's still where my loyalties lie. And the Utah Jazz are still my team.
As a little kid I had watched the team on and off for several years during the era when it felt like every time I turned around, the Lakers and the Celtics were playing in the Finals. But I don't think it was until 87-88 that I officially signed on as a persistent follower of team fortunes.
I had already met Karl Malone when he was a skinny rookie signing autographs all alone at a card table in the Bountiful McDonald's Playland, with Mayor McCheese and The Hamburglar looking down on the future "prototypical power forward" with blank plastic stares.
I had already missed my chance to get an autograph from Darrell Griffith when he came to visit the local branch of the Jr. Jazz league during my first season of organized ball. (My patented move was to catch the ball somewhere on the right side of the top of the key, dribble towards the basket with my head down, stop, and look up in desperation for someone to pass the ball to).
But it was watching Stockton and Malone come of age against the Lakers in the spring of 88 that made my conversion complete. The Lakers represented then what the Bulls represented in 98: the high-rolling bully trying to spoil my team's underdog story. Even as an 11-year-old, I could sense that as I watched them on a ten-inch TV my neighbor had packed into his van during the Fathers and Sons outing. The Jazz, for better or for worse, have always carried the identity, and inferiority complex, of thousands of Utahn's. Taking LA to seven games in 88 announced our arrival, and in 97 we finally proved we could play on the biggest stage as well.
When the Jazz descended from their Finals-level caliber after two straight disappointments at the hands of the Bulls, I repeatedly said that I'd probably lose interest in the NBA altogether once Stockton and Malone retired. I savored every moment, like the time against Portland in game 3 of their second round series when Jeff Hornacek went out on two bad knees and fought through a physically brutal defense to put up 24 points in the second to last game he'd ever play. Hornyas awful a nickname as a guy ever hadwas kind of a welcome third wheel to the Stockton-to-Malone combo, and his departure signaled the beginning of the end of that era as much as anything.
But once all the "greats" were gone, to my surprise I was still watching. In fact, the 42-40 team from two years ago was probably the funnest to watch since 88, simply because no one expected anything out of them. They may have been the last legitimately humble NBA squad the league will ever see. I was still watching.
The wheels fell off last year, but I still watched, hoping they might still turn things around in time to make a run, all the while listening to commentators around the country say things like, "Utahn's wish Stockton and Malone were still around, but they'll never see anyone as good as them again".
This year carried all the frustrations of a .500 team, from the unexpected wins against Detroit to the colossal brain-fart losses to New York. But there I was, only hours ago, sitting in my room watching game number 82, with nothing more at stake than the difference between a losing season and breaking even.
I usually like to keep few loyalties, but I guess the Jazz are on my short list.