SALT LAKE CITY — Just last week, Othyus Jeffers was nearly floating while talking about what a dream it was to get his first-ever start for the Utah Jazz.
Roster hopefuls Ryan Thompson and Demetris Nichols expressed similar sentiments when they were recently inserted into the starting lineup for preseason games.
And it was only nine months ago when Sundiata Gaines found a permanent spot in Jazz fans' hearts by sinking an unbelievable buzzer-and-Cleveland-beating 3-pointer shortly after being called up from the D-League.
On Thursday, the current chapter ended on those NBA stories that almost seemed to good to be true. The Jazz trimmed their roster to the minimum of 13 players by cutting Gaines, Jeffers, Nichols and Thompson prior to practice.
That leaves second-round pick Jeremy Evans as the only player remaining on the team with a non-guaranteed contract, and the moves solidify what will likely be the opening day roster for the quickly approaching 2010-11 season.
"It's never easy," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said, "but it's a business and we had some decisions. ... Bottom line is, I thought Jeremy Evans outplayed everybody else."
The four cut players were not made available for comment, but their pain was felt from the franchise's front office, through the coaching staff, to their now former teammates.
"It's a lousy day," O'Connor said. "It really is from that point of view because those kids have made our camp better."
Out of respect, Jerry Sloan always conducts player cuts face-to-face — with O'Connor also in the room — and the Hall of Fame coach considers breaking the bad news one of the worst parts of his job.
"It's never a fun day for us to have to come and do this," said Sloan, who's entering his 23rd season as Utah's head coach. "That's part of this business. I'd just as soon not go to work. But that's part of it. We move on and wish them well."
Deron Williams preferred to keep his comments to the cut-day casualties personal, but he shares his coach's sour feelings about the process. He called the released players "great guys" and credited them for helping the team this fall.
"It's a bad day. Nobody likes this day," Williams said. "It's not fun for anybody. It's not fun for coach, not fun for us, not fun for the guys that get cut. It's part of the business, but it's tough to see."
It was toughest on the Jazz to part ways with Gaines, a fan favorite, and Jeffers, a coach favorite.
"Both of those kids have fought their way into the league a little bit," O'Connor said, "and hopefully they'll keep fighting and winding up in a situation where they can play."
Williams admitted he was "a little surprised" that Jeffers was let go, especially considering the Jazz have two open roster spots. Jeffers, a small but spunky swingman from Chicago's Robert Morris, joined the team last spring from the D-League's Iowa Energy.
"I thought 'O' had a strong chance to make it," Williams said.
The odds were stacked against Gaines when the Jazz signed veteran point guard Earl Watson right before training camp started. The Jazz, who already had Williams and Ronnie Price under contract, usually only carry three point guards. Gaines had committed himself to participating in Jazz camp, and he spoke optimistically about making the squad this fall.
"(The) situation was tough for Yatta," Williams said. "... Once we signed Earl, that probably cut his chances in half immediately."
Like Jazz fans, Williams will always remember the heroic 3 that Gaines hit to thwart LeBron James at EnergySolutions Arena on Jan. 14. The Idaho Stampede player earned a second 10-day contract after the sensational shot and was then signed for the remainder of the season.
"That's one of the best shots in (Jazz) history, I'll bet," said Williams, who left the game early with an injury to pave the way for Gaines' participation in the fourth quarter. "It was a big game. The circumstances that he was under were amazing."
Thompson hoped to pave his own NBA path after following his brother, Sacramento's Jason Thompson, to Rider University, so the 6-6 guard spurned a Kings' camp offer to try out with the Jazz.
After clearing waivers, Thompson is expected to sign a D-League contract and will play for the Utah Flash. The Orem-based team owns his D-League rights because he participated in camp with the Jazz, its NBA affiliate.
Nichols, a 6-8 small forward, was trying to find a permanent spot in the league after having bounced around in short stints with three NBA teams since being drafted by Portland late in the 2007 draft out of Syracuse. Like Jeffers, his D-League rights are owned by his former team, the Iowa Energy.
Ownership didn't mandate that O'Connor trim the roster to a minimum of 13 for salary-saving purposes, he said. But the G.M. was instructed to only keep players who "can help us really win games." That left Evans as the last-man standing.
Sloan hates to see any of them go.
"If you'd been here and seen those guys practice every day and the work that they put in and then you watch them play when they got in the games, they didn't fade away," Sloan said. "They kept playing hard. They kept working hard. Hopefully, they get a chance to play again."
Moments after that, Sloan's remaining players huddled up and began practice ahead of their final preseason game tonight at home against Sacramento.
"We can't mope around about it for two or three days," Sloan said. "You've got to go back and go to work."
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