SALT LAKE CITY — I flipped on the TV last week to watch the Jazz play a road game. I knew all the faces, though several of the more familiar players (Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Devin Harris, Kyrylo Fesenko, Ronnie Price, Raja Bell) were out with injuries.
I looked for a go-to player the Jazz might employ if needed late in the game. Let's see, Carlos Boozer has been gone for months. Deron Williams parachuted out just before the crash. John Stockton and Karl Malone have been gone so long, many grade schoolers have never heard of them. Jeff Hornacek is around but he's on the bench in a suit.
That's when it dawned on me that hardly anyone would know the Jazz players, regardless of who had the ball. Catch them in an airport and they might look familiar, but you're just as likely to think it's Athletes in Action. They're as anonymous as a dollar bill.
Thanks to this season's personnel changes, the Jazz have been rendered nearly unrecognizable — an unprecedented event. They have always had a star of national if not international proportions. When the team was in New Orleans, it had the incomparable Pete Maravich. Later came Darrell Griffith, Adrian Dantley, Stockton, Malone, Boozer and Williams. Through it all, Jerry Sloan was the bedrock of the franchise.
Nowadays the Jazz are the basketball version of a Honda Civic. Nobody notices them. Do they have a star? Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Harris are probably the team's best players. Kirilenko has been around long enough that serious NBA fans know him. But really, who's an actual star here?
The Jazz are the Toronto Raptors of the West.
All NBA players are famous in a way, though not always enough to be instantly recognizable. Shaquille O'Neal's career is in decline, but his visibility continues to be high. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant transcend sports. Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash still stop traffic.
But to people nationwide, a Jazz box score is a lot like eating at a fine French restaurant — you have to be familiar with the menu or you won't know what you're ordering. (Fortuitously for the Jazz, the word "toast" is spelled the same in English and French.)
Kirilenko could be Utah's most identifiable player, but only because he's been there the longest and wears the strangest hairstyles. Ask anyone east of Evanston who is the face of the new Jazz and he'll stare as though you asked him to name each member of the von Trapp family.
Whether this matters to Jazz fans is debatable. They certainly know Jeremy Evans and Gordon Hayward. But outside the Intermountain area, Jazz players draw a blank. Even coach Ty Corbin is just a nice guy with a great selection of neckties.
For 18 years, Stockton and Malone were associated with the Jazz like Jell-O with gelatin. For a shorter period, Boozer and Williams were the face if the Jazz, along with Sloan. But then came the upheaval and suddenly the team had no identity, its icons replaced by strangers. If you dropped any of them off at a shopping mall in Georgia, not two in 10 people could name any of them.
Think of it this way: If you're not an avid NBA fan, can you identify a single Timberwolves player? (And this is a team that beat the Jazz by 21.) Probably not, even with the rise of Kevin Love. To most people, he may as well be Buddy Love from The Nutty Professor. Same with the Jazz, a team that for 18 years was as unchanging as the mountains.
Maybe someday people will know their names, but for now the Jazz are at least a couple of strong playoff runs away.
This then is the face of the new Jazz: There is none. So don't break out any Did-you-see-that-dunk-last-night-by-Favors? rhetoric with your non-Utah friends. They might think you're talking about Flavor Flav.
Now he's actually a little bit famous.
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