Ravell Call, Deseret News
I was outside the Jazz locker room, 10 years ago this week, when a writer from USA Today said with a wry smile: "Utah rules the world right now, doesn't it?"
And don't forget it.
The state was on an all-time roll in 1998, enjoying its best sports year ever. The Jazz were in the NBA Finals for the second time, having tied for the best record in the league. Meanwhile, Rick Majerus and his Utes were coming off a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Blond hair, bright smiles and oh-my-hecks were everywhere, it seemed.
If Utah didn't rule the world, at least the world was hearing about Utah.
In both cases, the Utah
teams actually finished second. Which certainly wasn't bad; it just wasn't No. 1.
That's how it goes around here. With the exception of some long ago NCAA and NIT basketball championships, and BYU's 1984 football title, Utah is a Susan Lucci kind of place.
Respectable, but a little short on wins.
Even the 2004 Ute football team, which crushed nearly everyone on its schedule, still finished only fourth-ranked.
It took Lucci 19 tries before she won a Daytime Emmy.
But the Jazz have been trying for nearly three decades.
Ten years after the Jazz were last in the Finals, the brass ring still eludes them.
Which makes their close call all the more memorable.
Utah teams weren't the fanciest in 1998. Both the Jazz and Utes employed grinding defense and patient offense to subdue opponents.
Never mind that watching them was like watching ice melt. It worked.
Yet neither the Utes nor Jazz could overcome quicker, more athletic opponents (Kentucky, Chicago) in their title games.
Still, the surrounding publicity brought the kind of attention only mega-events could. Majerus was a bona fide celebrity, entertaining the media with restaurant reviews and jokes about dating Cindy Crawford and Ashley Judd.
Dennis Rodman, the incorrigible Bulls forward, offended Mormons during the 1997 Finals by profanely claiming they were messing up his karma. That week I got a call from an East Coast writer who wanted to know why the Rodman quotes hadn't become a gigantic story in the Salt Lake media.
"You can't imagine the uproar that would have caused if someone had said that about the Jews in New York," he said.
By '98, not much had changed. The Jazz and Bulls were back in the Finals and Rodman was still disrespecting Mormons and Utahns.
"I have no business in Utah at all," he said. "Those people are a different breed."
Like he was talking about lab animals.
Those mice. Those gnats. Those rats.
Teammate Scottie Pippen was only slightly less disdainful.
"How long do you want to stay in Utah?" he told reporters.
Nonetheless, the Jazz kept the series respectable. They didn't own the court, but they certainly owned Utah, week after week.
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