High school basketball in Indiana is, like, everything. We were the underdogs. No one picked us to win that year, and then to win in the fashion that we did, it was just cool. Pretty special. —Gordon Hayward, Jazz shooting guard
SALT LAKE CITY — Making it to the 2012 playoffs provided a sweet feeling of accomplishment for the Utah Jazz.
Granted, that might be difficult to remember a week later, considering the Texas-sized tumble they took in San Antonio.
But we interrupt the Jazz bashing and fans' teeth gnashing for a peek at more positive postseason moments the players have had over the years.
The Deseret News asked Jazz players to relate their all-time personal favorite playoff experiences — from preps to college to the pros — and these are the stories their grandchildren are likely to hear over and over again:
The shooting guard loved his two-year experience at Butler. He won over college basketball fans' hearts while helping the Bulldogs advance to the 2010 NCAA championship game.
But his fondest memory happened a year before college.
"My favorite postseason moment," the 22-year-old said, "was when we won the state championship in high school."
That moment so happens to be a chapter in Hoosier State lore.
Hayward's 2008 Brownsburg team trailed 39-38 with 2.1 seconds remaining when Austin Fish made a long inbounds pass from three-quarters of the court away. An opponent tipped the ball, but Hayward grabbed it and quickly put it up and in just before the buzzer went off. Pandemonium ensued inside Conseco Fieldhouse after the Bulldogs edged Marion 40-39 for Indiana's coveted Class 4A crown in style.
"High school basketball in Indiana is, like, everything," Hayward said. "We were the underdogs. No one picked us to win that year, and then to win in the fashion that we did, it was just cool. Pretty special."
The party continued from Indianapolis to Brownsburg's auditorium 15 miles away. The championship team bus even had a police escort.
"We pulled into the high school gymnasium," Hayward said, "and pretty much the whole town was in there."
Not only did the Brownsburg boys receive a heroes welcome, but the celebration lasted past midnight and onto March 23 — Hayward's 18th birthday.
"Everybody sang 'Happy Birthday,' which was pretty cool," he said. "I never had a birthday sung like that."
Before his underdog, sixth-seeded UCLA team took on No. 3 Maryland in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament, Watson read a disturbing blurb in a press release. The Terrapins had beaten North Carolina and Duke in the regular season, but the school had never downed the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Bruins all in the same year.
"It really bothered me and I showed my coach, Steve Lavin," Watson said. "I was upset. I wanted to say something to the media. Lavin said, 'No. Let your game do the talking.' "
Turned out, Watson's game talked in a very loud voice.
The scrappy point guard dished out a school-record 16 assists with zero turnovers, hit five 3-pointers en route to 17 points, and led UCLA to the Sweet Sixteen with a 105-70 drubbing of Maryland.
"It was big. It was a big part of UCLA basketball," Watson said. "That UCLA experience was something I'll always remember."
All the more impressive, Watson toughed out his performance despite suffering a torn retina in the first five minutes. It took about seven stitches to repair what he called "the worst injury I've ever had."
The power forward went to the playoffs his first four NBA years, including a Western Conference finals appearance in 2007.
But those postseasons aren't his best memories. It took some coaxing to get him to dig into his memory bank.
"I'm not a fun type of guy," he said, joking (maybe).
Eventually, Millsap took a stroll down the lane that landed him back at Grambling High School in Louisiana. The Kittens went 30-0 in District 2-1A play while he was there, but the game that sticks out was a semifinal in which he set a rebounding record.
"Our team actually won that game and went to the championship," he said. "It was a moment for me then. That's about it."
The former hopping Hilltopper played well and led Western Kentucky to the Sun Belt championship in 2008.
"I was killing it," Evans said, grinning.
Even though he personally didn't play quite as well the next year, WKU's 2009 conference title remains his sweetest memory.
The tournament took place in Arkansas (Hot Springs) — an easy 140-mile drive from his hometown, Crossett.
"Just cutting down the nets, (and) my family and people from Arkansas were right there," Evans said. "The year before I got MVP of the tournament. I'd rather take (being) home, family. Special. Everybody can't say that."
The point guard was hurt going into the playoffs early in his career with the Indiana Pacers. Because of an ankle injury, he wasn't sure he'd play against the Boston Celtics in the early 2000s.
But Tinsley gutted it out — and Indiana eventually overcame Boston, too.
"Not knowing if I was going to play or not, I was just like, 'Let me try,' " Tinsley said. "I was just going off adrenaline. I was hurting. My ankle was hurting bad and I just played through it."
The Celtics beat Tinsley's Pacers in the first round, 4-2, in his second season even though he had some strong outings. Thanks in part to his play, Indiana bounced back to sweep Boston out of the opening round in 2004.
Before 2009, South Atlanta High School had never won a state basketball championship. This McDonald's All-American changed that by totaling 38 points and 21 rebounds against Westover to give his alma mater its first Class AAA title.
"Me and my teammates, we all grew up together," 20-year-old Favors said, "so that was a pretty special moment."
Favors said his team was favored every year, but they had problems escaping the first round until his final try.
"For my senior year to win the state, with all my friends," he said, "it was pretty cool."
And the celebration?
"We really couldn't do nothing. We was high schoolers," he said. "(Where) we played the state championship game was an hour-and-a-half away from Atlanta, so we got back late. Pretty much everybody just went home and went to sleep because we had school the next day.
DEVIN HARRIS & JOSH HOWARD
The last time these veterans were on the same team, their squad made an NBA finals run. That was in 2006 with the Dallas Mavericks.
Perhaps that's a good omen for the struggling Jazz. Regardless, it's the playoff time closest to their hearts.
"Not too many guys can say they made it there. I was one of the few. I'll take that all day," Howard said. "Just to get to that point, to have that mental capacity to stick through it after the season's over with and go into that playoff series … that speaks a lot about players."
Harris loved the Mavs' march because he started and it was his second season.
"Being such a young player, being in that type of atmosphere," he recalled, "you can't really beat that."
Had he stayed in college, this answer might be different for the short-term and sidelined Kentucky Wildcat, whose old school won the 2012 championship. Though he didn't get to play in the NCAA, Kanter excelled while leading Turkey's Under-18 squad to a bronze medal in 2009.
"We won the quarterfinal in Under-18 European Championship. I was really excited," said Kanter, who believes it was the first time the Turks won in that round. "It was just great, feeling great. … I still talk to my teammates from back there."
The Jazz's triple-OT win over Dallas gave Ahearn a fun flashback. His St. Louis-area high school team, De Smet Jesuit, endured one of those barnburners to win the 2002 district championship.
Get this: Ahearn cherishes the victory even though he didn't play in the game. He had a broken wrist. That bad luck had people counting his teammates out, making him extra proud they persevered.
"Even though I wasn't playing, it was a pretty fun game to be a part of," Ahearn said. "It kind of brought back memories the other night in triple overtime (against Dallas). I was technically a part of a triple overtime game before, and we won both of them.
"I think what made it special is we had a really good group of guys, a good team," Ahearn said. "I'm still friends with a lot of guys from that team. It was a fun thing to be a part of."
This postseason hasn't been memorable for Utah or Miles, who is out with a calf injury. But the 25-year-old has enjoyed every postseason he's been in with the Jazz over his seven-year career.
Beating Houston twice, including once two get to the 2007 Western Conference finals, was "fun." But the Jazz's improbable first-round series victory over Denver in 2010 tops the list.
"The last time we were in the playoffs was probably my favorite playoffs because I had a chance to play a lot of minutes and really help my team," Miles said. "That was fun just to be able to play."
In 10 playoff games in 2010, Miles averaged 14.4 points, 2.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds. He was also lauded for his defense against prolific scorer Carmelo Anthony in the first round when Utah advanced despite losing Mehmet Okur to an Achilles tendon injury in Game 1.
"Everybody else stepped up," Miles said, specifically pointing out Kyrylo Fesenko, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. "We had a good team. We played hard."
Looking back, friendship was more important than a championship for the Jazz's rookie guard.
"Going to state in high school my senior with all my friends — it was a great thing," Burks said. "It was the last time we were all together like that."
On the court, things didn't turn out like they hoped at Grandview High School in South Side Kansas City. That doesn't spoil Burks' fond feelings of time spent with childhood pals.
"We was suppose to win the state. We was undefeated and all that, but we lost the state championship game. Oh well. It was real fun, being around my friends," Burks said. "It was our senior year and we went out with a bang. It was probably the best moment I ever had. Stuff like that you'll never forget for the rest of your life. You could be 30, 40, 50. You'll never forget that. … We grew up together, so that's probably what made it more special."
Becoming a contributor for the Jazz after being waived by Denver in February isn't his only comeback story. Carroll's John Carroll Catholic High School team from Birmingham, Ala., rallied to win the state championship his junior season.
"We were down by 10 with like a minute and 45 (seconds) to go, and we came back and won," Carroll recalled. "They (Bob Jones HS) just started turning the ball over. I don't know what they was doing."
Two minutes later, however, Carroll & Co. were celebrating a thrilling 36-0 2003 season and a 6A Missouri championship.
The only thing that didn't go Carroll's way — Alabama-bound teammate Ronald Steele was named MVP.
"I was supposed to get MVP," said Carroll, who earned it and another state title his senior year. "I was mad about it. I can say that now."
Carroll said that while smiling, by the way.
"Game 7. Milwaukee. 2001."
In April of that year, Bell signed with Philadelphia. Despite being a late-season newcomer to the NBA, he showed his stuff in the Eastern Conference finals finale.
"It was the first time I really ever made a big difference in a playoff game," Bell said.
Coach Larry Brown liked what he did off the bench in Game 6 after Philly fell down by 20, so he decided to give Bell a bigger reserve role
"I was the first sub off the bench in Game 7 and came in had a dunk and a three and a layup and a couple of steals from Ray Allen, and kind of just sparked it, man," Bell said. "Eastern Conference finals, my rookie year. Good (stuff)."
The Sixers won but fell to the Lakers in the NBA finals.
As a junior, Jefferson's Prentiss High School team went into the 2003 Mississippi state tournament as a No. 3 seed — "as the underdog," he pointed out.
Three victories later — and a scoring average of about 45 points for Jefferson — his resilient squad had secured the 3A crown and the school's first hoops trophy.
Jefferson spoke with heart-warming emotion as he reflected back on a conversation he had in the school gym that night. He and his coach sat quietly together reminiscing over adversity they'd overcome.2 comments on this story
"We had a rough season all year, that whole season we were getting whooped, getting beat and then all of a sudden we just turned it on in the end," Jefferson said. "We were just looking at each other and took a deep breath, like, 'If we would've said this in the beginning of the year would you (have) believed it?' "
Jefferson continued: "We just couldn't believe that everything just turned around for us and we ended up winning the state championship, the only one my school ever won. It was an amazing moment."
A moment, Jefferson said, when he learned to never give up.
Something his new team might take to heart nine years later.