Utah Jazz: Chicago Bulls, Carlos Boozer back in town for big night
SALT LAKE CITY — This isn't one of your ordinary, middle-of-the-year, ho-hum pre-All-Star break basketball games.
Tonight's contest is a rare opportunity for the Utah Jazz to play in front of a national audience — assuming viewers stay up to see them when the ESPN-televised game tips off at about 8:40 p.m. MST.
While the opponent is not Michael Jordan's Bulls, it is Carlos Boozer's Bulls.
The former Jazz power forward may not be nearly as revered or quite as reviled as His Airness, but Boozer's return will certainly turn up the intensity factor inside of EnergySolutions Arena.
(And, just remember, he thinks you'll be giving him "Booz!")
Adding to the intrigue, this Jazz-Bulls game also oddly falls almost on the two-year mark of the infamous day when Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan shocked the basketball world by quitting midseason the day after Utah lost to Chicago, 91-86, on Feb. 9, 2011.
Nowadays, Sloan watches most Jazz home games about 10 rows up behind the Utah bench, where his replacement and former assistant and player, Tyrone Corbin, carries the head coaching mantle.
"It's gone by fast. It's been a lot of experiences and a lot of growth on my behalf, a lot of growth on my coaching staff's behalf, a lot of growth on these players' behalf the last couple of years," Corbin said.
"We've been through a lot together and we're seeing the fruit of our labor now because of all the adversity we've been through — guys being in and out of the lineup. Guys are growing as a group."
After going 8-20 in his first insane half season as a head coach — in the aftermath of Sloan's departure and Deron Williams being traded — Corbin has guided his team to winning records in the ensuing seasons.
Last year, the Jazz surprised many by making the playoffs with a 36-30 mark in a lockout-shortened campaign.
Utah finds itself with six more wins than losses yet again 50 games into this season at 28-22.
That math adds up to Corbin being at the .500 level (72-72) for the first time in his coaching career.
"You want to be as best as you can, go out and win every game you coach and play," Corbin said. "We'll continue to work and get better."
Millsap said it feels "like it's been forever" since the Sloan-to-Corbin transition took place. It was a bumpy start, too, as the Jazz became the first team in NBA history to begin 27-13 and not make the playoffs.
There's a long way to go this season, but they are in a playoff spot for the second year in a row since that free fall.
"We've came a long ways," Millsap said. "I remember around that time, it seemed like everything was falling apart. Collectively, as a group, we kind of picked it back up, worked hard to get where we're at right now. We're still making progress."
Tonight's game will be the third time Millsap will get a chance to go mano-a-mano with Boozer.
Coincidentally, Boozer has played in about the same ratio of Jazz-Bulls games since he left the Beehive State in 2010 as he did while playing/rehabbing in six seasons as a Utah player.
Though he was a two-time All-Star and helped lead the Jazz to the 2009 Western Conference Finals, Boozer spent a lot of time in Utah's training room. He missed 138 of 492 regular-season games (28 percent) with various injuries.
Boozer's defensive struggles and his health condition — or perceived lack of commitment to play through pain a la Karl Malone — set the stage for a sometimes rocky relationship with the fan base.
Corbin doesn't believe that's fair.
"The guy's character, knowing Booz, he didn't want to miss games. He wanted to be out there with his teammates," Corbin said. "It hurt him more than anything that he was hurt and he couldn't be about there helping his team. I don't know if the criticism was justified. If you're hurt, you're hurt. What can you do?"
Not proclaim yourself to be healthy the day after the season ends?
Maybe watch for bags in dark corners of your house?
When Boozer was on the court, though, he and Williams trailed only Stockton & Malone on the all-time Jazz 1-2 punch list.
"People talk about the games he was out because he was hurt, but the games that he played when he was healthy, he was a tremendous asset for us," Corbin said. "He is a great guy, first of all, a great teammate, a great guy to work with. I spent a lot of time working with him off the court outside of games, but he's just a great human being and we really enjoyed the time we spent together here."
Millsap, who played in Boozer's shadow to begin his career, is the only Jazz player who was on the team when the Duke product was in Utah. Like Corbin, Millsap only had positive stuff to say.
"I remember he was a great player for us. He was a great player here, an All-Star player a few times," said Millsap whose numbers (14.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) are just under Boozer's (15.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg) this season.
"I had great memories with him. We made it to the Western Conference Finals one year with him. A lot of memories."
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