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Thousands throw Jazz party at airport

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 2:20 a.m. MDT

John Stockton's history-making three-pointer transformed a strip of desolate asphalt into a T-shaped circus - complete with masks, clowns, balloons, posters, saxophones, accordions and an estimated 15,000 noisy Utah Jazz fans.

From sleeping children to line-dancing teenagers to excited grandparents, enough people to populate a small town gathered early Friday at the Executive Airport to greet the returning Western Conference champions. Some hung banners, others held helium-balloon bouquets in Jazz purples and blues.One young man held up a poster of Clyde Drexler and encouraged audience boos and hisses, while another waved a Jazz team photo bearing the legend "1997 World Champions." Scattered pockets of people tried to get a "wave" going.

And every call of "Stockton for president" was greeted with raucous applause.

"Our husbands are home asleep," Wendy Feller said, laughing. She and a "group from the neighborhood" in Layton - including Meryl Rasmussen, Vicki Knowlton, Danielle Nuttall and Chrissy Burton - ran around their block, hooting, honking and hollering. Then they set off fireworks and threw one another into a swimming pool. They capped the evening by loading their children into cars to make the trek to the airport to welcome the Jazz home.

"We never miss a Jazz game," Rasmussen explained. Added Knowlton, "We were planning a family trip to San Francisco but decided to buy playoff tickets instead."

In fact, the women used to make their own Jazz flags before the items were merchandised.

Byron Williams, 32, displayed his dedication to the Jazz by dyeing his hair purple when the playoffs started in April. He called Thursday's win "sweet revenge" against the Rockets, who beat the Jazz three years ago in the first round of the playoffs, and he declared Stockton the "MVP" for sinking the 3-pointer that put Houston away 103-100.

The Jazz were losing by 13 points during the fourth quarter yet came back to win the game.

An announcement that the plane was delayed 90 minutes and wouldn't arrive until 3 a.m. did little to dampen the excitement. It just meant there was more time for people to drive to the airport. New arrivals outnumbered those who were leaving early by at least 4-1.

Calling it a block party is like saying Karl Malone can play ball. But no group of crazed fans was ever nicer, according to airport Police Capt. Carl Ellis. About the biggest problem was two enthusiastic teenagers who ran around in their underwear.

Betty Cassell wasn't about to go to bed after the Jazz won the right to go to the NBA Finals for the first time. She has been a Jazz fan for 18 years and wanted to enjoy the Jazz's best season by greeting them at the airport.

"I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep because I was too excited about the win," she said. "I was so nervous before the shot, but after he made it, I jumped up out of my seat."

Cassell's son, John, lives in Chicago and has tickets to the first two games of the NBA Finals. Cassell is leaving for the Windy City on Friday - and she says she won't be afraid to wear her purple Utah Jazz sweater in the United Center.

"I get depressed or happy depending on whether the Jazz win," she said. "I really need to get a life."

Linda Knavel and 28 of her relatives, including five children and eight grandchildren, unfurled an 8-foot banner, one of 10 signs they made within minutes of the win. They left Brigham City and stopped in Layton to pick up other relatives, filling three vans.

Knavel's daughter, Jana Nelson, was so excited she hyperventilated when Stockton's shot went in. She ended up on the floor in a dead faint - a story her family gleefully recounted. Nelson's 18-month-old daughter, Janeese, in turn, wandered around saying "Show Title," a take-off on all those "Show Me the Title" ads on TV.

Justin and Brandon Rhodes, 11 and 7 respectively, were sprawled on the asphalt and the grass sleeping during all the hoopla. Their parents, Rocky and Rachelle Rhodes, of Sandy, claimed they came because their kids wanted to come.

"They promised they'd stay awake," Rachelle Rhodes laughed.

When the team finally landed about 3 a.m., the anxious crowd went crazy. Fans lined up along the airport's road to cheer for the conference champions as their cars inched along behind the flashing lights of a police escort.

Jazz reserve Chris Morris sat on the top of a truck and waved a Jazz flag. Jazz center Antoine Carr signed autographs and slapped the hands of the fans. Stockton sat in the passenger's seat of a teammate's car while fans screamed and cheered for him.

James Gallaher, 42, Tooele, skipped work Friday to welcome the Jazz home. To him, waiting three hours for the team was worth it.

"I'm supposed to be at work in an hour from now," he said as the players got off the plane. "I got `sick' when the Jazz won. There's no way I'm going to work."

The fans at the airport weren't the only ones celebrating after Stockton hit the game-winning shot.

Callers inside and outside the state jammed phone lines trying to offer each other comment on the win.

US WEST spokesman Duane Cooke said a "major calling event" occurred just before 10 p.m. Utah residents trying to call friends and family got the fast busy signal and "all circuits are busy" recording, indicating too many callers for the telephone system to handle.

"It's similar to what happens if there is a report of an earthquake or something where everyone picks up the phone," Cooke said. "Utah definitely lit up on the (phone) network's management screen when the Jazz game ended."

Fans throughout the state gathered in hordes at restaurants and bars to watch the big win.

At Iggy's Sports Grill, 200 W. 700 South, dozens of screaming fans banged tables and hugged each other after the Jazz won.

"He (Stockton) was the hero of the game," said John Gude, a Dallas native who has taken the Jazz to heart. "It was the best game I have ever seen."

At Lumpy's Social Club, 3000 S. Highland Drive (1500 East), fans screamed, hugged and jumped on the tables. "It was absolutely unreal," said bartender Mark Archibald. "People were still cheering two hours after the game ended."

Not everybody was happy. George Cloward, of Wendover, bet $1,000 against the Jazz and was hoping to go to Game 7 at the Delta Center. He traveled to Salt Lake City early Thursday to get a wristband for the last game of the Houston series if the Jazz lost Thursday.

Now, Cloward will have to "settle" for Game 3 of the 1997 NBA Finals if he wants to see a game in the Delta Center.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company