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Doug Robinson: Utah Jazz know how to keep a secret

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 2:49 a.m. MDT

Former Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor watches work outs during Utah Jazz mini camp at the Zion's Bank Center  in Salt Lake City  Wednesday, June 12, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Former Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor watches work outs during Utah Jazz mini camp at the Zion's Bank Center in Salt Lake City Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

I called Kevin O’Connor, the Jazz’s senior vice president of basketball operations, to discuss the team’s penchant for keeping a secret and not talking publicly about team business — or talking about it and not really saying anything.

“I’m going to have no comment on this story,” O’Connor began.

Just as I was about to panic — where do you go after "no comment"? — I heard him laugh. The Utah Jazz are serious about keeping their yappers shut, but apparently there is no club rule that forbids a sense of humor.

But seriously, if O’Connor, Dennis Lindsey, Jerry Sloan, Ty Corbin, Greg Miller and the rest of the Jazz front office were in charge of the NSA, there would be no Edward Snowden. These guys know how to keep in-house business in-house. If O’Connor ran the White House, there would be no leaks and no drama, and reporters would be bashing their heads against their laptops.

Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and Head Coach Tyrone Corbin talk Thursday, June 27, 2013 about their first round draft pick Trey Burke at the Jazz practice facility. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and Head Coach Tyrone Corbin talk Thursday, June 27, 2013 about their first round draft pick Trey Burke at the Jazz practice facility. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Things would be quietly efficient — and really boring.

“It’s just the way we’ve always operated,” says O’Connor. “It was that way before I got here, and it certainly has been that way since I got here. We don’t like to air our business in public.”

It’s classy and disciplined — but where’s the fun in that?

The NBA is a media circus filled with rumors, leaks, hearsay and drama worthy of a soap opera, but they don’t come via the Jazz. Whether it’s the draft or trades or front-office moves, the Jazz play their cards close to the vest, as if they know something you don’t, which they do.

Remember all the rumors and leaks about the Deron Williams trade? That's because there weren't any. Not from Utah anyway. Nobody saw it coming until the morning it was to be announced.

“I hate to admit this, but I was on a treadmill at a Dallas hotel and my little brother called me to ask what was going on and why was Deron being traded,” says Jody Genessy, the Deseret News Jazz beat writer. “Before I could even get back to my room, a radio station called to ask about it. My brother and a radio station knew about it before I did.”

Later that day, O’Connor personally apologized to the beat writers of Salt Lake’s two major newspapers, explaining that the leak must’ve come from New Jersey’s side or Williams’ agent; it wasn’t the Jazz.

“It comes with the territory,” says Genessy. “It’s hard to get information out of this franchise.”

Brad Rock, the Deseret News sports columnist, once showed up at the office of Frank Layden, the Jazz president at the time, to inquire about the team’s draft plans.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he told Rock. “That’s Scott's department and, honestly, he won’t tell me.”

That would be Scott Layden, the team’s general manager at the time — and Layden’s son.

Scott Layden is now with the San Antonio Spurs, the Jazz’s alter ego. He is to silence what Christina Aguilera is to singing. You could give him the waterboard torture and he wouldn’t tell you a player’s hat size.

Rock once interviewed O’Connor shortly before another draft and was surprised that he was so open about the Jazz’s strategy. The day of the draft, the Jazz traded their pick.

For my part, when I show up at the Jazz camp, I am resigned to the inevitable, so I like to speed things along by starting this way: “Just give me a no-comment so I can be on my way, thank you.”

“There are teams that certainly air their business through the media and sometimes place stories and leak things — to what end, I’m not always sure,” says Jazz publicist Jonathan Rinehart. “But that’s not the Jazz.”

Since the Miller family bought the franchise almost 30 years ago, the Jazz have been a self-contained, homogenous group that prides itself on keeping its business under wraps and acting — and taking credit — as a group. Since 1981, they’ve had three head coaches and about the same number of general managers and other high-ranking front-office people. It’s the same group year in and year out. They are no-nonsense, low-ego, no-drama men who, on the rare occasions outsiders are hired, go out of their way to find their clones. O’Connor is the model. He is the son of a New York cop, a man who used to tell his son, “There is a need-to-know basis; you don’t need to know.” So he was raised on the Jazz’s tight-lipped philosophy.

As Rinehart notes, “Because of the continuity, everyone is on the same page. Other teams have different people coming and going who have different agendas, whether it’s an assistant coach aspiring to be head coach or the general manager or coach not on the same page. That’s the reason things leak. Or people buddy up to certain media members. With the Jazz, it’s very collaborative. Everyone feels like he has a voice and everyone is involved in the plan.”

The culture and similar personalities are such that nobody even bothers to tell arrivals the way things work in the franchise. “It’s always been understood,” says O’Connor. “It’s a cultural thing and personality thing. We feel like if you involve other people to send your message, sooner or later it gets you in trouble. It’s misinterpreted. If someone is leaking information, why are they leaking it? It’s for their own benefit. They’re looking to gain a favor or promote themselves or use it as leverage.”

The Jazz believe the rumor mill also toys with the emotions of fans and players alike — if something is reported and it doesn’t happen, they have to smooth things over. In negotiations, the Jazz always request confidentiality from agents and other teams.

But sometimes the secretiveness seems silly. For several weeks, the Jazz have refused even to acknowledge that they hired Brad Jones to replace Jeff Hornacek as an assistant coach or Alex Jensen to replace Jones as a director of player development, even though it was obvious they had. Genessy tried to trick the Jazz into admitting it. “I asked (Corbin) when they were going to finalize their coaching staff, and he just laughed. So I said, ‘Are you going to add anyone besides Brad Jones and Alex Jensen?’ He just laughed again.”

The Jazz’s policy: If a contract hasn’t been signed yet, they don’t talk about it. (They finally confirmed Jones’ hiring a couple of days ago.)

For better or worse, the Jazz refuse at times to acknowledge other more serious situations completely. They were used by Derek Fisher, but pretty much ignored it. In 2007, Fisher asked the Jazz to release him so he could attend to his daughter’s cancer treatments and be closer to her doctors — who were in New York at the time. Less than three weeks later he signed with his old team, the Lakers. Fisher’s motives were questioned by fans and media, but the Jazz took the high road and never commented on such a disingenuous maneuver. The media raised legitimate questions, but got no real answers. Those suspicions seemed to gain even more credence when Fisher did the same thing to the Dallas Mavericks, asking to be released from that team last season because of family issues and then signing weeks later with Oklahoma City.

And then there was Sloan’s sudden departure from the Jazz in 2011. The Jazz said it was because Sloan was tired and “out of gas,” but there was wide speculation that an argument with Williams precipitated his departure. It wasn’t until recently that the Jazz finally and formally acknowledged that that was the case. In a rare moment of Jazz candor, CEO Greg Miller acknowledged that, yes, Sloan was tired, but his confrontation with Williams was the coup de grace. The media had been right all along, but the Jazz had told only half the story to avoid drama.

Maybe it all comes down to something Sam Battistone told columnist Lee Benson three decades ago just minutes after a formal announcement that he had sold the team to Larry Miller. “I feel sorry for you guys, because you never get the full story. You try to be in the know, but you never know it all.”

Nothing has changed.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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