When the Jazz won the Midwest Division championship in 1984, the starting guards were Darrell Griffith and Rickey Green.
Remember them?As the Jazz enter April trying to match the 45-37 record of that best season in franchise history, they're going without Griffith and, more or less, Green. Griffith had knee surgery last week to end a mostly discouraging season, while Green is being brushed aside by John Stockton and now maybe even Eddie Hughes, who was playing no more than pickup basketball in Colorado Springs until last week.
The Jazz (39-31) will play the Los Angeles Lakers tonight at 8:00 in the Salt Palace (the game will be televised by Channel 5), as Stockton moves closer to being the third NBA player to reach 1,000 assists in a season. In the wake of Stockton's arrival this year, Green has had to settle for a few minutes here and there.
"It was very hard to adjust to that," he says. "That was the hardest part, knowing I can still play . . . I'm able to deal with it better, but at first it was really hard."
In 16 games this season, he's played fewer than 10 minutes; in the last five games, since Kelly Tripucka returned from an injury and took over as the backup off guard, Green has averaged 8.4 minutes.
All of which is tough for Green who was, well, the Jazz's John Stockton for several seasons. The phase-out is not much fun. "They're the main man they go down hard," says Coach Frank Layden, thinking of veterans in other sports, too. "It's hard to accept."
Green wants to hang on in the league for as long as possible. That's why he pressed the Jazz to guarantee the option year of his contract, through 1988-89, and why there's no coincidence when he says, "I think I've accepted my role the last 20 games or so."
That takes us back to mid February, right when the guarantee was granted.
"I've always noticed he plays better when he's got some security," Jazz president-GM David Checketts said. "It's funny how these guys get so insecure. I think expansion has made a lot of people nervous."
Of course, guaranteeing his contract doesn't force the Jazz to protect Green in the expansion draft. None of their choices were or are completely savory in Green's case. The Jazz could have failed to pick up the option, making their all-time leader in games played a free agent; they still can place him in the expansion poll and lose him; and then there's the scenario where he stays one way or another and they end up having to pay a veteran's salary next season to a 34-year-old relief man.
Team owner Larry Miller stands by the contract move, saying, "Looking back now, and knowing what I know today, I would do that again," he said. "I think his attitude's good and he's giving everything he's got when we're playing him."
Green, meanwhile, is not thinking about Charlotte or Miami just yet, although he figures more playing time might be available with an expansion team. "Wherever I am, I'm going to try to come in and get minutes," he says. "It's not like I can't play anymore."
The way Stockton is playing, a backup player would have to do exceptional things to take time away from him this season. Green's had his moments, like 12 points and six assists in a total of 23 minutes against Phoenix and Sacramento last week, but generally, the Jazz only hope to survive the brief stretches when Stockton rests.
In the latest twist, Layden called on Hughes to back up Stockton in the second half against Golden State Thursday. Layden would hardly be likely to replace Green in the regular rotation for the playoffs with a player he's cut twice, but he's definitely trying to get Green's attention. After signing Hughes to fill Griffith's roster spot, he said of Green, "I think a subtle message was passed on, wasn't it? Of all the guys we could have gotten, we got another point guard."
If the plan works, Green will respond and help in the playoffs. Last April, he was off to a great start in the Golden State with 15 points and 16 assists in Game 1, only to have a fresk hamstring injury just before halftime of Game 2 and be limited the rest of the way. The Jazz went on to lose the series, but Stockton had a chance to play big minutes and gain confidence, and now look at what's happened.
"You know you're not going to start and play a lot of minutes forever," Green says. "It's not devastating."
But it can't be much fun for either Green or the Jazz. Check back this summer.