It is a trip that begins with the defending world champion and ends with the leader in the Midwest Division. After four months of anticipation (anxiety?), the Utah Jazz kick off their longest road trip in 13 years, Friday in The Palace against the Detroit Pistons. The game will be shown at 6 p.m. MST on Channel 13.
The next two weeks are Phase Two of the Jazz's frequent flier blowout. The first phase was at the start of the season, when they played two road exhibition games in the East, then flew to Tokyo to open the regular season with two games against Phoenix. Now it is seven games in 11 days, as the Jazz criss-cross the Midwest and East in a series of games that could make or break their plans to usurp the Midwest Division title. The list of opponents are, in order, Detroit, Philadelphia, Orlando, Washington, Chicago, New York and San Antonio."This is going to be a heck of a road trip," said Jazz star Karl Malone. "But I'm looking forward to it. I'm really looking forward to it."
Perhaps. But more likely the Jazz are suffering from a bad case of angst. Given their road record (11-14), hitting the road isn't a great way to win a division title. So far this year, the Jazz have beaten only one team on the road that has a record of .500 or better.
"You don't worry about it," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan of the long road swing. "It's like saying you need to get ready for 82 games. You get overwhelmed if you look at it from that standpoint."
However imposing, this isn't the longest string of road games in team history. During the 1974-75 season,the New Orleans Jazz, a truly sorry production, played 11 straight road games (six before Christmas, five after). The result was 11 losses in a row.
Two years later they played eight straight road games, six in the same trip. In that span they went 1-7. And in 1977-78 the Jazz played one in Baton Rouge, then seven straight road games, losing all eight.
In recent history, the Jazz played six straight road games in 1982-83 (1-5) and six in a row in 1986-87 (4-2).
If the Jazz play well on this trip, they'll have to overcome the considerable adversity that has hit the team since the All-Star break. Guard Jeff Malone remains day-to-day with his back injury, having missed the last three games and 10 of the last 12. Meanwhile, starting guard Blue Edwards will miss the entire trip with a badly sprained ankle. Trainers say he will have his foot put in a cast and estimate he will be out three weeks. With Edwards on the injured list, they signed 6-foot-6 forward Tony Brown to a 10-day contract (see accompanying story).
However, the Jazz will get little sympathy from Detroit. The Pistons have been struggling of late, losing their last four games and eight of their last12.
Injuries have played a big part in the Pistons' problems. For the first time since Detroit's Chuck Daly became coach, the Pistons have three players on the injured list (John Salley, Mark Hughes, Isiah Thomas).
Thomas is out with an injured wrist and Salley with a strained lower back. Meanwhile, guard Joe Dumars has a strained hamstring, making him uncertain for the game.
In Edwards' absence, the Jazz will likely go with Thurl Bailey in the starting lineup. Andy Toolson has been playing in Jeff Malone's absence.
"We have to have (the bench) play well in order to let the starters get adequate rest," said Sloan. "You need them to do more so on the road, because of the fatigue, and when you're on the road, you don't get that emotional lift."