SO JUST HOW GOOD have things been going for the Utah Jazz these preseason days? So good that when Jazz president Dave Checketts was asked why the Jazz, who sold out 40 of 42 home games in the Salt Palace last year, didn't sell out their first Salt Palace date of this season Friday night in exhibition against the 76ers, he didn't even come up with the most obvious alibi.
"Well, we raised prices this year," he said. "Some people called and complained about paying regular season prices to see a lottery team in a game that didn't mean much."He said nothing about the deer hunt.
Over 200,000 eligible, and not so eligible, Utahns were in the hills, sitting around campfires waiting for the dawn when they could release the last of any latent aggressions lingering from last June's loss to the Lakers - and the Jazz president didn't even mention them.
Besides, there were, officially, only 370 seats unsold - 11,842 was the official attendance in the 12,212-seat arena.
What, them worry?
"Things have been working out lately," said Checketts.
The franchise that has, in the past, brought us such preseason drama as partnerships with Las Vegas, contract holdouts, garage sales of first-round draftees - and who can forget last year's Does-Anyone-Know-Where-Jose-Ortiz-Is? Sweepstakes - comes into the 1988-89 campaign looking as charmed as a shamrock, or maybe a Laker.
As the near sellout crowd Friday in Salt Lake saw - and as another exhibition crowd in Ogden saw Saturday night - things have looked a lot worse.
Even Bobby Hansen's broken hand, suffered Friday night, couldn't put too much of a damper on things. Hansen should be back soon after the regular season starts, anyway, and if anybody needs added playing time, who more than Darrell Griffith, Hansen's replacement at shooting guard who missed the playoffsbecause of knee surgery?
Not only are the Jazz coming off their best season ever in 1987-88 (47 wins, two rounds in the playoffs, where they extended the to-be-champion Lakers to seven games), but in the offseason they:
_ Got rid of their problem children, namely forward Kelly Tripucka, guard Rickey Green and center Mel Turpin.
_ Added a non-disgruntled backup center in first-round draft choice Eric Leckner. (Who, by the way, had 15 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes Friday night and in one 14-second span in the first half caused Karl Malone to respond with no less than four double-hand high-fives).
_ Added a non-disgruntled backup point guard in Billy Donovan, who plays hungry _ like the kind of player who would sign for what's inside the Cracker Jack box.
_ Added what appears to be a formidable backup power forward in 6-10, 260-pound Mike Brown. (Who was a disgruntled Chicago Bull last season, where he barely played, but who had 13 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes Friday night).
_ Found Ortiz.
_ Got all their coaches back intact. (Frank Layden turned down Miami, Scott Layden turned down Minneapolis and Jerry Sloan got turned down by Miami as well.)
_ And, as a bonus for Frank Layden, got three referees for all games this season. The new system seems to be working quite well, too. Friday night the referees didn't run into each other even once and Frank Layden was as quiet as a minister.
Then again, the Jazz won by 26 points, and the game was more lop-sided than that.
"Yeah, things are going good," said Thurl Bailey, now in his sixth year with the Jazz and one who can speak from experience. "There's no real dissension. There's not a lot of grumbling. We've got a lot of good players. It gets roughin practice, but that's good too."
"I'm fired up," said Malone in the postgame locker room, looking for Leckner so he could deliver another five. "He (Leckner) fired me up. I like that. We've got some guys this year who are not afraid to put some meat on people."
And why not? If you've got it, flaunt it. Nothing lasts forever in this league. When the going gets good, the good get going.