THAT SIGH OF RELIEF coming from the Salt Palace last night was from the Utah Jazz, thankful to finally be embarking on their own version of spring break, otherwise known as All-Star Weekend.
Some teams, if they're on a roll, have mixed feelings about getting four days off in the middle of the season. This year, the Jazz don't fit into that category. They've lost three games at home in the past two weeks, including last night's 94-87 setback at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, of all teams. The Mavs have had more dern hardships, troubles and misfortune lately than the cowboys from Lonesome Dove. And still they whupped the Jazz.In their last nine games, the Jazz are 4-5.
"We have been struggling," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "This is probably a good time for us to take a break."
There is the theory that the mere fact that the break was coming up may have had a lot to do with the slump - similar to the way college students ease off on the books as soon as someone mentions that Ft. Lauderdale is just around the corner.
"I remember as a player, how there was a tendency to back off," said Sloan, who also admitted that, "these last couple of games haven't been so good. Not just us. Both teams. This is a tough time of the year to keep concentrated. Sometimes it's not the best NBA ball going on out there."
The Jazz managed to shoot .398 from the floor and .696 from the free-throw line against the Mavs last night, who didn't look a gift brick in the mouth. The franchise that had lost 11 of its last 12 games on the road, and gone through a January of discontent that saw star forward Mark Aguirre's bouts with wanderlust surface again, needed a victory badly, if only so no one in Dallas would do anything rash during the four-day All-Star break. Like invite Aguirre over for tar and feathers.
The Jazz's problems are not so severe. They're still well over .500 for the season (28-20), and last night's game was the 22nd sellout of the season, in 23 tries.
Maybe all they need is a break.
"Could be," said reserve forward Jose Ortiz, who, as an interested benchside bystander, said, "I think the guys could use it. They're looking tired."
Ortiz said he will use the break days to spend time in St. George and Las Vegas, where the weather might not be as balmy as where he grew up, in Puerto Rico, but it will be a lot closer than Salt Lake City the past two weeks, where the weather has been colder, even, than the Jazz.
"I'm going to get in better shape," said Ortiz. "Maybe I'll do some running, lift some weights, get feeling good."
Like Ortiz, most of the Jazz players had getaway plans already arranged before last night's loss.
Karl Malone, Mark Eaton and John Stockton will, of course, be in Houston for the weekend, taking a busman's holiday to play for the Western Conference All-Star team.
Coach Jerry Sloan and team president Dave Checketts will also be in Houston, as will play-by-play broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley, who is scheduled to participate in the Legends game on Saturday and help with ABC's telecast on Sunday.
The Jazz's non-All-Star players will be off in other directions.
Backup point guard Jim Les, for instance, will go back to Chicago to see his family and stop in at the Chicago Stock Exchange, where he worked before he became a basketball player - "to take care of some business I haven't been able to take care of."
Guard Darrell Griffith left on a plane this morning for his home town, Louisville, to spend time with his kids.
"We're going to take advantage of this break and come back strong," said Griff.
The general locker room consensus seemed to be that the break couldn't have come at a better time.
"It will give us a chance to regroup," said forward Thurl Bailey, who posted some All-Star-like numbers (20.4 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) during the season's first half even if he didn't make the All-Star team.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying right here," said Bailey, who has a house in Salt Lake. He said he plans to work out a little, and rest a lot.
"And I've got some work to do in my basement that I've been putting off . . . " he said.
He thought for a couple of seconds.
" . . . And I think I'll put that off some more."
If you've got a break coming, no sense in messing it up when it finally arrives.