Raja Bell

Now that the draft is done, the bell has rung, signaling the opening of the NBA's summer free-agency market.

When it did, owner Larry H. Miller and the rest of Jazz brass said, beginning the bid to re-sign unrestricted free agent shooting guard Raja Bell was high atop the team's to-do list.

"We'd like to have Raja back," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "We like Raja. We love Raja Bell, the way he plays. He plays hard."

"Raja's a priority," added Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's senior vice president of basketball operations. "We enjoy what he brings to the table, and we'd like to have him back. We appreciate what he does for us."

Whether the monetary expression of that appreciation will be enough to convince Bell to stay remains to be seen, as the 28-year-old Jazz co-captain figures to draw interest from numerous suitors, including New Jersey, Phoenix and perhaps Chicago.

But it's not, Bell has said, all about the big bucks.

"I'm not looking to go and rob anybody," he said when the 2004-05 season ended in April. "I don't want to be one of those guys that is holding out and asking for $100,000 more.

"I'd like to play for my market value," Bell added. "It's not solely 'who is the highest bidder' for me."

The lure of stability, though, will have plenty of pull.

Sioux Falls of the IBL. Yakima of the CBA. The tail end of one season and all of another with Philadelphia. One in Dallas, then the past two in Utah.

Bell really is ready for the merry-go-round to slow.

"I would be looking for something that would keep me in a place for a few years," said Bell, a U.S. Virgin Islands native and Miami high school product who played his first two college seasons at Boston University and his final two at Florida International. "I don't want another one-year, two-year deal. So that will be a major factor.

"The money — that will take care of itself. I'll let the general managers and my agent slug it out, and I'll be happy with whatever. The money I made this year (reportedly $1.32 million) was incredible compared to where I came from, so I'll be OK."

Bell suggested the Jazz, who gave him a two-year deal when no other NBA team would, do have something of an inside edge.

"That," he said, "is one of the reasons I'd like to stay in Utah — because when I came out of Dallas, even though I didn't have a lot of numbers, I thought that being on winning teams and playing the role I was asked to play would get me somewhere I wanted to be. And Utah was the only team that saw that in me.

"I think the future here is really, really bright — and I want to be a part of it."

Bell averaged 12.3 points per game as a part-time starter with the Jazz this past season.

Again, though, statistics do not tell the whole story.

He was a team leader, often outspoken, calling out teammates when others would not, but trying to do it in a constructive rather than a destructive manner.

Some on the roster may have tuned him out by the time a frustrating season was done, but his words were heard loud and clear by those who control the checkbook.

"We all like him," Miller said. "He's got a toughness about him that I think we need. . . . We like his attitude. You know, he's helped the team a lot in the time he's been here."

Miller calls him "instant offense . . . kind of like John Drew used to be 15 years ago (actually, 20) — off the bench, bam, there could be four or six points in about two minutes."

Sloan particularly appreciated the fact Bell contributed as much when he was asked to play a sixth-man role as he did when he was starting.

Added O'Connor: "As far as his effort goes — and that's the most important thing that we try to evaluate right know — we've never had a problem with how he's played."

The Jazz are now free to negotiate with Bell and other free agents. Oral agreements can be made, but no contracts can be signed until July 22.

At that time, Bell's autograph is one O'Connor hopes to add to his collection.

"We would like to have Raja back, period," the Jazz basketball boss said. "Now, he's got to make a decision on whether that's what he wants. He's got to look at what's best for his future.

"But . . . we want him back."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com