As the Jazz begin another playoff series against Houston tonight, it's hard to believe it's been 13 years since they first met in the postseason. A lot has happened in that much time. For example, John Travolta used that time to make himself a Hollywood star - for the second time. Gary Hart, who left politics in 1987 after a sex scandal, faded out, then considered giving it another whirl. (Politics, not sex scandals.)
Other things have come full circle, as well. Seven players in today's first-round matchup were also in the league 13 years ago when Utah and Houston met in the playoffs. Hakeem Olajuwon was in his rookie season with the Rockets. In fact, it was Hakeem who jump-started the Jazz by whacking Billy Paultz in the head. Now look what he started. The Jazz have been to the playoffs every year since.John Stockton, in his first year in the league, had a front-row seat for the infamous 1985 sucker punch. Charles Jones was in Washington, finishing up his second NBA season after six years in Europe and the CBA. Eddie Johnson was in Kansas City and had already played four seasons in the NBA. Charles Barkley was calling himself the Eighth Wonder of the World in Philadelphia. Clyde Drexler, in his second season in Portland, was still going by the name "Glide." Utah forward Antoine Carr and Houston forward Kevin Willis were rookies in Atlanta.
Now it's 1998, and the old gang is still kicking around.
Wait a minute. Is this the playoffs or a VFW convention?
The oldest player on tonight's Houston roster is Jones, who checks in at the ripe age of 41. So why isn't he playing checkers in a rest home? Mallwalking? Sleeping in a chair? Because he's busy playing in the NBA playoffs, that's why.
But Jones isn't the only blast from the past. Olajuwon is 35, which by athletic standards is old. Drexler, who will be 36 in June, is so old nobody remembers he once wore a full-blown Afro. Barkley is 35, and did they really used to call him the "Round Mound of Rebound?" Johnson's age has almost caught up with his field goal percentage. Stockton is 36 and Karl Malone will be 35 this July, while Carr turns 37 the same month. Jeff Hornacek will be 35 in May. Houston's Mario Elie is 34 and Willis is 35.
No wonder Clinton worries about the Social Security system going bankrupt.
Of course, the aforementioned players probably couldn't have picked a better time to hang around. They came along just when baby boomers were deciding crow's feet and gray hairs are OK. The generation that once said to never trust anyone over 30 has adjusted that to 60.
Now in the late 1990s, old is cool. It's yesterday once more. That's why tie-dye is back and Elton John is still turning out hits. It's why Volkswagen plans to sell millions of the new Beetles. It's why people are flocking to the theaters to see "Titanic" and "Lost in Space."
The Jazz and Rockets aren't the only teams short on springs but long on experience. Chicago's Michael Jordan is 35, Scottie Pippen 33 and Dennis Rodman turns 37 in May. Seattle's Sam Perkins will be 37 in June and Detlef Schempf is 35. New York's Patrick Ewing will be 36 in August. If those names sound familiar, that's because the senior citizens of the NBA are still running the show. Who are the best teams in the NBA? Chicago and Utah. The best players? Malone and Jordan.
"The NBA markets all the young guys," says Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa, "but the teams that win have the older guys."
Chiesa, who has been an assistant with the Jazz for nine years, rarely watches college games, and therefore considers himself an objective judge. He doesn't get caught up in the phenom-of-the-week hype.
"I judge how they play in the NBA, and most of the young guys break your heart," he says. "They have the talent but have no idea how to play. On the other hand, the thirty-something crowd knows how to play."
Still, Time can be capricious. While Stockton, Malone and Hornacek are cruising into middle age with the top down, the Rockets' stars haven't been so fortunate. Olajuwon missed almost half the season due to injuries. He had surgery on his left knee and has since had trouble with his right. Drexler missed 12 games, most of them due to a bout with tendinitis and bursitis. Arthritis may be just around the corner. And Barkley is a wreck. His current problem is a hernia, but in recent years he's had an assortment of injuries that would scare Evel Knievel.
In any case, you can catch them all in the Delta Center tonight, or maybe on the Classic Sports Network. The boys are back. Yes, they have some years on them, but don't let the calendar fool you. You can learn a lot from your elders.
On the web
For extended coverage of Utah's run for the NBA championship, see the Deseret News Web edition's playoffs page at www.desnews.com/playoffs.