THE LAST time they played, they lost by 42 points. They're trailing 2-1 in a best-of-seven series. Any momentum the Utah Jazz may have had left town Sunday on the train to Akron.

Still, Greg Foster wasn't about to let it interrupt his groove. "No, I don't feel beaten," said Foster. "Beaten is (playing for) six teams in seven years. I'm having a great time. We're in a hole, but nothing we can't dig ourselves out of."If Foster is enjoying himself, he may want to make it a Kodak moment; there's a good chance it won't last. If history has any say in the matter, the Jazz must win tonight in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Chicago or suffer the fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Consequently, even in the midst of a good day, Foster wasn't ignoring the seriousness of the Jazz's position. Asked if they absolutely have to win tonight, he said, "I think so . . . I think so."

Then silence.

Actually, there is little reason to elaborate. Lose tonight and the Jazz have as much chance of winning the championship as they do eradicating world hunger. In NBA's entire playoff history, only six teams have come back from 3-1 deficits. It's happened only twice since 1981.

Lose tonight and, like Al Capone and the Water Tower, they'll be part of Chicago history. Not that you'll get any such admission from Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

"My opinion has always been that the first team to win four games wins (the series)," said Sloan dryly. "It all boils down to whoever wins four games gets to be the winner."

True. But whoever wins three of the first four also gets to be the winner. Of the six teams to overcome 3-1 deficits, none did so in the NBA Finals.

Losing tonight would undoubtedly mean the end of the season. But it could also be the end of an era. John Stockton is 36, Karl Malone will be 35 next month. Stockton has played 14 years in the league, Malone 13. "People have been saying that for the last five years," said Malone.

Even Malone, though, admits sometime the train has to stop.

Everything ends - books, movies, games, careers. However exhilarating, the ride doesn't go on forever. Sinatra died. Kareem retired. Even Wilt Chamberlain, who said he could still play in the NBA today, was never able to back up his claims. One day soon, Stockton-to-Malone will be only a car dealership, not the best pick-and-roll combination in history.

Although it's true there have been numerous premature reports on the demise of the Stockton/Malone era, this year that contention has more credence. Howard Eisley is now playing two-thirds as many minutes as Stockton. Jeff Hornacek's knees are hurting and so is his game. Antoine Carr is 37 years old in July. Malone is talking of moving to another team.

All of which means (repeat after me) if the Jazz don't win it this year, they never will.

Losing in the NBA Finals this year would not just disappoint the Jazz stars; it could affect their places in history. No one disputes they are among the greatest players of all time. But being among the greatest winners is another matter. Stockton and Malone may well end up joining a fraternity of great non-champions: World B. Free, Artis Gilmore, Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy, Alex English, Nate Thurmond, Walter Davis and Elgin Baylor. While each of the aforementioned players was a star, only Baylor is even mentioned when the talk gets around to the greatest players ever.

Meanwhile, Kurt Rambis and Greg Kite are walking around with rings, enjoying status they would never have been accorded had they played their careers with the Clippers or Nets.

For their part, the Jazz must be feeling slightly unlucky. Stockton and Malone had no chance to win a championship as young players, thanks to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Then Jordan came along. They can't catch a break.

That all could change, but it depends on tonight. Despite Sloan's contention that it takes four victories to claim a title, lose a third straight game and the rest is a formality. It's a hole even Foster would have to admit they won't be able to dig out of.