Less than four months after their first appearance in an NBA Finals, the Utah Jazz opened camp last October with one new face and high hopes.
The new face belonged to rookie Jacque Vaughn, the team's first-round draft pick last summer, who took the roster spot vacated by departed forward Stephen Howard.The reason the Jazz had just one newcomer is that they adopted the offseason philosophy, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Feeling they had a better chance of returning to the Finals with a known returning cast than with a roster full of unknown quantities, Jazz management spent a lot of money re-signing five free agents.
Still, the Jazz's season had its share of bumpy moments, as well as a substantial number of accomplishments. Here's a look at some of the team's highlights and lowlights:
KARL MALONE VENTS: And vents and vents and vents. The Mailman, never known for his reticence, started speaking his mind in October - on the subject of out-of-shape teammates - and was still going strong well into the postseason. Among other things, Malone ranted about his desire to play with a dominant center, about his intention to start packing a weapon on road trips, about Greg Ostertag's lack of a work ethic, about Jerry Sloan's status as coach, etc. At least three times during the season, the Deseret News ran stories saying that Malone and Jazz owner Larry H. Miller had ironed out their most recent difficulties.
SHAQ SLAPS: The regular-season started on a bizarre note when Laker center Shaquille O'Neal walked up to Ostertag at a shootaround on opening day and smacked the Jazz center upside the head. O'Neal was fined and suspended for one game. Ostertag wasn't hurt physically, but it appeared to take him months to recover psychologically. At least, that's the only plausible excuse for his abysmal play of the first part of the season.
JOHN STOCKTON STUMBLES: The bionic guard, the seemingly indestructible 36-year-old point guard who had missed just four games in his 13-year career, finally fell victim to a - GASP! - injury. Stockton underwent arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 13 and was told he'd miss 8-12 weeks of the regular season. There was even some speculation that he wouldn't return at all. But eight weeks later Stockton was back in action, leading the Jazz to a victory over the Pacers.
THE TRADE THAT WASN'T: The Jazz excite their fans with a February trade for center Rony Seikaly, who is immediately touted as the offensive man in the middle the team has needed for years. But Seikaly balks at coming to Utah, and a couple days later the trade is voided, sending Chris Morris and Greg Foster back to Utah. Foster looks at the return as a reprieve and responds by playing his best basketball of the season down the stretch, while Morris takes a little longer to come around but still manages to play his best hoops in a Jazz uniform in the closing weeks of the campaign.
ALL-STAR STUFF: Malone leads all West players in fan balloting for the All-Star Game, sending him to his 11th-straight midseason event, but it turns out to be a disappointment. He and Starzz guard Tammi Reiss finish second in the inaugural 2ball event on All-Star Saturday, but Sunday's All-Star game did not meet Malone's high standards. A showcase for the future of the NBA, it was a no-defense, one-on-one affair that at one point saw Lakers youngster Kobe Bryant wave away Malone, who was trying to set a screen for the ungrateful kid. Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek had a better time, taking the $20,000 first-place prize in the 3-point contest.
DEATH THREAT: A caller to Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey promised to take out the Mailman during a game against the Nets, and he didn't mean for a night on the town. Malone played anyway, totaling 32 points and 11 rebounds, then was hustled off the court by a security squad. There were no indications whether the death threat was a reaction to the purple outfit Malone had worn the night before while making a guest appearance on Dave Letterman's show.
MIGHTY MARCH: Prior to the season, the Jazz looked at the schedule and immediately focused on March as their biggest test. The month featured two five-game Eastern road trips, and 12 of 17 games on the road overall. But the Jazz got on a roll and went 15-2 on their death March - a major factor in their quest to clinch homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The month did feature the Jazz's worst defeat of the season, a 26-point walloping at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets.
WHO STARTS? Most seasons, the Jazz's starting lineup is determined in the preseason and pretty much remains the same throughout the year. This season, coach Jerry Sloan started four different people at center (Remember Big Bill Cunningham?), two at power forward, three at small forward, two at point guard and two at big guard. Last season's starters at center and small forward, Ostertag and Bryon Russell, came to camp out of shape and opened the season playing miserably, which gave Greg Foster and Adam Keefe the opportunity to take their jobs - which they did.
SLOAN'S CONTRACT: In an uncharacteristic display of discontent, Sloan in February wondered out loud why team management hadn't extended his contract for another season or so, as they'd always done in the past. His outburst immediately led to rumors that he was headed to Chicago as Phil Jackson's successor. Miller acted quickly to smooth out the situation (in between ironing-out sessions with the Mailman) and assured everyone that Sloan was the Jazz's man. Well into the postseason, however, Sloan still had not signed a contract extension.
OSTERTAG GOES BOOM: The Jazz's sometime starting center went down at midseason with a stress fracture in his left leg, but the team didn't seem to notice. While he was out, from Feb. 11 to March 17, the Jazz went 16-1. His first game back was that monumental blowout in Charlotte.
BIG DAWG BARKS: Antoine Carr surprised everyone when he announced in December that he was contemplating retirement. Seems the self-proclaimed Big Dawg wasn't having any fun. Sloan expressed disappointment that Carr went to the media with his complaints, rather than come to him. Carr and Sloan worked out their differences; nobody said exactly what the problem was, but there were hints that Carr was being sensitive about criticisms from a teammate or teammates. In the eight games prior to his outburst, Carr had managed one rebound per contest and totaled more turnovers than assists.
NO REPEAT MVP: In a vote that had been fixed during last June's Finals, Michael Jordan ended Malone's one-year run as league Most Valuable Player. The Bulls' star received 92 first-place votes to the Mailman's 20. Oddly, most of the media types who vote cited Malone's inability to deliver during the Finals as their reason for choosing Jordan, even though MVP is supposed to be a regular-season award. Malone did make the league's all-defensive team, which is voted on by coaches, who actually have some idea of what is going on.
BY A KNOCKOUT: Malone spices up the final month of the regular season by popping David Robinson in the head with an elbow, dropping the Spurs center to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut. Robinson was called for a foul on the play for leaning on the Mailman, but two days later the league effectively reversed that decision by suspending Malone for one game. It was the fifth missed game of Malone's career, and ended his streak of playing in 543 consecutive games.
REAL WARRIOR: One night before sinking the Admiral, the Mailman performed a similar maneuver at Golden State. Malone scored a season-high 56 points against the Warriors - the highest point total in the NBA for the season. At one point during the onslaught, Warrior forward Donyell Marshall set up to take a charge from Malone, then changed his mind at the last second. Too late: One of the Mailman's massive knees drilled Marshall in the ribs, breaking a rib and putting him out for the season.
COACH OF YEAR: No, it wasn't Sloan, but he was close. The sentimental favorite, Indiana Pacers darling Larry Bird, won the award with 50 votes to Sloan's 29, even though Bird had gone on record some time before saying that anyone who voted against the Jazz coach ought to have their voting rights revoked.
SCORING MILESTONES: During the course of the season, Malone passed Alex English, John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson and Elvin Hayes to move into fifth place on the all-time scoring list. Still ahead of the Mailman: Moses Malone, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
BULLS BULLIED: The Jazz handled their playoff nemesis, Chicago, in the regular season, posting a 101-94 victory in Chicago and 101-93 win in Salt Lake. Somewhat prophetically, Stockton said after the victory at the United Center, "We're grateful for the victory but does that mean that when you come in here for the playoffs you're going to win? No."