When the Utah Jazz cleared out their Delta Center lockers a year ago on the day after losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games, they were disappointed. Yet, there was a certain sense of accomplishment too.
This year, under similar circumstances, that sense of accomplishment wasn't as pronounced.The disappointment remained, however - in even greater doses.
"Last year was a bit of a honeymoon," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "This year is a little bit different. They're not taking it the same way they did last year and rightfully so. We were there and we didn't finish. That's like being in a game and you've got a layup and you didn't make it."
The Jazz had homecourt advantage through the playoffs. Even after dropping three of the first four games in the Finals, Utah needed only to win at home to earn the world title after a clutch Game 5 victory in Chicago.
But it didn't happen. Michael Jordan was too much in the end.
So the Jazz cleaned out their lockers on Monday instead of preparing for a winner-take-all grudge match set for Wednesday.
Each player took turns meeting with Sloan and Scott Layden, the Jazz's vice president of basketball operations, to talk about the season and the future. They also chowed down on burgers and fries purchased, as is tradition, by the rookie, in this case point guard Jacque Vaughn.
And, perhaps most importantly, playoff winnings were divvied. The Jazz had about $1.64 million to divide this year - the most ever because they earned a special $224,000 bonus for finishing with the best regular season record in the NBA. They also got to split $798,000 for participating in the Finals. The Bulls, as the winning team, had $1.2 million to share in addition to the money they earned in the various other rounds of the playoffs. The players will give some of their winnings to front office personnel, the strength coach, trainers and so on, in addition to partial shares to former teammates this year, William Cunningham and Troy Hudson. But the 12 guys who were with the team all season should be about $100,000 richer per man for their run to the Finals.
The team now starts to look to next year. Unlike last summer - when the Jazz had six free agents - 10 players are under contract for the 1998-99 campaign. The only free agents are Chris Morris and Antoine Carr. Morris, who was a solid contributor for the Jazz in the playoffs after being at the end of the bench for much of the regular season, figures to be headed somewhere else. Carr, on the other hand, would like to return.
While the Jazz have 10 players under contract, that doesn't mean all 10 will be back next year.
Greg Foster, who has nearly been traded during each of the past two seasons, knows how things can change. He said he'd like to be back in a Jazz uniform, but isn't taking that fact for granted.
"Who knows (what will happen)," said Foster. "I'm the last person who should speculate on anything."
John Stockton said some change will, no doubt, happen.
"It's inevitable at this level that you're going to make some changes (in personnel)," said Stockton. "Hopefully there won't be very many."
Sloan, who will be around again to coach the team, doesn't think the Jazz front office will go wild making trades and changing the team around. He's seen too many other franchises make costly mistakes by panicking.
"You look at teams that really get anxious to try to take a step up and make a huge change to try to go to another level and they set themselves back for 10 or 15 years," said the Jazz coach.
"We'd like to get to the next level. We'd like to win it all. We know there is not a great deal of time left for some of our players, but we feel pretty positive about stepping back and trying it again."
Another pressing issue this summer is the reopening of the collective bargaining agreement between the players association and the owners. If a deal is not made by July 1, the owners could vote to lock out the players - meaning trades will not be made, free agents can't sign and summer leagues, like the Rocky Mountain Revue, will not be played. The NBA, unlike major league baseball, the NFL and the NHL, has never lost a game due to labor strife. Most of the Jazz members are hopeful that an agreement will be worked out in plenty of time for the season to start next fall.
"I'm not one of the big wigs in the players association, but I think they should definitely take consideration of what's going on with the league and try to get this thing done as soon as possible," said Carr.
"I would hope calmer heads will prevail," said Stockton. "There is plenty (of money) out there for everybody. If everybody just calms down and gets it done, then we'll all come back to play. That's really what it's all about. We just want to play basketball."
Some of the players will take only a few days off before starting to practice again. Adam Keefe, for instance, is planning to work on his shot again this summer. Greg Ostertag, who was branded as a fat (expletive) by Karl Malone after taking last summer off, has vowed to be more devoted to exercise than cheeseburgers this summer.
And then there's Malone - whose summer workouts are legendary. He will lift plenty of weights and run and do Stairmaster, but don't expect him to shoot much hoop.
"I don't want to talk about basketball anymore this summer," said Malone. "I don't want to sign a basketball this summer. I don't even want to see a basketball at my house."
Malone will have the ligament damage in his right middle finger repaired this summer. He is also wrestling Bulls forward Dennis Rodman and Hulk Hogan in a pay-per-view tag-team match with partner Diamond Dallas Page in San Diego.
This time - unlike the last two NBA Finals - expect Malone to beat the Worm.
"Good guys win on pay-per-view," explained Malone. "Don't you know that?"
Utah Jazz Player status
Ten of the 12 Jazz players from this season's team are under contract for next year. The other two will become free agents and can sign with any other team after July, assuming there is no lockout.
Shandon Anderson 1998-99
Antoine Carr Free agent
Howard Eisley 1999-2000
Greg Foster 1998-99
Jeff Hornacek 1998-99
Adam Keefe 2001-02
Karl Malone 1998-99
Chris Morris Free Agent
Greg Ostertag 2003-04
Bryon Russell 2001-02
John Stockton 1998-99
Jacque Vaughn 2001-02
1998 Jazz Playoff Pie
Record in NBA $ 224,000
Best Record in conference $ 196,000
Participating in first round $ 101,500
Participating in conference semis $ 120,750
Participating in conference finals $ 199,500
Losing team, NBA Finals $ 798,000
Total Playoff Pot $1,639,750