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No one expected the Utah Jazz to even get a whiff of the NBA title this season.

Yet here they are for the first time in the post Stockton-Malone era contending for a championship. After three down years in which they did not make the playoffs, the Jazz are still playing in May with a chance to extend the season to June.

The path so far has taken them through a tough seven-game series against Houston and 4-1 dispatching of Golden State. Facing longtime nemesis San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals starting today at 1:30 p.m. will be the young Utah team's toughest test yet.

When all but a handful of NBA teams hit bottom for years before turning things around, the Jazz rose quickly. They suffered through only one losing season in the rebuilding process.

"It didn't take them long, did it?" says former NBA player and current Jazz broadcaster Ron Boone. "They're right back up there."

The question is: How did they do it? And not just this year. How, over more than two decades, have the Jazz produced a consistent winner, albeit one that lacks a championship banner?

Welcome to the Utah Jazz Construction Co. Bring your hard hat and tool belt. Check your ego at the job site. Do your job whether you're the general contractor or the guy mixing the mud. Punch the clock and collect your pay. And don't quit until the work is done.

That's the Jazz way.

"It has to start with where you want your organization to go, how you want to build your organization and what kind of people you want to build it with," says former Jazzman Thurl Bailey.

Because Utah has won year in and year out, it hasn't been positioned to select top-tier college or international talent in the annual NBA draft. Point guard Deron Williams would be the exception, having been picked third overall on the heels of a 26-56 season two years ago.

The Jazz on average have selected in the 20th spot since the 1986 draft, yet have managed to average 50 wins per season over the past two decades. Only the Los Angeles Lakers have had a lower draft position with more regular season wins over that period of time.

Utah hasn't pulled off what would be considered blockbuster trades, though the Jeff Hornacek-for-Jeff Malone deal was significant. It hasn't attracted the attention of big-name free agents. Salt Lake City is one of the smallest markets in the league. There's no glitter here.

It appears the Jazz have done more with less.

"At the end of the day, everything rises and falls on leadership. It always has and always will," says Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams. "Since arriving in Salt Lake, I give the Jazz an A in the leadership department."

Certainly, that begins with Frank Layden, the former team president and coach whose philosophies about professional basketball still pervade the franchise today.

It also goes to Larry H. Miller, who became the sole owner of the team in April 1986, keeping it from skating off to Minnesota.

"One thing that sticks out to me like a sore thumb is the ownership," says David Fredman, a 28-year veteran with the Jazz and general manager of the Utah Flash, a new NBA Developmental League team.

"Larry Miller hasn't panicked. In other words, he's stuck with people and let the basketball people make the decisions. He was passionate from the start, but he hasn't let his emotions take over to the point where basketball decisions are made by nonbasketball people.

"He's let coach (Jerry) Sloan coach. He's let (Jazz vice president) Kevin O'Connor do his job.... I think Larry's confidence in his people and his loyalty to his people has ended up paying dividends to him."

Adds Pat Williams, "Give Larry Miller credit. He hires good people and appears to let them do their jobs. They know how to work with him."

The Jazz have to be considered one of the most stable franchises in the NBA.

Nothing illustrates that better than Sloan's tenure at the helm. Now in his 19th season, he is the longest-tenured head coach in professional basketball, football, baseball or hockey.

Patience is rare in sports today. There have been 193 coaching changes in the NBA since Sloan took over the Jazz in December 1988. Most teams have gone through six or eight coaches during that time.

Truth be told, Fredman says, the Jazz foundation has a lot to do with Layden. Sloan never changed some of the things Layden introduced to the team, including the offense the Jazz run.

"I think Frank had a big influence on Jerry," says Williams, whose relationship with Sloan goes back 40 years.

Bailey describes Sloan as uncomplicated and not really profound in his approach to the game. His teams reflect his hard-nosed, no-nonsense persona.

"We bring our lunch pail. We bring our hard hat and we go to work. Nothing special," Bailey says.

Sloan is not big on change. And on the floor, Jazz management has assembled a core and kept it together.

First Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek and Greg Ostertag. Now Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur.

Same coach. Same system. Same players. They go through the ups and downs together. The Jazz didn't dump Boozer during a prolonged hamstring injury during which his commitment to the team was questioned. It appears Kirilenko will stay a Jazzman despite his erratic play this season.

"They're not constantly churning it up and turning things over," Pat Williams says.

Bailey says fans often forget that pro basketball is a business. "In my business, it's important to me to know how my team works together," he says.

The Jazz are the same way. Sloan and O'Connor try to find players who will accept their roles and put their skills to work for the team.

"You use those talents and something magical happens when it all comes together," Bailey says. "Maybe it's not a championship, but it's darn close."

Boone says getting the right players is the key.

"First of all, you have to have good players, players that complement your system, your style of play," he says.

"Kevin O'Connor has done a good job of giving Jerry something to work with. Larry Miller opened up his pocketbook and spent $200 million on three players." (Kirilenko, Boozer and Okur.)

None were high-draft picks, but high-draft picks don't guarantee winning, Pat Williams says. "It all relates to how you put the pieces together. "They're good at it. They seem to have found the knack."

What the Jazz haven't found the knack for is taking it all.

Despite the winning seasons and playoff appearances, the Jazz have never reached the pinnacle. The NBA title has eluded them. They made the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 but haven't come close since.

"We don't seem to play as well in the playoffs," says Hot Rod Hundley, the Jazz radio broadcaster who has been with the team since its inception in 1974. He doesn't blame Sloan but says maybe his teams play "scared or something."

Will this year be different? Can Boozer, Williams and company do something that Malone and Stockton never did?

Who knows? But the smell of a title is a lot closer than anyone thought it would be this season.