It's now been a decade since the Utah Jazz participated in the NBA finals. Back-to-back trips to the championship series ended with setbacks to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games.
The last one, in 1998, concluded in dramatic fashion with Jordan stealing the ball away from Karl Malone and hitting a well-documented game-winning shot in Salt Lake City.
"It was an exciting time. We had veteran players who worked for years trying to get to that point and finally got there," recalls former Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek. "The first time (in 1997) I thought they were the better team. The second time I thought we were the better team.
"We were playing great," he said. "We were really clicking towards the end of the season."
Utah and Chicago finished the 1998 regular season with 62-20 records. The Jazz, however, secured homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs by sweeping the season series with the Bulls.
They capitalized on it and dispatched the Houston Rockets (3-2), San Antonio Spurs (4-1) and Los Angeles Lakers (4-0) before advancing to a highly anticipated NBA finals rematch with the Bulls.
The latter, however, followed a 10-day wait. That's how long the Jazz were idle after sweeping the Lakers and waiting for the Bulls to finish a seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.
The delay proved costly.
Though the Jazz eventually got back to playing well, Hornacek estimates it was about 96 percent of their previous level.
"And that little four percent gets you against Jordan and those guys," he said.
It left the Jazz with unfulfilled title hopes.
"I think our guys were just as excited going the second time, believing they could win it," said head coach Jerry Sloan, who acknowledged the long layoff took its toll. "We were playing awfully well before that. I think that probably set us back some. The results were we still lost and that's the hard part."
Scott Layden, who was Utah's vice president of basketball operations at the time, said it was especially difficult on Larry H. Miller, Frank Layden, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Sloan.
"They put so much into winning," he explained while noting that it's something the Jazz, as a whole, have always been about.
"The organization has always been competitive from the leadership on down. So I think everybody was excited at the opportunity," Layden said. "Then being such a competitive group it was hard to lose, really hard to lose."
Coming up short is something you always remember, he added, and so, too, is the chance to play at the NBA's highest level.
"It was a wonderful opportunity," Layden said. "And it was a missed opportunity."
So much so, in fact, that Sloan admits he hasn't ever watched tape of the two series-ending losses.
"I think we all tried to do as well as we could do and try to do the right thing. We didn't always bat 100 percent with that," Sloan said. "We kept trying to do the right thing. Everybody was pretty much on the same page. What can you do?"
Dwelling on it isn't Sloan's style.
"The bottom line is what can you do about it? I looked at our guys and I think to a man, everybody played as hard as they could. We lost to a team that made some great plays to beat us," he said. "That's just kind of like life. What are you going to do about it? Sit around and feel sorry for yourself. Life's pretty miserable when you're in that mode. You've got to try to pick yourself up and move forward. That's all I've known."
Assistant coach Phil Johnson agrees.
"Yeah it would have been nice to win, but you get a chance to play there. Everybody always talks about the winners so much but it's a great experience to play in it," Johnson said. "They don't remember the second-place team that much, but to me you get an opportunity to play that's huge."
Layden considers it a "monumental task" just to reach the finals. There are several franchises, he said, that haven't had the opportunity.
"The excitement here in the city and with our fans was really just an experience to remember for a lifetime," Layden said. "I don't know what to compare it to in other sports. There's different breakthroughs, whether you get to the World Series or Super Bowl."
Playing for a world's championship, noted Sloan, was an obvious thrill for the players.
"I don't know how much more exciting it can get," he said.
The enthusiasm was evident in 1997 when Stockton put the Jazz into the finals for the first time with a buzzer-beating shot in Houston. The basket in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals led to a memorable on-court embrace featuring Stockton, Malone and Hornacek.
"That was a great time in my basketball career," Hornacek said. " ... The excitement that we finally made it to the NBA Finals."
It was enough to bring the normally stalwart Stockton out of his conservative shell albeit for just a few minutes.
"It's a real compliment that he was able to keep his emotions in check," Scott Layden said. "Then when you saw him getting excited, it showed how monumental it was at that time.
"And yet, when we didn't win, he's the type of guy that's devastated in losing," he said.
Layden remembers walking back to the locker room that night and approaching second-year center Greg Ostertag, telling the youngster he had "no idea how hard this is" to reach the NBA finals.
"You're in this business for so long and you really don't get many chances," Johnson said. "The first time we went, it's an amazing experience because that's ultimately what you play for and get a chance to play. It was a great team we played and came up short. But it was still a great, great experience."So, too, was the repeat trip.
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