Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah's Gordon Hayward drives on the Spur's Stephen Jackson as the Utah Jazz are defeated by the San Antonio Spurs 87-81 to be swept in game 4 of the first round of the NBA playoffs Monday, May 7, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

There is a rite of spring in Utah that has nothing to do with climate, calendar or ceremony. It is a solemn occasion that sometimes comes early in the season, sometimes late.

It is that moment, bittersweet, when we realize the Utah Jazz are no longer in contention for an NBA championship.

Bitter, of course, because a championship is the ultimate objective of all sports franchises. Sweet because most years, the team performs well, often beyond expectations, allowing its fans to reflect on at least some measure of accomplishment, and to anticipate better days ahead.

That is certainly the case with the 2011-2012 version of our community's most prominent professional sports franchise.

It was a new incarnation of the Jazz, with a new head coach and an ensemble of mostly unproven, unheralded and charmingly undaunted players. There was no superstar in a group that talked about team solidarity and then went out and for the most part, walked the walk.

Yes, the team's inexperience led to tortuous periods of inconsistency on the court. And off the court there were the inevitable occasions in which frustrations bubbled over, leading a few players to squawk or squabble about playing time and other things.

Every season carries a dose of drama, though much of it this year seems to have been concocted by and for the delight of sports talk radio, a medium that without a pot to stir has no daily porridge.

And as the biggest game in town, the Jazz for better or worse have the biggest pot.

That is why there is an unusually strong bond between this franchise and the community that claims it. The Jazz are at once our ambassador to the larger world and, when things are going right, a reflection of how we like to see ourselves. It is an organization with a culture often described as "high-character," a franchise known for a strong work ethic and a sense of solidarity and selflessness. When many Utahns hear the team described that way, it makes them proud.

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We are prouder when they make the playoffs, which they have done an astonishing 25 times in the 33 seasons they have been in Utah. And it is a disappointment when they bow out, as they did this year, in harsh fashion courtesy of a steamroller squad from West Texas.

When seasons end, fans of all teams that fall short are wont to say, "There's always next year." It's often said with a splash of sarcasm and a tablespoon of remorse.

But this year in Utah, given the seeds planted this spring, it can be said with a straight face, and a sense of genuine optimism.