It's great to be back in this building and just relive some of the memories from a long time ago. They really come to life when your old teammates are around. —Former Jazz guard and current New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek
SALT LAKE CITY — John Stockton had just finished an impromptu one-on-one session on the Utah Jazz practice facility court with his son Samuel on Wednesday afternoon when he yelled across the gym to get Bryon Russell’s attention.
Stockton agreed to humor media members there to interview players in town celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Western Conference championship, and he needed B-Russ to inbound him the ball to re-enact the famous shot that sent the Jazz to their first-ever NBA Finals.
Stockton didn’t get a helpful pick from Karl Malone, one that he’d just described as “a thunderous screen” on Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley didn’t make an ineffective lunge toward him. But the Hall of Fame point guard secured the pass from Russell after replicating the moves he made to get space, took one dribble toward the arc, squared his shoulders to the basket and unleashed a 3-pointer.
Somebody even called out “Uh, oh!” à la Bill Walton.
"Stock got it! Stock got it! Unbelievable! John Stockton! John Stockton! It's over!" you could imagine Hot Rod Hundley exclaiming. "The Jazz win it! We're on our way to the world championships!"
Stockton and Russell humorously leaped in the air — not nearly as high as they did a couple of decades ago, mind you — and celebrated the playful re-enactment of the most cherished basket in Jazz history.
“You guys noticed it went in, right?” Stockton said, laughing. “Pretty ugly, though.”
Like the dream-come-true 1996-97 season, this fun moment was far more epic than ugly.
Leave it to Stockton, though, to humbly undersell something he’d just done.
Twenty years have come and gone — “It sure has flown by,” he admitted — but some things never change.
That was evident from this reunion.
Stockton still dishes out praise, if not passes, to Malone, his teammates and coaches.
Players still have an immense amount of respect and love for Jerry Sloan, their Hall of Fame coach.
This team still has a unique bond and chemistry.
Jeff Hornacek still has an aw-shucks charm and the calm demeanor of a coach. (Stockton reminisced about Horny keeping stats of both teams in his head and drawing plays on his hands. "That," Stockton joked, "would drive me crazy.")
Antoine Carr still barks on demand as you’d expect of the Big Dawg. Russell constantly flashes his big smile. Adam Keefe, fondly called the Trashman back in the day, continues to embrace his particular and important do-the-dirty-things role for the Jazz, saying, “It was easy to fall in line.”
And, yes, Greg Ostertag is still a bit goofy.
The former Utah center, who used to proudly sport a Fred Flintstone tattoo on his leg, gave Jazz radio voice David Locke some humorous grief during the media session.
“You can’t ask a question,” Ostertag told Locke. “I don’t even like you.”
"Twenty years later?" Locke asked.
"Yeah," Ostertag answered, chuckling. "Still don't like you."
Within earshot of his wife, Big O teasingly said he has to take care of her chickens on their farm because she won’t anymore. He admitted that he didn't actually name one of his donkeys after Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson, as he'd recently claimed on the radio. He also gave some backhanded love to his old stomping grounds after telling reporters that he went snowmobiling in Park City this week and showed his better half his old Utah homes.
“I loved living here,” Ostertag said. “It’s just not Texas. It loses to Texas.”
Along the lines of things remaining the same, there was some drama about whether The Mailman would deliver himself to this week's celebration, which Stockton described as “special.” Though many speculated he'd make a triumphant entry just in the nick of time, Malone didn't make it.
Even without the second-leading scorer in NBA history, this arena has rarely been more electric since the Stockton-to-Malone days than it was during Wednesday's halftime ceremony, honoring that beloved team.
"Playing here in the house that Larry and Gail (Miller) built, with Coach Sloan and this group of guys was one of the greatest thrills of my life," Stockton told an appreciative crowd. "I want you guys to know how much fun we had playing in front of you, your parents and your grandparents. We're all proud to be a part of the Utah Jazz family, and we're going to root for this team to take it all the way."
The Jazz showed a video of Malone speaking. The Mailman had a prior conflict — a groundbreaking earlier in the day for a low-income housing project he’s been working on for years in Louisiana — so he regretfully let the Jazz know that he couldn’t make it.
Absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder. It also puts a target on your back when your old friends are all gathered. Shandon Anderson and Greg Foster, now an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, didn't attend, either. The missing members of the 1997 team were on the minds of the guys who could make it, including New York Knicks coaches Hornacek and Howard Eisley.
“It’s kind of special,” Stockton said, describing the private dinner the team had Tuesday night at Bambara in the downtown Kimpton Hotel Monaco. “It’s like we were never separate.”
If Malone’s ears were burning, well, there was a good-natured reason why.
“We picked on him pretty good in his absence, and that’s his fault,” Stockton said. “He knows if you’re not here you’re going to get killed by the fellas. He took his doses last night.”
Along with the ribbing that comes with the territory when friends reassemble, players, coaches and staff members fondly recalled a season that was truly remarkable.
The Jazz won a franchise-best 64 games that year, including an incredible 38 of 41 at the Delta Center.
Utah strung together two 15-game winning streaks.
Malone became the first Jazz player to ever be named the NBA MVP, having earned that distinction after averaging 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds.
Stockton and Malone were honored as All-Stars — their ninth and 10th times, respectively — along with being named as two of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Not only did the Jazz pull off a riveting rally in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals to make the championship series — capped by Stockton’s famous 3-pointer in the 103-100 win at Houston — but that squad also overcame a 36-point deficit to beat Denver 107-103 in the largest comeback in league history.
“That was one of the most fun games I’ve ever been a part of,” Stockton recalled of the regular-season win over the Nuggets. “You don’t experience those many times in a lifetime.”
Players don't get many chances like this reunion in a lifetime, either. Hornacek said he, Sloan, Stockton and other guys stayed for an hour and a half after Tuesday's dinner, enjoying each other's company.
"It’s great to be back in this building and just relive some of the memories from a long time ago," Hornacek said. "They really come to life when your old teammates are around."
The favorite memory of the player who formed a terrific trio with Stockton and Malone after being traded to Utah from Philadelphia in 1994?
"Probably just like everybody else here in Utah, it’s John’s shot that he made to finally get us to the Finals," Hornacek said moments before his Knicks took on his former team that he played for and helped coach. "That was a big deal obviously for the whole state and for us as players. None of us had gotten there."
Ostertag believes the Game 6 comeback epitomized the heart of that team.
“That’s what Utah Jazz basketball was all about,” he said.
Jazz owner Gail Miller called Stockton’s shot “one of the highlights of Utah’s history” and smiled while reminiscing about her unlikely whereabouts — outside of a restaurant — when it happened.
“It was very, very tense,” Miller recalled while seated between Stockton and Sloan at a press conference before the Jazz-Knicks game. “We were waiting in the parking lot for the shot when it came. Everybody, I think, remembers where they were at that moment.
“It was kinda unbelievable as evidenced by your jump when you made it,” she added, speaking to Stockton. “It was just fantastic, a dream come true actually. It was magical.”
"You grow up and you’re out there on the court by yourself and you’re always saying, 'Three, two, one' like you see in the movies, and that’s kind of how it is," Stockton said. "I’d probably shot that shot 100 times in my head, maybe a thousand as a kid. You don’t really think about it at the time. It’s quiet. The opportunity is there. All I could think of was, 'Follow through. Finish the shot.' That I did. Normally, my shot’s a little quirky and weird anyway, but that one followed through and snapped through. It found its mark, so it was a good day."
That good day included an amazing on-court celebration, featuring a giddy group hug between Malone, Stockton and Hornacek, as Sloan, Phil Johnson, Russell and everybody else from Utah rushed to join the fun after the buzzer-beating shot.
"I don't even know what happened after that," Sloan joked.
"Coach's knees looked pretty good," Stockton responded. "You were bouncing up and down on that court, Coach."
"That's all the bouncing I could do," Sloan quipped back. "My leg felt a lot better after you made it."
Though the team enjoyed being together for this magical reunion, it was also special for this Jazz squad to rekindle a relationship it had with its raucous fans — the ones who eagerly awaited a trip to the Finals for 18 years following the move from New Orleans before it happened, the ones who filled (with bodies and loud sound) the arena on a nightly basis, the ones who gathered 20,000 strong at the airport to welcome them home after beating the Rockets in Houston.
“The support from the fans here has always been great ever since I can think back to when I was a rookie playing against these guys,” Hornacek said. “To come back to the airport and see that many people come out at 1 o’clock in the morning was something else.”
Stockton was very appreciative that the Jazz organization put on this event, which was spearheaded by Derek Garduño, Utah’s director of communications and player relations. Like others from that 1997 team, Stockton cherishes his relationship with teammates, coaches, the staff and the fans, memories of whom surfaced over the course of this two-day gathering.
“We’re not the champs, but we’re proud of what we accomplished,” said Stockton of his Jazz team which ended up losing in the Finals to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in back-to-back years.
“For them to call us back here together and to get to celebrate this with you guys (media) and the fans tonight, I think it’s pretty unusual and pretty special.”