SALT LAKE CITY — For Jazz fans, playoff time in Utah is special. Oddly enough, one former Seattle SuperSonic wholeheartedly agrees.
Michael Cage, now an Oklahoma City TV analyst, is working this year’s first-round series between the Jazz and Thunder. You won’t hear him complaining about Salt Lake’s nightlife.
“Just going back to Salt Lake City, for me, for a weekend, was magical,” Cage said. “It brought everything back. I remembered everything about the city, the playoffs, the fans. Even though we played at the Salt Palace the fan support doesn’t change.”
Cage hasn’t changed, either. He’s as agreeable as ever. I was once interviewing players about the worst cities in the NBA. Salt Lake was mentioned by some, but Cage wasn’t hearing it.
“I think people are intimidated by the Mormon influence. They feel like outsiders,'' Cage said in 1992. “But probably of the cities to visit, I guess I kind of like Salt Lake. It has a lot of natural things there, a lot of natural beauty. It reminds me a little of Seattle in that way. Salt Lake is peaceful. It isn't like when you go to a busy city that forces you to leave your room and go party.''
Cage might be mixing memories. When he played for the Sonics, the Jazz home was the Delta Center, now Vivint Arena. But he also played in the Salt Palace during the regular season as a member of the Clippers, before landing with Seattle in 1988.
Cage was on the Sonics’ roster when the teams met in the playoffs in 1992 and 1993. That makes him a tangential part of Jazz history. The first year, the Jazz reached the conference finals for the first time. Utah won the semifinal series 4-1. Seattle eliminated the Jazz, 3-2, in the first round in 1993.
The pairing was fantastic: Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp vs. Karl Malone and John Stockton.
In a Players’ Tribune article, Kemp spoke about himself and Payton copying Stockton and Malone.
“Stockton and Malone is what me and Gary used to always say in practice. They were the guys we looked at, first and foremost, when it came to trying to polish our game. And it’s funny, those are two guys where you can’t mention one of their names without automatically thinking about the other.”
“Before Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, there was Karl Malone and John Stockton. Payton and Kemp were just new kids on the block,” Cage said. “They came in on a different wave, two guys who could play out of the pick-and-roll. It’s ironic they played against each other.”
He continued, “If you were going to the Western Conference finals, you had to go through the Jazz.”
Cage says when he saw Jazz reserve David Stockton warming up, last week, “it brought a smile to me.”
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” he said.
“Everybody talks about Malone and Stockton, but you’ve got to throw in Mark Eaton, as well.”
Fierce as the Jazz-Sonics games were, time tends to soften the memories. Payton has since praised Stockton, saying trash talking never affected the Jazz guard.
Cage first visited Salt Lake as a college player at San Diego State. In the NBA he was Mailman Lite, a taut 6-feet-9, 224 pounds. Malone was 6-9, 256. Both were built like superheroes. Cage even once led the NBA in rebounding.
The former Sonic says talking about the Jazz also takes him back to Jerry Sloan.
“One of the greatest of all time,” Cage said. “Beyond the shadow of a doubt. He had an uncanny way of coaching.”
Cage said Sloan “had this code or this language with his players.”
“I would always try to listen — what is Jerry saying? He would just be looking over there, he’d have this look on his face like, ‘I’m saying nothing as long as you’re looking at me.’ Then I’d hear him talking out instructions. I still couldn’t figure it out.
"He was always doing it in a coded way. (Seattle coach) George Karl would just yell out ‘Cage! Kemp! Payton! Get over here!’ But Sloan was 21 years as the coach. Unbelievable, just unbelievable — coaching your whole career with the same team. When I think about the Jazz, I think about Jerry Sloan in the same breath as I think about Karl Malone and John Stockton.”
They had a natural beauty all their own.