SALT LAKE CITY — Three different phone numbers weren’t enough to reach former Jazz guard Rickey Green. Two connected to anonymous voicemails that weren’t his. The third was answered by a mellow guy who said, “I get a lot of calls for Rickey Green, but this isn’t him. But have a good one.”
The “Fastest of Them All” never was easy to chase down.
“We’ve tried I don’t know how many times to get ahold of him,” one Jazz publicist said. “He’s the hardest guy to reach.”
On Monday, the Jazz introduced the latest in a list of high-caliber point guards to play in Utah. Mike Conley is charged with getting them to the next level, meaning the NBA Finals. Years earlier, the Jazz had an All-Star in Deron Williams, a testy but effective leader who hucked the ball at Gordon Hayward and triggered Jerry Sloan’s retirement. A previous NBA generation produced Hall of Fame guard John Stockton.
Preceding Stockton as the Jazz’s starting point guard was Green, a blur in purple and gold. He couldn’t shoot the 3 — 20 percent lifetime — but he could blaze to the rim. Mark Eaton or Thurl Bailey would snatch the rebound and throw the outlet to Green, who accelerated drag-strip fast to the other end of the court.
“When they talk about the Fastest of Them All, that was an accurate description,” said Phil Johnson, who was a Jazz assistant when Green played in Utah from 1980-88.
“He was only 6 feet (tall) but he had really long arms and great hands and could catch the ball and make steals,” Johnson said.
It’s no coincidence that when the Jazz made their first playoff appearance, Green was directing traffic.
“He was just so good defensively and he never turned the ball over and played within himself,” Johnson said. “That’s what his game was.”
Green had an important part in the Jazz reaching where they are today. He wasn’t a terrific shooter or even great at setting up the offense. But when he was bringing the ball downcourt, the Jazz were a transition terror. In 1983-84, they reached the playoffs for the first time, winning the division with a 45-37 record. Green made the All-Star team, averaging 2.7 steals, highest in the league. He also was sixth in assists.
The team featured Eaton, Bailey, Adrian Dantley and Darrell Griffith, all of whom finished high in league stats that year.
“I tell you, it was something to watch,” Johnson said.
Griffith led the NBA in 3-point field goals made; Dantley was first in scoring, free throws made and player efficiency; and Eaton topped the league in blocks and defensive plus-minus.
The Jazz upended Denver in the playoffs and took Phoenix to six games.
Good as they were, the Jazz rapidly improved. Green was the starter for three more seasons. But by the time he was 33, the team had Stockton in the wings.
“We knew John was good, but we had no idea he’d be that good,” Johnson said.
Green’s fade into history was fairly quick. He left Utah after being selected by Charlotte in the 1988 expansion draft, bouncing among several teams until being waived in 1992 by Boston. Still, he lasted an impressive 14 years in the NBA.6 comments on this story
After a standout college career at Michigan, he played in the Continental Basketball Association, predecessor to the G League. He and Jeff Wilkins — another Jazz alumnus — tried out for the Chicago Bulls when both Johnson and Jerry Sloan were coaching there, but neither made the cut. Later, the two players’ careers took off in Utah.
Green wasn’t equal to Stockton or Williams, or as versatile as Conley. But his speed made him a one-time All-Star and took the Jazz to a different level. That first playoff appearance launched a 20-year postseason streak.
Speed kills, they say.
In this case, it brought the Jazz to life.