While browsing the Utah Jazz website I saw tickets priced as low as $7 for their opening night game against the Detroit Pistons on October 28. Not sure if that’s the going rate for NBA tickets these days, but we do know that neither team is considered a must-see and the only stars you probably see at Jazz games is the crew from Breaking Amish because both have been a sin to watch. It’s fitting that two once-great franchises, who now find themselves locked in a decade-long drought of mediocrity, kick off this season with a new optimism.
Utah is still chasing the elusive c’hip that Michael Jordan stole from them in the 90s, as he did to many teams with great players during his dominant career. The Jazz have only won 40 games one time in the past five years and as a franchise they have lacked the star power and relevance they once had in the Western Conference, when The "Prince’s of Pick-Roll," Karl Malone and John Stockton, were rim-rocking in NBA Finals games and racking up Division titles and Hall of Fame careers.
The Jazz selected Stockton, an obscure guard from The University of Gonzaga (before they gained NCAA Cinderella fame in the 90s) with the 16th pick of the 1984 NBA Draft. They followed that first-round selection the next season by selecting the perfect partner for Stockton’s prolific passing tendencies in Karl “The Mailman” Malone.
Malone returned from a gold medal winning-effort at the 1996 Summer Olympics leading the Jazz to two consecutive NBA Finals appearances. He was a two-time MVP, a 14-time All-Star and scored the second most points in NBA history (36,928). Most of those points came compliments of Stockton’s all-time record 15,806 NBA assists. The White Shadow is also a 10-time NBA All-Star and holds the NBA record for most career steals.
Together, they took Utah to the precipice of basketball immortality and the franchise hasn’t been able to recapture that zone since.
While nobody outside of Utah is picking the Jazz to win the West or challenge for a title, many are projecting this year’s team, with it’s mixture of young talent and keen basketball comprehension to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Most sports heads feel Utah is a few star players away from an elite level, however, in a recent conversation I had with Utah’s Dynamic Duo (at former NFL linebacker Nick Buoniconti's 30th Annual Legends Dinner to support the fight against spinal paralysis, an infliction Buoniconti's son survives with). Malone in particular, wasn’t just optimistic about this year’s team, he feels that they are championship material as currently constituted.
Karl Malone: Well I said it before and I make it known, they really have all the tools to be a great team. Now Exum got hurt and that goes back to my debate about playing ball in the summer time. Stockton played pick up ball, but he knew all of the guys he played with. I played very little pick up ball. When you go out and you’re playing it’s a risk because you have bigger commitments to the franchise. But when at full strength this Utah Jazz team has a chance to be special team. Now, our bigs have to play. this is no secret. It’s not a newsflash. I said it before, but I think they got all the tools to do it.
Stockton probably had on his Utah Jazz underoos, but he wasn’t waving pom poms like Malone.
Stockton: I got to think Golden State will be difficult to play against again. Not really knowing all of the guys who have switched teams and where everybody is going as the season progresses, it’s hard to make a call on that. Compared to last year, I think the Jazz for example...the way they performed at the end of last season may be indicative of a team that might be someone to look out for this year. They’re tough to score on. They proved it and their second half record last season was terrific. So best I can do is make that guess. They’re going to miss Exum. He’s a big point guard and can see over the defense
Malone finished Stockton’s opinion for him, in similar fashion to the way he used to fashionably and emphatically finish off easy buckets orchestrated by Stockton’s unselfishness, humble tenacity and pride in being a super producer.
Malone: It’s hard for me to go against the Jazz because like Stock said they have the No. 1 or 2 best record in the entire league in the second half of last year, but everything has to work. Now there are a few teams here and there that I like but when it’s all said and done, I’m going with the Jazz.
Hearing these two guys talk and watching them interact was a spitting image of their on court relationship and now I know why it worked so well. Malone is the big personality. He can talk for days, he’s confident and considers himself the straw that stirs the drink. However, he is quick to credit Stockton’s decision making and leadership. They are obviously close and during conversation John is always there with the assist if needed. He’s a giant as well, but despite being a foot shorter than Malone, has the same presence while saying much less.
I couldn’t keep it moving without asking these two NBA titans their opinions on the state of the game.
Gambler: What’s the biggest difference between today’s game and when you guys played ?
Malone: Physical Play. I don’t see that. Also back in the day I used to see what he (pointing at Stockton) could do outside as a point guard and what I could do inside. And we understood that it gets more physical as the court shrinks inside. Now, the physicality of the game isn’t there because of all of these rules changes and stuff. I will say that and I got a news flash for you: “Who’s making the rules anyway. Let the athletes that played the game, make the damn rules.
Gambler: What about you John?
Stockton: I understand that rules are created to help the players stay safe. I get that. For the most part that’s probably a good thing. In the long run, however, that over protecting players...taking away a touch here, taking away a touch there. Not allowing a bump here. Not allowing a defender to bump there, in the long run it makes players less able to protect themselves. And that along with the excessive timeouts, cuts into the need to be in top shape. There’s a timeout every two minutes and you know they are still huffing and puffing.
Gambler: How come most point guards today don’t covet the 13-assist game anymore?
Stockton: It’s very individual-based now. You probably don’t see 13 passes in a game anymore. Offensively it’s different. The players are different. Coaches have to coach differently. There is less of an opinion on passers, whereas I think it’s a missing element that will help any team instantly become better universally if everyone on the team can pass.