It proved to be the fitting ending for the hometown players as Salt Lake City's first All-Star game concluded. As the crowd at Delta Center roared last February, Utah Jazz teammates Karl Malone and John Stockton each lifted an arm to show off their All-Star MVP trophy -- the first time in NBA history that two teammates shared the award.
Malone and Stockton. Talk about the Jazz, and the names go hand in hand. Two first-round picks who helped turn a mediocre NBA franchise into a respectable one. All-NBA. Olympic gold medalists. You name it in terms of basketball accomplishments, and they've probably done it -- with one big exception.
In the rafters of the Delta Center, there are no banners proclaiming an NBA championship or a conference championship. Yet the Jazz has averaged 52.4 wins the past five seasons, one of just five NBA teams to average at least 50 during that span. The other four, the Chicago Bulls, the Phoenix Suns, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Detroit Pistons, have appeared in the NBA finals.
When coaches discuss the five teams in the West that have a shot of reaching the finals, the Jazz usually is not among them. It's a slight that hasn't gone unnoticed by the Jazz, which makes its only appearance at the USAir Arena tonight against the Washington Bullets.
"It seems like we have a hard time getting respect," Malone said. "In the past, we've always faltered during the playoffs [Utah was eliminated in the first round last season], so if you look at everything people write and say, the Jazz isn't mentioned.
"But to me, it's fine because the quieter we start to do our own little thing and win, people will start saying, 'Maybe they have a decent team,' " Malone said. "We just have to take one thing at a time and see what happens. We want that respect."
If it happens, Malone and Stockton will play a part. The success of Malone and Stockton, who play vastly different styles, is directly related to the other.
Stockton was unheralded nationally as a collegian at Gonzaga University, but was still a first-round pick in 1984 (16th overall). In his fourth year, his 1,128 assists broke the NBA's single-season record. That began a string of five seasons with at least 1,000 assists, and he became the only player in league history to surpass 1,000 assists more than once (Magic Johnson, considered by some the best point guard in league history, never had more than 1,000 assists in a season). His 12.7 assists going into play last night were tops in the league.
"If people get to the positions on the floor where they're supposed to be, Stockton is going to find you," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "That's what his game has always been about. He's a very unselfish player who likes to pass the ball."
And Malone is the main recipient, benefiting to the clip of 26.5 points a game going into last night. A 6-foot-9, 256-pound combination of speed and brute force, Malone is equally adept at filling the lane on the fast break as he is on posting up an opponent and running over him. It's a trait Malone showcased at Louisiana Tech, and it led to his first-round selection (13th overall) in 1986.
"He has a big body, and he just backs you down in the post," Bullets forward Tom Gugliotta said. "Malone makes a living like that."
Still, despite Stockton's always being among the league leaders in assists and Malone's usually being near the top in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage, the Jazz -- despite its recent won-lost success -- has failed to develop into a dominant team.
Playing with plodding 7-4 center Mark Eaton (out this season) could have been part of the problem. Questionable recent drafts, with Luther Wright (1993), Eric Leckner (1988) and Jose Ortiz (1987) representing first-round picks during the past seven years haven't helped.
Some moves have been for the good, with the pickup of former Bullet Jeff Malone in 1990, and the August signing of free-agent Tom Chambers. But, in a Western Conference that has gotten stronger, that may not be enough for the Jazz. Still, Stockton, 31, and Malone, 30, don't feel any additional sense of urgency to win a title.
"Urgency is everyday," Stockton said. "You don't know when an injury can be your last opportunity, regardless of your age. You just have to take advantage of every year and every game. I don't think it's an age thing for us yet."
Right now, it's just a respect thing. Malone and Stockton have earned it. The Jazz is still in the hunt.
"I don't let it bother me," Stockton said. "I just play, and if people respect us, fine."