December is an amazingly busy time, full of shopping, parties of every nature and running non-stop. The hustle and bustle of the season is both exciting and tiring at the same time. Above all, it naturally is a time where thoughts are turned to gift-giving. Over the years, the Utah Jazz have been granted a few choice gifts that had some lasting impacts. Just for kicks, here is a look back at three such presents that proved to be ones that helped shaped Jazz history.
December 8, 1988: No one outside of owner Larry H. Miller had done more for the Jazz than head coach Frank Layden. After a few seasons as the general manager of the New Orleans Jazz, he was tabbed as the skipper in 1981, replacing Tom Nissalke. To say that the first few seasons were rough would be a wild understatement, but the colorful and humorous Layden kept plugging away, working tirelessly to bring the Jazz out of obscurity. Through a series of shrewd draft picks, free agent signings and trades, Layden built a team that slowly but surely became a force to be reckoned with in the mid to late 1980s. Along the way, he picked up a bevy of honors: Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year and the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Awards. With a pair of young stars in John Stockton and Karl Malone in tow, the Jazz really arrived on the scene in the 1988 Playoffs, pushing the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to the brink in the second round. That started a remarkable decades-long run where the Jazz were perennial contenders.
Layden was the toast of the town. Few were as beloved as he was. He was larger than life, literally and figuratively. Subsequently, it was shocking when the affable coach decided to retire on December 8th. The Jazz sported an 11-6 record and were on track to fight for the best record in the Western Conference. Utah had taken care of business the night before, dusting the Washington Wizards1. No one was expecting a press conference where Layden would step down and assume a front office role. Such a vibrant character and the driving force behind the team’s success would no longer be pacing the sidelines.
Lost in all the hoopla, at least to a certain degree, was then-assistant coach Jerry Sloan being named Layden’s successor. Sloan had been with the Jazz since 1983 and even had three years of head coaching experience with the Bulls, posting a 94-120 record. Few knew what to expect, especially after Utah lost the first game under Sloan’s watch.
The rest is history. 23 remarkable seasons as the coach, amassing a remarkable 1,223 victories (combining the regular season and postseason). Sloan retired as the winningest coach with one team in NBA history. He lead the Jazz to seven division titles, two Western Conference championships, six trips to the Western Conference finals and two NBA Finals appearances. Utah had a string of 16 straight winning seasons, and 22 of Sloan’s 23 teams finished .500 or better.
Moreover, Sloan was the face of the franchise as it transitioned from the Stockton and Malone era. His effort that first season sans those two was arguably Sloan’s best body of coaching. His teams played hard, passed the ball freely, defended and embodied the grittiness and intensity he was known for during his playing days. He was the dean of coaches.
And it all began on a cold night in December 1988.
December 8, 1997: Off the heels of the magical and memorable 1996-97 season which saw the Jazz win a franchise record 64 games, capture the Western Conference title and push the Chicago Bulls to six games in the team’s first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, feelings were never higher for Utah. There was an air of optimism that surrounded the team. All the major players from that deep team were returning. The Jazz had made a significant investment bringing back all their key free agents2. To a man, they were hungry to return to the big stage to capture the prize. No one was hungrier that the dynamic duo of Stockton and Malone. Even though the eventual Hall of Famers were ages 35 and 34, respectively, the pair carried the weight of the Jazz’s load. Coming into training camp held in Boise, ID, the team was confident and focused, ready for the long journey ahead.
Stockton noticed some soreness in his knee at the team got started in earnest. After visiting with team doctors and officials, the ever-resilient point guard found himself with an injured MCL that required arthroscopic surgery and a recovery timeline of eight to 12 weeks. Stockton, along with Malone, was one of the league’s resident iron men, having only missed four games over his first 13 seasons3. It was devastating news for coaches, teammates and fans.
The team’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Lyle Mason4, said “It’s possible he could return to 100% effectiveness, but he could also have some permanent limitations.”
Not exactly the news the team needed as it sought its first championship. The team was not deterred. Jerry Sloan, Karl Malone and company worked hard to compensate. Howard Eisley and rookie Jacque Vaughn played admirably, while gaining valuable experience. To no one’s surprise, Stockton could not be kept off the court for long. Almost to the eight-week mark, #12 trotted onto the Delta Center court to the overwhelming roar of the team’s faithful followers on December 8th. He only played 20 minutes, contributing 10 points and seven assists. It was simply the fact the the heart of the team — Malone was the soul — was back. He started out slowly, but it did not take long for Stockton to return to form. The Jazz went on to secure the NBA’s best record, just falling short in the Finals re-match with the Bulls. It was disappointing to come that close again to come away empty-handed. Even so, it was still an euphoric two-years for the franchise, a run that will never be forgotten.
By the way, Stockton went on to play 442 consecutive games to finish up his career at age 40. It is safe to say that the injury was just a minor obstacle in an illustrious career.
December 29, 2007: The 2006-07 Jazz team was an exciting team to watch. With a young core of Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko, Utah made a surprising run to the Western Conference finals. While they were demolished by the San Antonio Spurs, 4-1, the youthful group had gotten some amazing experience. They were one of the teams to watch the next season.
Unfortunately, things did not start well for the Jazz in 2007. After darting off to a 13-5 start, they promptly dropped 10 of the next 13 outings, including a slump of six consecutive losses. They were limping into the new year with a 16-15 mark. Something was needed to jump start the team, especially if they wanted to prove that the previous year’s run was not a mere mirage.
On December 29th, the Jazz changed their fortunes in a major way, brokering a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers that brought sharpshooter Kyle Korver to town in exchange for Gordan Giricek and a first-round draft pick. On paper it was a no-brainer for the Jazz. Giricek has almost permanent residency in Sloan’s doghouse and the draft pick was easy to part with. On the court, it was even more of a coup. Korver was a perfect fit. His shooting ability was an amazing complement to the rest of the team’s headliners. Korver’s 3-point prowess was always a weapon, as was his ability to hit clutch free throws. He often finished most games as result. After coming aboard, Utah ripped off 16 victories in 18 games, including a nine-game winning streak.
Korver was a big part of the team’s success during his three years in Salt Lake City. He opened up the court and gave it his all. In 2010, he not only lead the NBA in 3-point percentage, but at 53.6 percent, set the still-standing league record. Off the court, Korver was an incredible contributor to the community. He speared numerous endeavors that helped so many people. He will always be one of the classiest to ever play for the Jazz. In 2010, Korver signed with the Chicago Bulls after the Jazz decided not to present a similar offer. As a result, he may have been a true example of the One Who Got Away.
Here is why: Korver is a rare player who has gotten better with age. He has blossomed with the Atlanta Hawks, pacing the league in true shooting percentage two years in a row. His display of accuracy last season was one of the greatest in NBA history, leading him to an improbable All-Star appearance at age 33. While he has struggled a bit this year — at least at his standards — Korver has a game that could keep him very important for a few more seasons. His shooting is something the Jazz have missed since he left.
There you have it, three December gifts from Jazz history. Chances are, nothing akin to these will transpire in December 2015, but it is always interesting to take a stroll down Utah Jazz Memory Lane.