Tales of Tag: Ice, Expletives and More First-Hand Anecdotes Involving Double-Zero

August 28th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Greg Ostertag was a huge part of the Jazz for a decade, and a blast to cover. (Photo by Steve Wilson via sltrib.com)

As I walked back into a locker room that just minutes earlier had been crowded with players and reporters, it was just the two of us. I was about to get my introduction to ‘Tag.

It was my first time in an NBA locker room, and the first game I ever covered on credential. The Jazz press corps in those days was the domain of wily veterans, so at all of 22 years old, I tentatively poked around the joint, begging for scraps that could be relevant to what would become my first published sports story ever. I had stood in front of childhood idol John Stockton’s locker, finally pouncing with a timid question as the crowd of seasoned reporters dissipated. I had made a point to speak to then-rookie Jarron Collins, who had just posted a breakout 22-and-10 performance, and then I looked on helplessly when Bryon Russell used a ballboy to snake his way out of the media scrum before I could get my question out.

Then I noticed that Karl Malone was speaking to the media gaggle in the hallway adjacent to the locker area. I hurried around to the two-time MVP’s left side, feeling small as he cast a steely gaze down his enormous bicep at me while delivering a terse answer to my query about the Malone-and-four-guards lineup that had turned the game for Utah against the Sonics. 

I had just about everything I needed, but I poked my head back in the locker room to do one final scan and see if there was anyone else I should speak to. And there, alone, was a surly Greg Ostertag, who appeared to be muttering to himself under his breath while he slowly worked on getting dressed.

After a quick mental calculation, I realized I didn’t need any Tag quotes in my story. Collins’ nice outing had rendered the inconsistent Ostertag somewhat superfluous that evening. Utah’s counter to Seattle’s pack-it-in defense was to lift defenders away from the low blocks by having the non-Malone big pop free throw line jumpers. That was a skill Collins offered and Ostertag didn’t, so the latter had played just 11 scoreless minutes. Just as I was weighing his relative relevance and deciding to move along, he looked up and made eye contact with me. He must have sensed my thought process, and just then, veteran Deseret News columnist Richard Evans came in to check on me.

“Is this your new guy, Rich?” Tag asked1.

I wasn’t. I had been invited to supplement the paper’s coverage of that game as a guest writer after winning a “Cover a Jazz game” contest. I would later cover literally hundreds of NBA games for various small outlets, for the Jazz’s own Spanish radio feed and of course for this website, but at that moment I was little more than an interloper, there for a single evening of basketball. Still, it was easier for Evans to answer in the affirmative than to explain all of that to the seven-year pro.

“Yeah,” Evans offered.

“Well, you can tell him I don’t give a [bleep] what you guys write about me.” Tag then swiveled his head from left to right and aimed the remainder of his diatribe directly at me. “It’s true. I don’t give a [bleeping bleep] what you say. That’s a quote. You can quote me on that. Write that down.” Then he repeated himself more slowly, punctuating each word with a staccato delivery: “I. Don’t. Give. A. [Bleeping.] [Bleep.] What. You. Write. You can quote me.”

At this point, I had approximately 12 minutes of cumulative experience interviewing NBA players, so having one confront me like this was a completely new experience. Still, I understood that Ostertag’s rant had nothing to do with me and everything to do with his frustration about a fluctuating role. So, feigning confidence, I decided to joke back.

“I don’t think the Deseret News is going to let me run that quote.”

He looked at me blankly for what felt like an eternity but was probably only a second or two, and then broke into laughter. Then Evans and I chuckled along, probably not because my faux witty remark was actually funny, but because Ostertag’s countenance and temperament had changed in an instant.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the first of my countless interactions with the goofy 7-foot-2 Texan. Two seasons later, I had convinced a local Spanish paper, the now-defunct Mundo Hispano, to hire me to cover the Jazz, which meant my career as an actual beat writer overlapped with Tag’s Jazz career by a couple of seasons. And just as in that first exchange back in 2002, Ostertag’s personality, emotion and humor defined each conversation we had. For several years, whenever friends and family asked what the locker room was like, I answered by simply telling one funny Tag anecdote after another. His affability and goofiness brimmed over frequently, even in moments when he was trying to play tough or surly, like that first evening.

Another night, after a loss, he was talking off mic to a teammate and grew increasingly frustrated at what he thought were avoidable mistakes, including his own. His animation grew until finally he spiked a bag of ice chips, which popped like a water balloon when it hit the floor. Rounded ice pellets spread everywhere, and Ostertag’s intense grimace was instantly replaced by a sheepish grin as he looked around the crowded locker room at all of us. “I didn’t know it would do THAT.”

Of course, reporters weren’t there for the more infamous projectile ice incident in Ostertag lore, but luckily, my old press room pal Phil Miller of the Salt Lake Tribune chased the story down. Upset with post-loss criticisms by legendary coach Jerry Sloan, Ostertag’s frustration grew to the point that he launched an ice bag at the coach’s head. According to people in the room, Sloan simply dodged the frozen missile and continued his tirade. The moment is frequently referenced as a metaphor for Sloan’s toughness, but it also symbolizes perfectly the often misunderstood relationship between Sloan and Ostertag; they didn’t always see eye to eye, but they were far more understanding of each other’s dispositions than one might guess from afar. After a different postgame disagreement prompted Sloan to suspend Tag for a game in 2006, Tag actually made a point to tell us how much he liked playing under Sloan. Like his coach, Tag frequently displayed his hot temper, but could usually joke about it minutes later. In that sense, the two men weren’t that different.

It was fun to cover Ostertag, even with his quirkiness and unpredictable mood. He was quick to realize when he was taking himself too seriously, and he could seamlessly transition move from grumpy to grinning — just like he did after exploding the ice bag and just like he did when I first met him. In that sense and a dozen others, he was very unlike a lot of his NBA peers. This is a man whose lone tattoo was an image of Fred Flintstone spinning a basketball on his finger. Shaquille O’Neal, his rival in several mid-career playoff battles, had the Superman shield etched into his giant left arm. Tag had the Flintstones. In some ways, that illustrates everything about Tag’s NBA persona. Likable, playful, down-to-earth… but not the Man of Steel.

Getting a front-row seat to that quirkiness was a memorable highlight of the early part of my sports media career. While I covered every game on Mundo‘s website, only two of my stories made the weekly print edition. That meant that, most nights, I didn’t have the same deadlines that my peers had. While the print guys ran off to file and the TV guys abandoned the locker room to do their on-court stand-ups for the 10:00 news, it was often just me and a radio colleague — someone like Ben Bagley or occasionally Tony Parks — waiting to speak to the stragglers. This was a fortuitous way for me to learn the beat, as both Bags and Tony were very conversational interviewers. The thinner herd and the casual conversations led to a number of incredibly human moments and hilarious exchanges. And nobody was more human or hilarious than Ostertag.

One night, I got a front row seat as Tag and Andrei Kirilenko debated geographic knowledge. The latter alleged that his giant teammate was too US-centric in his worldview and didn’t know enough about the global community. He set out to prove it by challenging Ostertag to name the capital of his native Russia.

“I don’t care,” Ostertag answered. “You don’t know the capital of Texas.”

An exasperated Kirilenko shot back: “That’s not the same thing! Russia is a major country and Texas is just one state!”

The handful of teammates and reporters looked on with smiles as the two debated the relative importance on the world stage of Kirilenko’s Russia and Tag’s Texas. Nothing Kirilenko could come up with got Tag to concede that the Lonestar State was less important on a global scale than AK’s nation of 150 million. “You’re in America now, buddy,” Tag told his teammate through a playful smirk.

Another time, Tag invited Bags and me to share in his birthday bounty; a ballboy had brought a large bag of Swedish Fish — one of his favorite candies — to the game on the night Ostertag turned 33. So after the Jazz knocked off the visiting Magic, a good-natured Ostertag used those giant mitts to dole out the red gummies while joking about his age and inevitable decline. Maybe that was prescient, as Ostertag had already scored his final NBA bucket. He appeared in just five more games after that birthday, but logged between two and nine minutes in each. Whether he knew it or not, the end was creeping ever nearer, and the book would soon be closed on a career that remains as hard to define as almost any in his club’s history.

At his best, Ostertag was a really important piece for the Jazz. He played a key role in two Finals runs, and he retains high rankings on the franchise lists for blocks (third), rebounds (fourth) and games played (sixth). Nobody who has played for the Jazz since his retirement has logged anywhere near the 87 playoff appearances that Tag made2. He is an indelible part of franchise history. At the same time, his inconsistency confounded teammates and fans alike — and frustrated Ostertag himself. He was capable of blocking 11 shots in a game, or snaring 20+ boards. He was also capable of checking out, of reporting to camp out of shape, or of excusing himself entirely via an early ejection. Just like his off-court personality, his on-court contributions were unique and mercurial.

That’s why one of favorite Ostertag moments — right up there with “bleeping bleep” and the Swedish Fish — was the incredibly human moment of self-awareness and self-deprecation that followed a particularly good performance during his final season. A few of us stood around his locker and peppered him with questions about his solid outing and where that tenacity had been. “I really don’t know, guys,” Tag answered through a sideways smile and with his trademark drawl. “I’ve been answering questions like this since I came into the league. If I knew how to bottle this up and take it to the next game and play this way every night, I would.”

That was Ostertag. Approachable as a person, and possessing a wry self-awareness about the difference between his best and worst days. 

This isn’t a eulogy. Ostertag is still kicking around Texas — the capital of which is Austin, by the way. After a D-League stint in 2011-12 and a more recent foray into recreational hockey, the retired center took up farming. He was recently profiled on local news for work he and his wife Shannon are doing to freshen up their town and restore buildings. As you can see in that story, he is still playing the role of slapstick comedian — although probably with fewer expletives and ice-throwing incidents.

Then again, it’s Tag, so who really knows?

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *