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The day the Jazz died

Feb 24, 2011, 2:16 AM EDT

Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets, Game 7 Getty Images

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Just yesterday, it seemed there were only two possible outcomes to Deron Williams’ future.

Either he would do what LeBron James and Chris Bosh wouldn’t and re-sign with the only team he’s ever known. Or, amid season-long speculation, Williams would fail to assure its residents of his desire to remain in Salt Lake, and be driven from the Rocky Mountains by trade, a la Carmelo Anthony.

As a diehard Jazz fan (believe me, they exist), it would have been easy. Two options. Love or hate. Parades down State Street atop the finest Toyota Corollas Larry H. Miller Automotives could offer, or jersey burning and righteous anger the likes of which Mormons seem particularly capable of.

With the startling news of Williams’ trade to the New Jersey Nets, I, as with most Jazz fans, felt emotionally adrift, starring hopelessly at my mood ring for direction.

Why? Why would GM Kevin O’Connor insist on dumping the prom queen at the slightest chance that they might consider the same a few years from now? It made about as much sense as having a Utah team named after a style of music from America’s south.

Yet once the shock subsided, there came a much worse realization.

The Utah Jazz are no more.

The franchise that had been the very definition of stability and permanence now has the most uncertain future in the NBA.

Mark that calendar. February 23, 2011, the day the Jazz died.

The last serious wave of disorder came after the 2003-04 season. Hall of Fame duo John Stockton and Karl Malone had both decided to move on, one to retirement and the other to see if he could buy a championship in Los Angeles. And though the pair had been the collective face of the franchise for nearly two decades, the supposed upheaval proved to be little more than a hiccup as the Jazz went 42-40 with a starting lineup that included Carlos Arroyo, a 22-year-old DeShawn Stevenson and the ever-menacing Greg Ostertag.

It was nothing short of a coaching miracle, and one that should have yielded former head coach Jerry Sloan his first and only Coach of the Year award.

What the doomsayers had failed to understand prior to that season was that the soul of the Jazz existed just as much in team leadership as in player personnel. It sprang eternal from demanding, no-nonsense Sloan, from his longtime assistant Phil Johnson, and even from late owner Larry Miller, a self-made millionaire with little concern for the trivialities of professional athletes.

In the ensuing years, the team-first culture continued as brass brought in talent that fit the system, rather than the other way around. Most notably, the Jazz added Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer via free agency in 2004 and Deron Williams through divine power in the 2005 draft.

While Boozer never quite took to Utah and vice-versa, Williams appeared to be custom-fit. He had a riotous mix of speed and strength, one only exceeded by a profound sense of competition. Plus, he seemed to have no interest in the off-court antics of his contemporaries. Utah loved him.

Sure, there were bumps along the way, particularly that rookie season, but Williams and Sloan maintained their professionalism throughout, going as far as the Western Conference Final in 2007. Williams wasn’t the first player to chafe at Sloan’s sometimes confining structure, and he surely wouldn’t be the last. Somehow, the marriage worked.

When Sloan surprisingly announced his retirement two weeks ago, we Jazz fans wished him well, but we knew that business would continue as usual with Deron as the cultural keeper of the Jazz.

And then we laughed at the notion that Williams had run Sloan out of Salt Lake City.

Sloan, 68 years old and the longest tenured coach in major league sports, hardly needed an excuse to retire. To even hint that a player had driven him away was blasphemy. This was the same man who once challenged Karl Malone to a fistfight and brought Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian AK-47, to tears. If anything, it was that Sloan felt that if he could no longer bring the bite, he should no longer be the man in charge.

In a further sign that it was the end of an era and not the product of a rebellion, with him went chief counsel Johnson, 69 years old and one of the league’s most well-respected assistants.

As long as new head coach Tyrone Corbin didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, the Jazz would be fine.

But then the news of Williams came.

Now there’s little left of the Utah Jazz that made them the Utah Jazz. There’s no Sloan, no Johnson, no Larry Miller, no Stockton disciple, nothing. The franchise threatens to join the Charlotte Bobcats in NBA anonymity.

Some will argue that the Jazz received a worthy bounty in return.  Derrick Favors could turn into a quality talent, and the two draft picks could net even more. But Utah hasn’t had the best record picking at the low end of the lottery (Gordon Hayward selected 9th in the 2010 draft) and nothing is a sure thing in the NBA.

And yet, maybe there’s still hope. Maybe there’s a player at the far corners of the United States, places off like Louisiana Tech and Gonzaga, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe the Jazz should start by visiting a little-known prospect out in Spokane.

First name David, last name Stockton.

Born in Salt Lake City in the year 1 B.S. (Before Stockton), Greg Groggel is now based in Brooklyn, NY, where he writes for television and the web and eagerly awaits the coming of Deron Williams. He can be reached at @Groggel on Twitter.

  1. jmclarkent - Feb 24, 2011 at 6:38 AM

    be in Utah.

    – After the Brewer Trade (who has since proven himself to be a role player at best): “That’s why I only signed a 3 year contract

    – His body language and attitude has been “off” all year. An example is when he had that hissy-fit and flipped on Gordon Hayward: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urE_fCp7e5s

    – SOMETHING happened with Sloan.

    KOC made the right move (One that I hoped for after the Nets lost ‘Melo in this very forum). The Jazz were not close to a championship (especially with Corbin at the helm mid-season) and DW was going to walk after 2012. I was hoping that the level of play that we saw in the beginning of the year would sustain (Maybe the’d get a part with the AK47 contract and make a run), but sadly the Jazz had no chemistry. The Jazz were sitting at 26 losses before the trade, they had 29 all of last year.

    Now they have a chance to blow it up and get “bad” for a year or two (which will allow them the opportunity to make some moves get better). If they can shed salary, move a few parts that don’t fit, develop the young folks on the roster and make the right draft picks, this could work out.

    Truth be told, the window to win a championship with Deron had closed. If you are going to rebuild, I rather do so with Favors, Harris (a tradeable asset down the road) and 2 low #1’s than an ESPN “Decision”.

  2. jmclarkent - Feb 24, 2011 at 6:39 AM

    It looks like I lost “Deron Williams did not want to be in Utah” at the top.

  3. 1historian - Feb 24, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    I disagree. I don’t think Williams wanted to be there, would have poisoned team chemistry as long as he was and I think that they did what they had to do. It remains to be seen what is their next move.

  4. rickmirer - Feb 24, 2011 at 7:18 AM

    Great read. I couldn’t agree more. No Sloan, no Williams, no chance.

  5. kindasporty - Feb 24, 2011 at 8:36 AM

    While reading this, Don McLean’s American Pie kept running through my head.

  6. stinkfingers - Feb 24, 2011 at 10:17 AM

    As a Jazz fan, I hate to see Deron go. He is a great player. Arguably, the best PG in the game.

    But the fact is, he didnt want to be here. He made it very clear that he was going to leave when his contract was up, with body language and public statements. Kevin O’Connor did the right thing. Sure… This trade could turn the Jazz into the Bobcats, like you said. But if the trade isnt made, Williams leaving without compensation would turn the Jazz into something much worse.. The Cleveland Cavaliers.

    At least now… There is SOME hope for the future, even if it is only a little.

  7. baboushka - Feb 24, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    For some reason I have always liked the Utah Jazz. Even the assymetrical name (Utah with Jazz) works for me in a strange way. Sort of like popular Swedish Jazz. Don’t laugh if you never heard it. It’s awesome and it works. My real point is this. The author should have focused on this unique opportunity for the Jazz to get its “Jazz” right. They were adrift from all of the defections and injuries from last year. Now they have given themselves the opportunity to remake a winning formula and add new Jazz spice to it with the new players and draft picks. Who knows what motivates a player to rise to the occasion and become significant. Young Mr Heyward now has such an opportunity. He could all of a sudden seize this moment (D Will’s departure) and lean on Favors like Stockton did with Malone, and the two become one of the most dynamic and exciting new scoring tandems in the league. This stuff happens in the NBA. Heyward was never going to become the exciting prospect we saw at Butler with Deron Williams dominant presence there. Now he has a chance. This is his moment. He will seize it (if Corbin lets him) or lose it. He should be in Corbin’s face right now challenging corbin to “Give Me The D!?..MN Ball!

    Bottom line. I see the Jazz jar as more full than empty. It was a very good trade by them. They got value and a better option to shape their future. It works for Williams. He is a good kid who just wnats to win. If they had kept the winning players around him, he probably would have re-upped and stayed. What the jazz need to consider is pushing Heyward and Favors to step up right now and play like the stars of that team. Ty Corbin is a good guy and a he may become a great coach. But I bet it won’t happen in Utah. They need to convince John Stockton to come in as head coach and surround him with talented assistants and let him shape this new team culture. And give him time to sort it out. Then if they get the chance, draft Jimmer to match up with Favors and Heyward, cross their fingers and hope it all works.

  8. infdl - Feb 24, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    Anybody remember how the jazz are 4-14 since mid-January? I hate seeing this move as much as anybody, but you are lying to yourself to think that Deron didn’t QUIT on this team about half way through December. Now he is in basketball purgatory. Sucks to even think about it, but this is the first real bold move by Greg Miller since Larry died. Now we’ll see if it was the right move.

  9. progress2011 - Feb 24, 2011 at 5:04 PM

    The Jazz will now compete with Sacramento and the Cavs for the worst team in the league spot ! HAHAHAHAhahaha

  10. SmackSaw - Feb 24, 2011 at 9:28 PM

    A bold move would be to leave SLC for Seattle. Don’t laugh.

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