Utah Jazz star Deron Williams with inestimable Coach Jerry Sloan
Every now and then, out of the blue and against our will (we're a Suns' diehard), we find ourselves rooting for the Utah Jazz. It's always a surprise, 'cause we have no real ties to the place and don't even follow 'em on a regular basis. But however long we haven't been noticing, they always pull us back in. They're all heart and no taint. They shut their mouths and play the game.
They defend their home court like rabid snow dogs (last year's record at Salt Lake's EnergySolutions Arena: 37-4). In fact, the franchise harks back to a time, only dimly remembered now, when most professional teams were actually professionally run.
In Utah's case, the whys and wherefores of success start and end with head coach Jerry Sloan. The guess here is that most casual NBA fans don't know the dude, but the wry, dogged Sloan is the longest-tenured head man in pro sports. Last season was his 20th with the Jazz, and here's his legacy to date: 18 winning seasons. One losing season. One draw (the Jazz went 41-41 in 2005-06). Twelve 50-plus-win seasons, with three of 60 or above. Two trips to the NBA Finals, six to the Western Conference Finals. Unbelievably, Sloan's never won Coach of the Year, but if it was my team, he's the guy I'd want screaming in my ear. Hands friggin' down.
Sloan really shoulda taken top-coach honors in '06-07, when he finally exorcised the ghosts of John Stockton and Karl Malone and directed a team that had been out of the playoffs for three years back to the Conference Finals. (BTW, the guy who beat Sloan out, Toronto's Sam Mitchell, was just torpedoed by the Raptors on Wednesday.) Though Utah wound up losing to the eventual NBA champs, the San Antonio Spurs, folks got an early eyeful of a Jazz team that may yet be destined for greatness.That team featured a nucleus of point guard Deron Williams, forwards Carlos Boozer and Andrei "AK47" Kirilenko, and center Mehmet Okur. Not surprisingly, since it's Utah and all, the same four will pull down the majority of the minutes in tonight's game against the Suns at U.S. Airways Center.
To sum up: Utah's got a budding superstar in Williams (pictured with Sloan), one of the youngest starting rotations in the league, and one of the best coaches of this or any generation. Phoenix? Turmoil. Lots of turmoil. The Suns have a chance to make it five losses in a row against the Jazz.
Tip's at 7 p.m. Saturday. See www.nba.com/suns. National TV: none. Local TV: Channel 45 (cable 9). Radio: KTAR-AM 620. -- Clay McNear