My Utah Jazz Manifesto

***WARNING – DO NOT READ THIS***

Sorry, that came out wrong. What I meant was: Feel free to read this, but it is long for a blog post and probably not very entertaining unless you are a serious sports fan (and possibly not even then). Please be advised.

Game Five of the Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Lakers series took place yesterday (it was going to be “tomorrow” and then “today” but I didn’t get around to posting this until the afternoon following the game) and it was another road loss for the Jazz. The Lakers lead the series at 3-2, of course, with the home team winning all games. The Jazz will be eliminated if they don’t win both of the next two games, and they haven’t won in Los Angeles since Gerald Ford was President (or something like that – the national broadcasters mentioned it about 670 times last night, but I managed to ignore them every single time).

There is this much to say – whether or not I think they will make it past the Lakers (I don’t), it is very clear to me that the Utah Jazz are a legitimate, realistic title contender. For the next few years, presuming they keep all of the necessary pieces together and improve in a few positions, they stand a very realistic chance of competing for the title, if not outright winning it. Wouldn’t that be an interesting facet to the Williams-to-Boozer versus Stockton-to-Malone comparative arguments? Within 10 years of their last trip to the finals they are back to being one of the three or four best teams in the league, with an almost entirely different roster. That would be pretty impressive for any organization, not to mention the team in the smallest market in the NBA, and one of the few (if not only) major professional franchises that multiple players will openly and publicly refuse to sign with. The only constant in all of that success is the ownership and the most important parts of the coaching staff. Maybe there is something to Larry Miller’s insistence on backing his coach, even in tough times.

[Note: The league also needs to stop ignoring Jerry Sloan for his long, long overdue Coach of the Year award. The argument that it isn’t a “lifetime achievement award” is a cop-out, and ridiculous. If that was really the reason voters don’t think Sloan is a viable candidate, then why is he the only coach in the top 10 for career wins who hasn’t received one?]

There are four subjects I would like to briefly write about, and then I will move on to one other thing before the merciful end:

1. Officiating – I am writing this during a very zen-like calm moment, so I will be much, much more reasonable about the officiating than I am during the games. The Wandering Moose (who is a huge sports fan in general and Jazz fan in particular – please forward your declarations of jealousy to me) and I have expressed the opinion that we don’t know how players manage an entire basketball season without throwing a punch at the officials sometimes. There must be a level of understanding between the players and officials that I don’t see, because I can’t ever remember it happening, at any point in my years of watching basketball. Either that or the punishment for doing so must be overwhelming (lifetime ban?).

I think the best officiated game of the series so far has been game 3 in Utah. I know it is hardly a surprise that I liked a home game with a few preferential calls benefiting the Jazz, but I also think the officials were the closest to calling it fair on both sides. Right now, in this zen-calm, I know that officiating is a difficult job and I really don’t believe they go into a game intending to call it one way or another. But they do fall into the blunders of anticipating contact, correcting mistakes or complaints with make-up calls, giving preferential treatment to star players (and “star teams,” on occasion), and allowing biases/crowds to color their judgment. In other words, they are just like any other fan.

The problem is they should be better than the fans. They travel a lot and work hard at their jobs, but they aren’t being paid to watch basketball. It is their job, for which they are well-paid to be as invisible as possible. This is very difficult at times, because every single fan, no matter what team they follow, complains about the officials. They are often forced to make difficult calls that could change the outcome of a game, and every single player in the NBA, no matter what he says in post-game interviews, exaggerates to try and draw fouls.

So, I understand the difficulty of the position. It’s not easy – I get that. However, when Andrei Kirilenko plays great defense on Kobe Bryant, cuts him off from driving to the basket by moving his body (as he is supposed to do), and Kobe stiff-arms AK in the stomach while trying to make a move, that is a foul committed by Kobe. I don’t care if he is the MVP and I don’t care how badly his back hurts. Calling a blocking foul on AK is incorrect, and involves at least two of the blunders mentioned above. As my dear Moose said as we were watching the play: “That’s too bad that Andrei fouled Kobe’s hand with his stomach.” One or two calls like that over the course of a game are understandable. But call after call going against your favorite team turns a rational, zen-like fan into a blustering, hollering fool. My wife doesn’t like me at that point – heck, even I don’t like myself at that point. All I am asking for is fairness. A touch foul should go both ways. Three seconds in the key should be called on both ends. A driving foul is a driving foul, regardless of the uniform.

In a related point, I rarely notice such a high level of bad officiating when I watch games that do not involve the Utah Jazz. That means either the league only sends the worst officials to games involving the Jazz (possible), or I am letting my passion cloud my judgment. Perhaps it’s best if I don’t investigate that too much.

2. The Utah Jazz are a dirty team – I grow weary of hearing this argument from the national broadcasters and commentators. The way the Jazz play, which is a very physical game with a lot of picks and contact, is not inherently “dirty.” More to the point, they have played the game that way ever since Jerry Sloan took over coaching responsibilities, so I don’t understand why it has become one of the go-to stories of the playoffs. Actually, scratch that, I do understand why; it’s because very few of the national broadcasters have bothered to watch the Jazz during the year, so they have no idea what to make of this team. I don’t blame them – I can’t pretend to analyze any other team besides the Jazz, because I have no idea how they play or who their key players are. But the national guys need to say something, so they find one storyline, regardless of accuracy, and parrot that.

In fairness, I don’t think I have heard any of the national broadcasters actually use the term “dirty,” but they do say “physical” quite often, and that it’s a cheating tactic – using terminology like “the Jazz play more like a football team than a basketball team.” The commentators say it, the players mimic that in their post-game interviews, and suddenly the Jazz are thugs of the highest order.

I don’t see it. I mean, I see body contact and frequent bumping or the occasional shove. I see and have seen the screens and fouls, and Carlos Boozer’s two-hands-in-the-back trick during rebounds. These are part of the reason why more fouls are called on the Jazz than any other team in the league. What I don’t see is why this qualifies as “dirty” basketball. Truth be told, I see it on both sides. Physical contact is part of the game. But for some reason, that hard-nosed grittiness is admirable and acceptable when the San Antonio Spurs or the Detroit Pistons do it. Or the Rockets or Lakers, for that matter.

Coaches and players in both series have done their best to vilify the Jazz for their physical play. Tracy McGrady and Rick Adelman complained about how the Jazz were bumping McGrady when he got the ball on the perimeter, and how they would clog the lane with big bodies when he drove to the basket. Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson have said very similar things. Does that mean the Jazz are supposed to let two very dangerous players shoot whenever they like, and drive to the basket unopposed? I know the respective coaches would like that, but it doesn’t make much basketball sense.

3. Arguments founded in ignorance – Message boards are an interesting way to communicate with other basketball fans around the country, and as one might imagine, they can become pretty heated. I rarely read the boards, though, because the attacks tend to become personal in nature (and often about Mormons, which is surprising for a sports message board until you think about it) when discussing the Utah Jazz. I do like spirited interplay between fans, though, and every once in a while a few well-written and thoughtful posters submit a series of comments that are very enjoyable to read.

I have come to find that there are intelligent, fair-minded fans of every team in the league (I know – I was surprised, too), and many of them are quick to praise the opposing side while still maintaining their credible arguments as fans. There are also plenty of socially handicapped dorks who only post messages to taunt other fans, but that’s all right. Sometimes these are funny, and earn a chuckle from me, even when aimed in the general direction of Salt Lake City. There is vitriol, too, but that goes mostly ignored by the free-thinking posters and only combated by the fellow insult slingers. Following a message board is always an exercise in selective reading.

[Note: I almost never post on well-known comment boards and message boards for two reasons. First, most of the arguments have either been debated to the final degree, or are hardly worth the time it takes to respond. For example, the following comment was posted last night after the L.A.win: “The Lakers would have swept the Jazz if the refs would just let them play.” How do I respond to that? How does one write the noise of me spitting soda all over my keyboard in shock? What is the proper spelling of a wide-mouthed-but-silent gasp? You see the problem. Second, I always feel awkward replying to some of the screen names. Instead of conversing with your average Bob or Sue, it’s: “You make a good point, roundrockmonster69…” or “I don’t agree with your opinion, KB24EVER…” Then again, I call myself “The Lumbering Bear” on this blog and don’t have any problems posting here, so maybe I should just stop writing about it.]

Anyway, there are always goofy, nonsensical arguments from the morons, but one point crops up quite often by otherwise bright posters, and I think it just makes them look dumb. If this was just a message board phenomenon, I don’t think I would even bother mentioning it. But I have heard the point asked as a question several times in post-game interviews during the Lakers series, coming from what must be properly-accredited media. People who should know better, in other words.

The point usually comes after the Utah Jazz win, and it has been made by fans from every team: “The Jazz played a perfect game tonight, and still only beat the (fill in the team) by 5. (Fill in the team again) shouldn’t be concerned – they are that much better than Utah.”

It’s often phrased in a different way, but it is always wrong. Just using the Lakers series as an example, the message boards were prickling with that argument after the Jazz won game three. Then, someone asked Phil Jackson whether the Lakers were nervous about game four, and led up to the question with something about how the Jazz had played a perfect game that night.

I was astounded to hear that question asked by someone who is paid to understand the NBA. If it’s coming from the fans, you can interpret it as: “I don’t think my team played very well, and I think yours did. So, because it was close, my team is going to destroy yours if they can get it together.” I understand that. People say and write a lot of foolish things after their team submits a disappointing loss (take this manifesto as exhibit A). But from an actual, living, breathing journalist? That tells me that he has either lost his ability to be objective, and should be fired, or doesn’t spend time following the league, and should be fired.

You know, if Deron Williams scores 25 points and has 10 assists (as he did last night), that is a good game, and a little above his average in scoring, but by no means is it “perfect.” Carlos Boozer has registered one good game in the Lakers series, and even though he doubled his average in rebounds in that effort, I would hardly call him “perfect” in that game. I know people don’t mean literally perfect, as in they didn’t miss a single shot and didn’t commit a single foul, but it is still an attempt at basketball elitism.

If the Utah Jazz played a “perfect” game, meaning Boozer and Williams both contributed to the very limit of their ability, Memo made a very high percentage of his shots and contributed some interior defense, Kirilenko was everywhere on the court (blocking shots, deflecting passes and getting inside on offense), the Jazz bench made a strong impact and brought energy to the floor, Brewer played tough defense without fouling, rebounds were very high, turnovers were very low, every basket was assisted… I mean, if we are really talking about a perfect game from a realistic standpoint, the Jazz would destroy the Lakers – or any other team in the league – on any floor.

The same is true of every team in the NBA. I have seen the Jazz play “perfect” games (there was a certain home win against the New Orleans Hornets this year that I would consider in that category, and I was even at the game), and I have seen perfect games played against the Jazz. It doesn’t happen often, because there are so many variables, but there isn’t much an opposing team can do about it. They just try to not get injured and take their beating well.

4. Why doesn’t Utah love Derek Fisher? – Can we ask all national broadcasters and commentators to retire the “I can’t believe Derek Fisher is being booed by the Utah crowd” shtick? I fully acknowledge, as a fan, that he made some memorable contributions to the 2006-2007 regular season, and had a very heartwarming entrance to a home game in the playoffs last year. I also confess I was sad to see him go. He left on good terms with the team, and I thought Larry Miller did a very decent thing to cancel his contract. There. Are you happy, Hubie Brown (and others)?

I would very much like to hear a logical argument why we, the fans of the Utah Jazz, should continue to cheer for him. For the record, I don’t think he leveraged his difficult family situation to get out of Utah, even though he actually moved 700 miles further away from his daughter’s doctor in New York. But apparently they have better hospitals in Los Angeles (sorry, Primary Children’s Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Children). Besides, he left several millions of dollars on the table when he broke his contract, and he was trying to make a good decision for his family. I can respect that. I still admire Derek Fisher as a man and a father.

However, he was on record just after his trade from Golden State that he did not want to come to Utah. He explained later that it was more from the shock of being traded, but it didn’t sit well with some fans, and now we are not certain that he wasn’t glad to leave. The situation here in Utah was not going to improve for Fisher. He certainly would have started as the shooting guard this year, but his minutes would be cut if the Jazz wanted to start bringing Ronnie Brewer into the mix. He may have picked up some extra minutes backing up Deron Williams, but the Jazz were not about to cut D-Will’s numbers to appease D-Fish.

But Fisher still had enough game left to be a starting presence on a good team. He is a key role player on the Lakers, after all. With the Jazz, he was about to be relegated to several years of decreasing minutes in supporting roles. I think he would have been a great bench player, maybe one of the best in the league, but it still would have been the bench. With that in mind, I don’t think it broke his heart to leave. He may have liked the community and the team, but it was a good decision for him.

So now he returns to face the Jazz and the Utah crowd, and he is playing for the Lakers, of all teams. Not only playing, but starting, and making contributions to what may be the best team in the NBA. Fisher is burying three pointers like he isn’t capable of missing, and playing obscenely intense defense against a fantastic guard (neither of which, by the way, do I remember from Fish while he was wearing Jazz colors). Are we, the Jazz fans, supposed to cheer for that? He leaves the team and comes back in enemy colors, and we are supposed to be happy for him? Why? The very idea is ridiculous.

All that really leaves is his daughter’s tragic illness, which has nothing (or very little, in this case) to do with basketball. Should we cheer for a now-opposing player because he struggles with difficult family challenges? I have no problem maintaining a soft spot in my heart for Fisher because of his decency and family values, but what does that have to do with the playoffs? There is more than one player in the NBA who faces similar challenges with his family – Carlos Boozer, for example. Should Cleveland fans cheer for Boozer when he plays against his former team? Because he left under very similar circumstances, with his minutes about to be cut and the coach letting him know that he was going to be a third-tier role player. Yes, there was a lot of sneakiness and underhandedness to that whole transaction (some of it on Cleveland’s part), but hey, he has a sick kid! Cheer for him!

No self-respecting Cavaliers fan (or Lakers fan, or Rockets fan, or any non-Utah fan) would be cheering for Boozer, no matter what his family problems may be. Nor would I expect them to. A one-time favorite player is now in enemy colors and fighting his hardest to keep my team from winning. For that, I say boo.

This final section is “The Lumbering Bear Awards – Utah Jazz Playoff Edition,” which I chose to do because it sounded like fun to write and I had a few ideas for it. If you are still reading (unlikely), I would love to hear your ideas.

First Round – Utah Jazz vs. Houston Rockets

Player from the Opposing Team I Would Most Like to See Play for The Utah Jazz: He was not very popular around my house a few weeks ago, but I have to go with Shane Battier. He’s a cerebral, hard-working swingman who doesn’t need to score in order to stay in the game. He plays tough defense on the other team’s best perimeter player, and when the Rockets needed a three-pointer, he always seemed to make it. I don’t like the fact that he is a Level 74 Flop Master, but everyone flops these days, so I would overlook it.

Player from the Opposing I Team Would Least Like to See Play for The Utah Jazz: Bobby Jackson. He used to run circles around John Stockton back when The Master was at his creakiest. He would probably be a valuable bench player in the vein of Derek Fisher, but I would have a hard time forgiving and forgetting.

Player I Suspect Irritates His Teammates by Trying to Show off His Basketball Knowledge and Always Telling Them What to Do: There may be more candidates for this than I realize, but I have to give it to Rafer Alston. He spent the entire first two games injured and pouring out basketball knowledge to Yao Ming, who was beside him on the bench (Yao’s response to everything: “Huh?”) He seems to really enjoy being the player who gets interviewed between quarters, so he can lay down some high-level jargon.

Player That Is the Most Fun to Imitate: There is no better choice in the entire league for this award than Dikembe Mutombo. I know it’s not very original, and the whole joke has been done to death, but every time he made a play or the announcers said his name, I said “cooookieeeee!” in my best Cookie Monster voice. In other years this award would go to Tracy McGrady, and the imitation would be accomplished by half-closing my eyes for the entire game.

Coach That I Found More Amusing When He Had the Adolf Hitler Mustache: This is obviously an award for Rick Adelman, but Phil Johnson could give him a run for his money if he decided to try something new.

Player That Looks the Most Like An Unattractive Woman: At first I considered Kyle Korver for this award, but then I saw his parents on television, and he happened to look quite a bit like his mom. Now, the odds of anyone in the Korver family reading this are astronomical, but I still didn’t want to imply that his mom was unattractive, as she was a lovely woman. So, instead, I will go with Luis Scola. He’s a better choice, anyway.

Player I Would Least Like To Sit Behind If I Splurged For Expensive Third Row Seats In The ES Arena: Yao Ming is a good choice because of his height, but I am actually going to go with Kyrylo Fesenko. Not only is he tall and broad, but one of the only other Ukranians I have ever met smelled like bad cabbage and garlic. I am not saying that Fes has that problem, but I would rather not find out.

Player with Whom I Would Most Like To Have a Dinner Conversation: There are a lot of very intelligent players on both teams, and I am such a fan of Deron Williams that I would have a hard time passing that up. But, I may have to give this one to Dikembe Mutombo again, just for humorous reasons.

Conference Semifinals – Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Player from the Opposing Team I Would Most Like to See Play for The Utah Jazz: None. Well, that’s not exactly correct, because when they are not playing the Jazz I like Ronny Turiaf’s game. He’s another tough, high-energy player that doesn’t talk a lot but plays hard every possession. Ronnie Price’s forehead may disagree with my choice, though.

Player from the Opposing Team I Would Least Like to See Play for The Utah Jazz: With the entire roster to choose from, I have to go with the completely unused Chris Mihm. Nothing against the former Texas standout, but I would like to see the Jazz move further away from the “Big, Slow, Clumsy Center” era. They are going in the right direction, but they have to be careful about backtracking.

Player Who Terrifies Me the Most When the Ball Is in His Hands: Any of the Lakers big three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom would be great for this. All three have spent much of the last five games dismantling whatever interior defense the Jazz may have had. But, I have to give this one to Carlos Boozer. I have hope that things will change down the road, though.

Player I Would Most Like To See Shot Out Of A Cannon And Not Worry Too Much About Whether The Net Is In Place To Catch Him: Sasha Vujacic. Plus, instead of one of those circus cannons that the Ringling Brothers use, I would prefer it be a heavy mounted cannon on a US Navy warship. Ironically, we named our dog Sasha several years ago, and now on occasion when she is being a “bumface” (our cutesy word for stubborn) I call her “Sasha Vujacic.” (Disclaimer: I really don’t wish him or anyone else physical harm – and I suppose this is a very, very backhanded compliment for how tenacious he is. By tenacious, of course, I mean obnoxious.)

Player Who Is Technically More Handsome than His Father, But That Isn’t Saying Much: Ron Brewer, former NBA player, is a reasonably handsome man. In a funny twist of fate, the elder Brewer played with Bill Walton, who is not handsome, reasonably or otherwise. Luke Walton is Bill’s son, and the runaway winner of this award.

Player That Has Never, Ever Committed a Foul: It’s really admirable that Pau Gasol can play so many years in the league and never do anything wrong. We should give him some sort of award or something. Besides this one, I mean.

Coach That Really Enjoys Talking Over the End of Reporters’ Questions: Jerry Sloan. I laugh every time he does it.

Player That Has the Most Unlikely Tattoo on His Shoulder: With the drastic increase in tattoos among NBA stars, this one is a little more difficult. Deron Williams, for example, has some sort of wild panther on his shoulder, with realistic red scratches at the ends of the claws. But the MVP of this category is Kobe Bryant. He has a tiara made out of butterflies on his shoulder (yes, you read that correctly – haven’t you noticed it?), that is even more amusing in High-Definition. I don’t even think I need to come up with a joke for that one.

Player That Has Been Arrogant For So Long That It Doesn’t Even Faze Us Anymore: It’s two in a row for Kobe Bryant, who has never met a condescending remark he didn’t like. I actually catch myself thinking he has grown up a bit, and it’s not as bad as I remember, but then I really listen to what he says and I realize I have just become accustomed to it.

Player That Looks the Most Like A Geico Caveman: Vladimir Radmanovic. He also looks like Peja Stojakovic (good call by T.W. Moose), so it would be interesting to see them do one of those split-face NBA Playoff commercials. So if the Lakers win the series there is at least one thing I can hope for.

So, that wraps up my ridiculous, humongous, Utah Jazz Manifesto. If you happen to have read the entire thing, my thanks to you, and my compliments on your supreme level of patience. I will update this with future posts if the Jazz should happen to progress to the next round, which is good news for anyone who reads Deep Forest Outpost, because such an outcome is unlikely at best.

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