Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Why they play the games, and why we watch

The Jazz are enduring a difficult year. That is an understatement. However, before we over-react to their losing record and struggles in the what seems like the 2nd half of every ball game, we need to keep perspective. Perspective, like Jerry Sloan, who recently said:

"Hardships never hurt anybody. It's how you deal with them. I've dealt with plenty of those things," said Sloan, whose wife died last June. "This is not a hardship. This is just basketball. Last year was a hardship."

Only perhaps a demeanor like Sloan could set the stage for the, "We are down, but we are not out, game of the year" thus far.

Monday Night in the Delta Center, the San Antonio Spurs entered the game having won 18 straight games over the Jazz. The Jazz last beat the Spurs nearly 5 years ago (Feb 2000). The Jazz entered the game having lost 9 games in a row, which was their longest losing streak since 1983. While those streaks didn't sound promising, the further realities of the Jazz season made it even worse. The Jazz announced that afternoon they would be without Forwards Matt Harpring and Raja Bell, who would both sit and rest injured knees. Keep in mind the Jazz were already without their best player, Andrei Kirilenko, and another rotation regular in Jarron Collins. No problem, they'll just lean on Carlos Arroyo who stared in the summer Olympics, and give him a chance to shine. Right? Well, Carlos hasn't been himself and is barely getting any playing time in Sloan's rotation.

Was I alone in feeling that the task before them was ridiculous? Hardly. In fact, I think I may always remember the demeanor and tone of those on the Jazz radio network during the pregame show. Former Coach Tom Nissalke and co-host Ian Fitzsimmons, were sort of chuckling under their breaths as they tried to give credence to the Jazz's chances of winning that night. I don't blame them, I didn't see it coming. In fact, I probably would have forgiven the Jazz if they just mailed this one in.

Well by now, you all know what happened. Mehmet Okur tipped in a miss by Keith McLeod at the buzzer and the place went nuts, as the Jazz beat the Spurs 97-96. The players and fans celebrated like they had won a playoff game. Getting the monkey, at least for a night, off your back was clearly a huge thing. Even the normal even keeled Jerry Sloan stated, "Tonight they deserve a reward because they stayed with it for the full 48 minutes". Just how much love was in the air? Even San Antonio coach Greg Popovich wasn't entirely disappointed with the outcome of the game and commented, "I'm happy for them, in a strange sort of way."

Was this the game that will turn around the Jazz season? I'd like to say yes, but the truth is, this is a Sloan coached team. He will eventually get the best out of them, and their success will hinge more on the health of key players, improvement by the new players, and the ability for the team to improve together, than the emotion or result of a single game.

For one night, the fact that the improbable happened cannot be underscored enough. It was a terrific game and a terrific thing to watch. In fact, its games like this that explain why they play the games that seemed decided ahead of time, and why we love to watch them.

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