All that Jazz

After a tumultuous, injury-ridden, lockout-shortened season, the NBA playoffs begin today.  And the team I’m rooting for isn’t the Lakers (all you Laker fans, please put down your stones), or even the Clippers (who are finally a fun team to watch!).  It’s the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz.

No, I don’t really expect them to survive the first round against the top-seeded Spurs, who have been on a tear lately behind the play of Tony Parker.  In fact, I would have been just as happy if Utah hadn’t made the playoffs, which would have given them a shot at a good lottery pick in what promises to be a decent draft year.

But why the Jazz in the first place?  Call it a sentimental thing if you like.  I’m not a big sports fan (because I spend all my waking hours reading theology books, of course), and didn’t even start following basketball until the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the forming of the original USA Basketball “Dream Team,” which included the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.  (Talk about your fantasy basketball team.)  International basketball hadn’t quite developed to the point it has now, 20 years later, and the Dream Team decimated the competition, winning every game by at least 30 points.

On that team were two players I had never heard of at the time: Karl Malone and John Stockton, the now legendary pair of Hall-of-Famers that were the core of the Utah offense.  My wife and I came across a Dream Team jigsaw puzzle with pictures of all the players, and brought it home to our then 7-year-old son.  Out of the blue, he picked Stockton as his favorite player and became a Jazz fan.  Being a newbie to the game, I went along with his choice, and we began following the team.

Malone, with shoulders the width of a Mack truck, was nearly unstoppable in the paint.  He and Stockton ran their signature pick-and-roll to perfection.  But Stock was the one we admired most.  Unlike today’s crew of elite point guards, he played his entire long career below the rim, never trying to elevate for the slam dunk.  His genius was to always know where every one of his teammates was.  He could hit the open man with a pinpoint pass even through traffic.

I still get a thrill out of watching one particular highlight of the Jazz vs. Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals.  Stockton corrals a defensive rebound, and dribbles cross-court through the lane while Malone sprints toward the other end of the court.  Then, unexpectedly (and to the coach’s dismay!), Stock hauls back and fires a baseball pass nearly the full length of the court to Malone, who has two defenders (including Jordan) right on his heels.  Without breaking stride, Malone merely glances over his shoulder–and the ball drops from the sky into his hands for the layup.  Beautiful.  I think I cheered out loud.

Stockton is in the NBA record books as the all-time leader in both assists and steals, and it doesn’t look likely that anyone will surpass him any time in the near future.  And yet, for him, it was always about the game, not about money, fame, or individual accolades.  He was a real competitor, who put it all out there on the court–but that always meant making the team better, helping others succeed.

That was always in the backs of our minds when my son and I played hoops together.  Our proudest moment was in a pickup game.  We were visiting my in-laws, who live behind a high school.  My son and I went down to the basketball courts with two of our relatives, and were shooting around when two teenagers walked up and wanted to get in the game.  At one point, I had the ball just above the top of the key; my son, always in motion, cut into the lane, being chased by his defender.  I dropped off a pass to him over my defender and he laid it in.  One of the teens blurted out in frustrated admiration, “Man, they got that Utah Jazz thing going on!”

I still remember that.  It may have been the only highlight in my otherwise amusing athletic career.

That was then.  This is now.  Utah’s not the same team anymore.  For a while, fans hoped that Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer might be the next Stockton and Malone, but Boozer left for the Bulls, and Williams fell out with coach Sloan; Sloan retired, and Williams was traded.  The team is now mostly young and relatively inexperienced.  It’s to their credit that they even made the playoffs together, in Ty Corbin’s first full year as head coach–anyone’s head coach.

Individually, these young players have lots of raw talent and athleticism.  But they made the playoffs by looking for each other on the court, and playing as a team.

Like I said, I’m not a real sports nut.  But if there’s any single sports figure that’s made an impact on me, it would be John Stockton: a guy who gave his all every night, didn’t get into contract disputes, didn’t jaw at the referees, and dragged his coach to Mass when the team was on the road.  His philosophy on the court has actually affected the way I think about life, ministry, and leadership: if you have the shot, take it–but always be looking for ways to make your team better by finding your teammates and helping them succeed.  We need more people like that in professional sports.

And it wouldn’t hurt to have a few in the church, either.

(Additional comment, added 5/8/12: Now that Utah has been officially swept out of the playoffs, I can add one observation–sometimes, in the press of trying to succeed against a more experienced and well-organized team, the Jazz players seemed to stop looking for each other and playing together.  Undoubtedly, that’s part of the reason for their post-season disappointment.  Maybe next year.)