Not counting Michael Jordan, who was counting on getting in 30 or 40 holes a day with Tiger Barkley, everyone seems to be glad it’s the Utah Jazz here.
Nobody more so than the Jazz - after 23 seasons and 14 consecutive trips to the playoffs, a first appearance in the NBA Finals.
Not just glad to be here, mind you, but glad to be here.
Naturally, the mood may swing when the series goes to sedate Salt Lake City, where nightlife goes to die - though given its proximity to the dice and cards of Wendover, Nev., Jordan must be positively dizzy with anticipation.
Since the Finals have come to be conducted for their own personal amusement, the Chicago Bulls welcome fresh foils and Jordan a new target for his peculiar brand of contrived spite - in this case Karl Malone, semi-graciously allowed to borrow Michael’s MVP trophy this season.
The heart of the sporting press, if there is such a thing, has warmed to the angle of Malone and John Stockton managing, at last, not to get killed off before the last act - though that warmth will linger only until Stockton sets his first pick in the key, at which point he’ll be excoriated as the second coming of Hannibal Lecter.
Tough-minded dignity, in the NBA, can only be appreciated so long.
Yet just as last year’s Sonics-Bulls series was decided when Seattle conceded the first two games here, the Jazz’s chances would seem to hinge on winning either today or Wednesday.
So there was an urgency for answers when the Jazz touched down Saturday.
“Do you hate Dennis Rodman?” Stockton was asked.
“Or do you not have any emotion at all toward him?”
“I think the way you said it last pretty much covers it,” Stockton allowed.
A TV foof bore in, silhouetted by the beam of a klieg light.
“Johnny, you’re here.”
Please, as Alex Trebek would say, in the form of a question.
“Is it everything you thought it’d be?” “We just got off the bus,” Stockton said.
“How do you get past the aura of the Bulls?”
“The last thing I have to worry about,” Stockton said, knowing what awaits, “is auras.”
What awaits the Jazz point guard is a hounding by committee - Ron Harper, Randy Brown, even Jordan himself, if you believe coach Phil Jackson, will get a crack at choking off the Jazz offense where it starts.
Stockton’s heroics in the Western Conference finals certainly did not escape Jackson’s attention, and we’re not just referring to the last shot. The 20.5 points Stockton averaged against Houston topped his season average by six, and he was anointed as the series MVP by Barkley - who had the series-deciding 3-pointer shot over his head.
“But they played us differently than anybody played us in a long time,” Stockton said. “A lot of things were open for the point guard position.”
No kidding. His backup, Howard Eisley, was the Jazz’s top-scoring reserve for the first time all year.
This will surely be addressed by the Bulls - and it won’t be addressed with aura.
A year ago, the Sonics freaked out here. Jordan wouldn’t even make eye contact with Seattle coach George Karl, a fellow North Carolina alum. Karl couldn’t bring himself to sic his best defender, Gary Payton, on MJ. Rodman crawled so far inside Frank Brickowski’s head that there still may be orange dye mixed in with the gray matter.
The Jazz, by contrast, may well get beat. But they won’t get buffaloed.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan’s number went up in the rafters here before Michael’s statue went up outside. Stockton and Malone won gold alongside Jordan and can live without a handshake.
“I’m not in awe of anyone,” insisted Jazz forward Antoine Carr. “I’ve seen Dr. J., George McGinnis and all the guys. I’ve played against Larry Bird. I’ve played against all the best.”
And Rodman? Listen to this:
“I always thought he would be a great guy to have on your team,” said the Jazz’s Jeff Hornacek. “He does all the little things to help a team win. But those are the guys you can’t stand when they’re playing against you.”
Love to see that fan club in Salt Lake. Mormons for the Worm.
No, this will be about performance, not psyches. And the truth is - and every Jazz player knows it - that the best performer in the history of the game is Jordan.
“We’ve never been to the Finals, but we’ve been through a lot,” said Malone. “We’ve had heartbreak, we’ve had to battle from behind. From a standpoint of playing this series, not being here before don’t bother me.
“It bothered me over the years, but not now.”
Aura, you see, can’t fight through a screen. Legal or otherwise.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review