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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

This isn't L.A.'s favorite place, but these franchises have connections from long ago

May 16, 2008|Mark Heisler

SALT LAKE CITY -- Welcome back to, uh . . . heck.

We're not only not in Lakerdom anymore, we're about as far away as we can get.

This is the Anti-Lakerdom, the place and the time of year when visiting Lakers find the ground giving way under them, to the delight of local fans.

They could be great teams like the Showtime Lakers who had four titles when the young Karl Malone-John Stockton team jumped them in 1988 . . . or merely billed as great like the Shaq-Kobe Lakers whom the veteran Malone-Stockton teams swept here in 1997 and 1998 . . . or rising powers like the current Lakers, whom the young Deron Williams Jazz knocked off twice last week.

The bottom line is, this is where Lakers come to have their heads handed to them in spring, with eight losses in the nine playoff games they've played here.

The lone win was Game 4 in 1988 -- after the defending champions, whom Lakers Coach Pat Riley had guaranteed would repeat and who'd never been behind in a second round in the '80s, found themselves trailing a bunch of upstarts, 2-1.

Malone was 24, Stockton 26. The Jazz center was 7-4, 290-pound Mark Eaton, who had rarely played at UCLA but made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar look like a small forward.

After being upset in Game 2 in the Forum and Game 3 in the Salt Palace, Riley issued a shocking reprimand to his own big three, whom he'd always taken care to thank for his good fortune, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

"I've always said I've come with these guys and I'll go down with 'em," Riley said, "but I can't let other guys on the team down by going with people who aren't going to make an effort."

Skewered in the Los Angeles press, the Lakers won Game 4, 113-100, on May 15, 1988, and glared at the Lakers press corps afterward, just as Riley intended.

That was 20 years and one day ago and nothing has worked since.

In the Lakers' next visit four days later in Game 6, the Jazz beat them, 108-80.

Riley said he was unhappy his players lost by only 28, noting, "I wish it was 50. I didn't want them to feel good about anything. I wish it was total."

The Lakers went on to win Game 7 in 1988, which, fortunately for them, was in the Forum.

The players, coaches and building have changed, but the Lakers, still lords of all they survey, are back for another Game 6 against the Jazz, still upstarts.

Fortunately for the Lakers, Game 7, if (when?) necessary, will be in Staples Center.

Of course, there are entire cultures in collision here -- Rodeo Drive versus Temple Square.

Actually, long before Malone became a Laker and Derek Fisher joined the Jazz before returning to the Lakers, the two franchises had uncommon overlap.

Born in 1974 as the New Orleans Jazz, the expansion team was like a Cub Scout pack to the Lakers' Eagle Scouts, with the Jazz's owners being Lakers fans from Southern California who brought in Lakers coaches, players and staffers.

The original Jazz owners, Santa Barbara-based Sam Battistone and Beverly Hills lawyer Fred Rosenfeld, who had represented Riley, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich, had been brought together by Lakers scout Bill Bertka.

Bertka, the first Jazz GM, hired Baylor and another former Laker, Butch van Breda Kolff, as coaches and former Laker Hot Rod Hundley as broadcaster.

By the third season, with Bertka moved to the bench as Baylor's assistant, the GM became another former Laker staffer, Barry Mendelson.

Mendelson signed the 32-year-old Goodrich in 1976, giving up a No. 1 pick three years hence, which no one gave much thought to . . . until it turned out to be Magic.

Failing to attract an audience with Pete Maravich in five seasons in New Orleans, the Jazz moved to Utah, an old American Basketball Assn. hotbed.

Of course, there was some -- or heavy -- support for changing the name, since Salt Lake City wasn't a hotbed of jazz.

On the other hand, Bertka says Battistone wanted to keep the name -- "after all the trials and tribulations we had" -- and that was that.

Now the present Jazz owner, Larry Miller, says he'll worry about it when the Lakers start worrying about the number of lakes in their area.

If Utah was a small market that didn't rank high as a destination for NBA players -- like, among the top 20 -- the franchise has had remarkable continuity with only two coaches, Frank Layden and Jerry Sloan.

Jazz GMs were uncommonly sharp, starting with Layden, who stole Adrian Dantley; through Layden's son, Scott, who drafted Malone and Stockton; to Kevin O'Connor ,who assembled today's Jazz in five years since Malone and Stockton left.

This helps explain how the Jazz has made the playoffs in 22 of the last 25 seasons.

It started in 1979, the year the team arrived, when Frank Layden acquired Dantley, a stubborn, sawed-off, 6-4 forward who'd gone through three teams in his first two seasons.

Dantley then launched his Hall of Fame career with seven stellar seasons in Utah, putting the Jazz on the map.

Of course, Layden got Dantley from the Lakers.

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