The 1998 Utah Jazz came into the season off both a breakthrough and a heartbreak. Their dynamic duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, as good a point guard/power forward combo as has ever existed, had finally broken through and reached the 1997 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan’s Bulls awaited. A six-game series loss to a favored dynasty doesn’t seem like the end of the world, until you realize just how it unfolded.
Utah lost Game 1 when Malone missed two free throws in the closing seconds of a tie game, then Jordan hit the game-winner at the buzzer. The Jazz eventually crawled back to the tie the series two games apiece, were at home for Game 5 and Jordan was playing with a vicious flu bug that doctors said he had no business playing with. The Jazz got out to a 36-20 lead with the legendary Bull looking weak. Chicago crawled back, Jordan scored 15 in the fourth quarter, including a backbreaking three-pointer off a rebound of his own missed free throw that gave the Bulls the series edge.
It ended back in Chicago for Game 6 when the Jazz again let a fourth-quarter chance slip and the Bulls put on a 10-0 run, and ultimately won when Steve Kerr hit a jumper with five seconds left to break a tie game. With just a few more plays, the Jazz could have been champs. But in an NBA world that seems to mandate you lose first, the 1998 Utah Jazz had the necessary Finals experience under their belts.
Malone and Stockton may have had Hall of Fame resumes and Finals experience, but one thing they did not have was a supporting cast. Jeff Hornacek, Stockton’s running mate in the backcourt was good for a 14 a night, and a good three-point shooter, but no one else averaged in double-digits, nor made an impact with rebounding or assists. It was the coaching of longtime mastermind Jerry Sloan, combined with his two stars, that kept this team afloat in a competitive Western Conference.
The Jazz started slow losing three of the first four. A six-game winning streak around the Thanksgiving timeframe righted the ship, but they were still just 15-10 on December 21—not bad, but not a pace an NBA championship contender keeps.
Then Utah won nine of ten. They repeated the feat in early February. Just as important, in a ten-day stretch encompassing late January and early February, they beat Chicago twice, and by almost identical scores, 101-94 and 101-93. An 11-game winning streak upped their record to 48-16 by mid-March. They concluded the regular season at 62-20 and had the #1 seed in the West. Those wins over the Bulls were more than just confidence-builders—they were also the tiebreakers, as Chicago also won 62 games, but if the two favorites again reached the Finals, Utah would hold homecourt.
Getting to the Finals out of the West would be no easy feat, as Utah had to run a gauntlet of the NBA’s past and present. The first-round opponent was the Houston Rockets. Normally the first round is tuneup time for NBA favorites, but with a lineup of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, just three years removed from a championship of their own, and joined by Charles Barkley, Houston was a team no favorite wants to face—one with the talent, but just hasn’t put it together.
Houston put it together in Game 1, getting a road win and also won Game 3. Their backs to the wall in what was then the only best-of-five round in the NBA playoffs, Utah got a 93-71 blowout win on a Friday night in Houston and then came back home Sunday to wrap up the series.
The San Antonio Spurs were next, with a young coach named Gregg Popovich and a rookie center named Tim Duncan. The veteran help was David Robinson and Avery Johnson. The Spurs had won 56 games and were one year away from the first of what stands at four NBA championships in the Popovich/Duncan era. And they gave Utah everything the favorites could have wanted on the first two games at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center. Utah won Game 1 by a bucket and Game 2 in overtime. They turned in a horrible loss in Game 3, before coming back the next night to win Game 4 and then clinch at home. A 4-1 win didn’t come as easy as the series win totals make it look.
The #2 seed, with 61 wins was the Los Angeles Lakers. This was the second year in Hollywood for Shaquille O’Neal and the second year in the NBA for a 19-year-old phenom in Kobe Bryant. They were surrounded by a talented supporting cast of Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and Robert Horry.
Almost all the pieces of a team that would win three straight NBA titles from 2000-02 were in place, except one—nothing against head coach Del Harris, but he was no Phil Jackson. And the Zen Master was the kind of coach this team needed. Utah’s veteran experience ruled the day in the conference finals and they won the series in four straight. The Jazz were back in the Finals, and Chicago was waiting.
BRING ON THE BULLS
In the years since Michael Jordan’s retirement, it can seem from afar that Chicago’s victories were preordained, and that everyone expected them. In some years that’s true, like 1992 and 1996. In 1997, there might have been thoughts of an upset, but the average basketball fan expected MJ would win. But in years like 1993 and 1998, that wasn’t the case. Both Phoenix in ’93 and Utah in this season, were seen as real threats to finally dethrone the King.
Utah got off to a good start, winning Game 1 in overtime, but there were troubling signs. The Jazz led by eight after three quarters, before letting the lead slip away at home. Could this team close out Jordan? They survived this one, thanks to Stockton stepping up and scoring 24 and Malone delivering a 21/14 night. But the Bulls took homecourt advantage in Game 2, again reversing a deficit after three quarters (albeit only three points), thanks to 37 from Jordan. Chicago also won free-throw scoring 22-15, undoubtedly giving rise to favorable officiating theories.
The Finals went to Chicago for the middle three games and it looked like they might not return west. The Jazz played a horrid game in Sunday night’s Game 3, losing 96-54, with Malone seemingly the only Jazz player who could be troubled to show up. Of particular concern was Stockton, now a non-factor two straight games. The point guard got back on his assists game in Game 4, handing out 13, while Malone, steady as she goes, had a 21/14 night, but the Bulls pulled it out 86-82 in spite of 37 percent shooting from the floor. It looked like this dream season was not only ending in defeat, but going down hard.
NBA buffs have given Utah a lot of heat for its failings in the 1997-98 NBA Finals, but give them this—they didn’t quit in a spot where it would have been easy. On a Friday night, with the Windy City screaming for a sixth ring, and trailing by six at the half, the Jazz came out strong in the third quarter and took the lead. Malone scored 39 points. Stockton dished 12 assists, and Utah grew the lead to seven with two minutes to go.
Then surfaced the Jazz their critics always point to. Chicago somehow cut the lead to two and got Jordan a last-gasp desperation trey that only drew air. The Jazz had an 83-81 win and they had homecourt. But if this were baseball, they needed to make a deal for a closer.
June 14, 1998 was a pleasant summer evening, and I still remember taking a drive over to my uncle’s house to watch Game 6. Whether you were a hard-core NBA fan or not, this was a classic. You had the heavyweight champ trying to hold on one last time, against the perpetual runner-up desperate and knowing it was his last shot. That a movie hasn’t been made about this game 16 years after the fact is an indictment of Hollywood.
Game 6 was close throughout. Malone had a 31/11/7 line, but Stockton was back to being kept in check. As for Chicago? Coming into the closing minute, Jordan had 41 points, while no one else had really registered.
Finally, Stockton nailed a three-pointer with 42 seconds left to give the Jazz an 86-83 lead and the Delta Center was ready to blow its roof off. Jordan hit a jumper to cut the lead to one. Utah brought the ball down. It went to Malone, who had his pocket picked by Jordan. The clock ran down. Jordan didn’t even bother looking anywhere else. He brought the ball between his legs, got up inside the circle and let it fly. Swish. Five seconds were left and Chicago had the lead. Stockton got one last three-pointer, and it had a chance, but it rimmed out. The Bulls were champs. Utah had come up just short.
Malone and Stockton’s window had closed, and they gave way to San Antonio and Los Angeles. In fact Malone, in an “if you can’t beat them, join them” tactic joined forces with Shaq in 2004 to try and get a ring, but the Lakers lost to the Pistons that year. The 1998 Utah Jazz were an excellent basketball team that achieved its potential. Like other stars of the Jordan era though (most notably Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing), Stockton and Malone just came of the age at the wrong time to win a ring.