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News » Near misses and key players defined early '90s

Near misses and key players defined early '90s

Near misses and key players defined early '90s
From 1991 and 1996, the Utah Jazz grew from being an unexpected participant in the NBA postseason to becoming one of the league's best teams, always on the verge of greatness but always falling short.

There were, to be sure, great victories, 60-win seasons and marvelous playoff runs. However, the era also included first-round flameouts. It was a time when the magnificent duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone became household names; their co-Most Valuable Player Award selections in an electric 1993 NBA All-Star Game held in Salt Lake City cemented their talent in the eyes of the nation.

Yet this recognition had come after nearly a decade of toil, and many wondered whether they could ever carry the Jazz on their shoulders to the NBA Finals.

The six-year period brought to an end the career of one of the remarkable, sometimes unappreciated NBA overachievers. The 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton willed himself to become one of the league's best-ever shot blockers.

Eaton's replacement, Greg Ostertag, another 7-footer, would become the target of as much criticism as praise, perhaps more. The team was changing, the roster slowly turning over. A new face, Jeff Hornacek, would ultimately become the final piece of the puzzle. The sharp-shooting guard, who would rub his cheek while taking a foul shot as a signal of love to his children, gave Utah three reliable weapons.

"Expectations were pretty high," longtime assistant coach Phil Johnson said. "We were missing a piece here and there, but what is significant, [owner] Larry Miller dealt with that and hung with the team and hung with us as coaches."

Despite any temptations, in the face of first-round exits in 1992-93 and 1994-95 sandwiched by three trips to the conference finals, ownership stayed the course. There were some changes. The roles of Thurl Bailey, Mike Brown and Jeff Malone-- whose fadeaway jumper earned him the nickname "Doctor of Fadeology" by Eaton -- were taken by Antoine Carr, Bryon Russell and Hornacek.

"We just kept playing," Sloan said about his own learning curve. "The great thing about the teams I had, we didn't win but we put everything we had to try and win the next time around. Sometimes teams just dissolve. Our guys came back and fought. I don't know what more you can ask."

The Jazz patience ultimately bore fruit in the 1995-96 season, when they won 64 games and finally beat Houston for the first of two meetings with the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

Utah's patience was severely tested after the first-round exit against the Rockets in 1994-95.

"We stuck with it through some hard times," assistant coach Scott Layden said. "Losing to Houston in five games after winning 60 games, that's when a franchise is tested. They're not tested during the finals or conference finals. You are tested when your expectations are high and you struggle.

"It was devastating. There was no one more competitive than that group."

Utah became Midwest Division champions just once during the era, winning 55 games and eventually losing to Portland in the 1991-92 conference finals. Portland, Seattle and Houston were constant roadblocks.

The Jazz came within a game of the league finals in 1995-96.

"Patience is the key word," former general manager and head coach Frank Layden said. "Too many teams say, 'We haven't climbed that final mountain, so we'll do something desperate.' We never did that."

The end result of maintaining that patience was soon to be realized. Jazz at 35 About the series

A season-long, nine-part look at the Utah Jazz continues today with part five. Read the first four parts and more Jazz coverage at

Up next ? The ?Finals, 1996-1998

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: December 22, 2008


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