It’s September 25, 2000, a timestamp of great underestimation from the entire league of what a young Paul Pierce was capable of becoming.
With Aussie Dante Exum on their roster, the Utah Jazz seem infinitely cooler, don’t they?
I mean this is a club that many of us loathed growing up, simply because they were a rival of both the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, two of the most popular NBA teams ever.
As former president of the Northern Sydney Chapter of the Magic Johnson Fan Club I always considered the Jazz a nuisance. They were the bizarro Lakers, in their similarly coloured purple and yellow uniforms that truly paled by comparison, and with their brilliant playmaker John Stockton, who’d never wow a crowd like Magic.
Let’s face it, they never matched LA in those years between 1985 and ’95, and yet were always there, in the shadows, wearing oddly short shorts and a logo that bore no relevance to the state of Utah.
The ‘Utah Friggin’ Jazz’, as they were known around my house, were always solid though. They played smart basketball and never seemed to have a losing record. Ever. Not while Stockton was there anyway.
He was so annoyingly perfect.
By contrast, the Lakers were thrilling – wonderfully imperfect in that they didn’t rely so much on fundamentals but speed, sleight of hand and signature moves. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook. James Worthy’s baseline spin and dunk. Magic’s passing pizazz.
Why would a kid cheer for anyone else?
Well, there were the Chicago Bulls too, and I don’t need to elaborate on why they became so appealing. They had a cool logo, were from a big American city and were the antithesis of the bruising Detroit Pistons. All of that on top of Michael Jordan.
So when Luc Longley joined the Bulls’ stampede in 1994, Aussie hoop fans had it all. And to be honest, it’s never been quite so exciting. We’ve had Andrew Bogut, of course, and he’s been great, turning many Aussies into Milwaukee Bucks fans. And turning quite a few more into simply basketball fans. But he’s never come close to winning the trophy.
Mind you, Bogut’s move to the Golden State Warriors a few seasons’ back changed that. Finally we had one of our own playing on the west coast and for a club with a real chance at the title.
For Aussies, the Warriors have become as cool as an NBA club gets.
Which brings us back to the Jazz, a small market team with a weak global brand. This isn’t helped by the fact that it’s in a state recognised more for its natural beauty than its nightlife. It’s also a pretty religious place from all accounts, which is certainly fine, but perhaps not if you’re hoping to hear ESPN‘s Jalen Rose share tales of wild road trips there.
Here’s the thing though: Dante Exum is a special talent and I’m really enjoying watching him this season. Sure, he’s still learning the pro game and has had his struggles. But when he zips a no-look ball to a teammate under the hoop, nails a corner three or dunks it on the break, you can sense the energy he’s playing with. He not only has game, he oozes coolness.
Is it enough to, you know, make the Jazz likable?
Maybe not for some and I understand this. You’d probably rather watch Patty Mills drop 15 points in the fourth quarter for the San Antonio Spurs, and believe me, I can appreciate that.
However, I do think Dante will win you over eventually. Maybe not this season, but perhaps next. And when he’s jamming it over Dwight Howard in NBA Action‘s top 10, you’ll be there hitting the green ‘Record Me’ button on Foxtel, trust me.
While we may long for Magic and the Showtime Lakers, and Air Jordan’s Bulls, times change. We can still support those clubs and many of us still do. But having a rooting interest in Utah, as disconcerting as it feels, is starting to work for me.
I’m sure a growing number of Aussie basketball fans feel the same way. Of course, that the Jazz finally embraced baggy shorts has helped immensely.