Making my way to Utah from LA, someone pointed out to me (because I’m not smart enough to look at a map myself) that I’d probably be passing through Las Vegas on the way there. I had an off night to spare and hadn’t been to Vegas since I was still about a decade away from being of gambling/drinking age, so it was an obvious layover location before getting out to the Beehive State. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do there — the slots and other video games seemed too depressing to do for an extended period of time, and I lack the intestinal fortitude and necessary know-how to try my hand at any of the tables — until my uncle suggested the very obvious solution of heading to a sportsbook and trying my hand at some NBA bets. Despite being both a pro hoops junkie and the least fiscally responsible person I know, I’d never actually bet on basketball before, but the prospect of adding the suspense of many dollars being on the line to a normal night of League Pass and drinking was a decently exciting one.
I checked in to my hotel a few blocks off the strip with just a few minutes before the early games tipped off, so I quickly grabbed a cheat sheet at the neighboring casino and placed bets on all seven Tuesday night games. (Just $20 each — an excusable dip into the 60/30 contingency fund.) After wandering the strip for about an hour looking for a sports bar showing all the games simultaneously — couldn’t find one, but did get to enjoy the rare freedom of chugging a Blue Moon on the street), I settled at the New York, New York casino where I was able to piece most of the games together spread over a couple different rooms. A rough early start had me worried that my trip’s bad karma carried over to NBA wagering as well, but a strong finish allowed me to essentially break even — won three (Sixers +3.5 over Blazers, over 192 Pacers/Kings, Spurs -4.5 over Warriors), lost three (Cavs money line over Celtics, under 205 Nets/Knicks, Lakers money line over Grizzlies) and pushed one (Magic -11 over Pistons). Ultimately, spent $6.50 for a night’s worth of entertainment. Can’t complain about that. (Really, though, Lakers?)
Vegas done, I headed up to Utah for the most scenic drive of my trip thus far. (Essentially drove into a mountain at one point — felt like a Universal Studios ride or something.) Getting to EnergySolutions Arena, I figured I had pretty good odds at getting the fourth win of my trip with Utah at home (where they went 37-4 a few years ago), but with the dragon-slaying Pacers in town and me in attendance, I knew that, truly, nothing was certain.
The Stadium: Like ARCO in Sacramento, EnergySolutions Arena ain’t much to look at from the outside — it’s similarly boxy and officious-looking, and certainly isn’t helped by what has to be the most-unwieldy and least-intimidating stadium name in the whole league. (Even the Rose Garden sounds like the Temple of Doom by comparison). The snowy and icy surrounding area was fairly pretty, though, with the lit trees and the Malone/Stockton statues and whatnot, and the insides, whose food options I was told had been recently spruced up some, were respectable as anywhere. The stadium also shared a number of ARCO’s positives, as well, with the stadium’s size and shape allowing fans to be relatively on top of the action on the court. (Well, one positive, anyway, Sorry, ARCO.)
The best thing about ESA from a stadium standpoint, though, was the gift shop, which was second only to Conseco so far in terms of variety, comprehensiveness and sheer hotness. I know I harp on the gift shops a lot, and it probably seems like a relatively trivial thing to key on, but really, I see them as a franchise’s opportunity to really show themselves off — to instill pride in their fanbase through museum-like displays of their past, present and future. The Jazz are handicapped by having one of the coolest and most iconic logos in the sport — the musical-note J, which I used to have on a bedside lamp as a Stockton/Malone-infatuated youngster — and the ESA’s impressive spread of hats, jerseys and other paraphernalia from their different eras of fashion demonstrates how well it’s endured over the years. (And how tragic it was when they switched over to the mountain-range logo in the mid-90s — thank the heavens that they appear to have seen the error of their ways.)
The Game: I missed most of the first quarter in the ticket lobby, waiting for my press pass to come through, and by the time I actually got out there, the game was already over. Well, not really — the Pacers did a Jazz-esque comeback act to cut the Utah lead to just a bucket or two in the third — but really, the Salt Lakers seized control of the game early (the score was something like 34-15 by the time I actually got to my seat) and always appeared to have things pretty well in hand. Still, it wasn’t until about the five minute mark in the fourth quarter — when the Jazz were up 20 or so and both benches were starting to transition into full-on garbage time mode that I turned to Spencer Hall (he of Salt City Hoops, nice enough to talk to me for the article during the game) and asked “OK, they’re probably gonna win this one, right?” Hey, December is a new month.
This was the third Jazz game of my trip — I’d previously seen them as away victors in Portland and the Clippers side of LA — and the one thing that I’ve noticed about watching Deron Williams play is that I never notice anything about the way Deron Williams plays. Aside from the occasional crossover move, he doesn’t really seem to do that much that really jumps out at you with its brilliance. I’m sure fans that watch him night-in, night-out pick up on all the little things he does, but superficially, he doesn’t have the blinding speed of Jennings or Westbrook, the jaw-dropping vision of Kidd or Nash, even the irrepressible scoring around the basket of Rose or Evans. You might not even really notice him for three quarters, until you look up at the box score and he’s already got 18 and 11 and his team is up by 13. It’s hard to explain, but if you put D-Will and Chris Paul on equivalent teams (as they roughly are now, I suppose) and had them play against each other in front of 100 impartial fans, I’d bet that at least 90 would come away thinking Paul was the better player, even though I’d also bet on Williams to win the game. It’s why Williams-Paul is such a great debate: It’s a constant battle between the head and the heart, to which there likely is no correct answer.
Fun team to watch on offense, too, those Jazz. They’re so fluid in their sets that even when they fail, it’s never ugly, and that’s not something that can be said about a lot of other NBA teams.
The Fans: As confident as I felt about getting a home win at ESA, I felt similarly secure in getting a top-tier crowd to watch it with, what with the great home records, all the stories about the Jazz fans’ legendary nastiness and the there not being any other pro teams in Utah to split attention. (Put your hand down, Real Salt Lake.) But after I finally got settled and set up in my seat at the end of the first quarter, I looked up and noticed something unusual about the stands — a whole lot of empty green seats. Spencer insisted that this was an aberration, the deadest he’d seen the crowd all year — Utah’s had a ton of home games recently, and people don’t really respect the Pacers yet as an opponent — but it was a little bit of a disappointment that I didn’t get to see the Jazz home fans at their full-throttle, virulent best.
There were still moments to be had, though. The nastiness — which Spencer confirmed was more than just a myth, and partially attributable to “the Mormon thing,” and the “misconception that everyone’s supposed to be little angels” — was definitely evident throughout, whether it was fans booing Mike Dunleavy’s entrance (If there’s some actual beef there I definitely missed it) in the second quarter, yelling for players to “punch the refs in their faces” long after the game had been decided, or drunkenly yelling “FUCK DERON WILLIAMS!!” in the parking lot while driving away. (OK, that last one might not be from an actual Jazz fan. Nastiness nonetheless.) My favorite part of being at ESA, though, was the way the crowd hung around even through garbage time, saving their biggest ovations of the night for a Jeremy Evans alley-oop and a Gordon Heyward corner three in the final minute — the latter especially getting such a response that you’d think ol’ Gordo hit a walk-off trey to beat the Lakers. EnergySolutions Arena: We boo hard, and we cheer hard.
Didn’t get to talk with many home fans, but I was lucky enough to meet up with a long-time fan named Jake at the game, who was more than willing to give me a couple fans’ worth of quotes. More than Williams or new arrival Al Jefferson (“The fact that he’s willing to go to work … that sits really well with Jazz fans,” Jake did say to Big Al’s credit), it was the second unit that Jake attributed the team’s early-season success to. “That was always a question mark,” Jake said of the Jazz bench. “Watson, Price, Fesenko — they’ve been a pleasant surprise.” (Spencer echoed Jake’s second-unit sentiments: “They’ve been killing it, and they’ve been the key to some of the comebacks.”) The comebacks came as a surprise to Jake, who hadn’t been used to seeing that from the team. “It’s anti-everything the Jazz have ever been,” he told me. “They’ve always sucked at getting back up, and always sucked at road games … I feel like I’m cheering a team that’s the opposite of everything I’ve rooted for since Malone and Stockton.”
Jake and Spencer both believed that despite the team’s post-season exit at the hands of the Lakers the last three years, this could finally be the year where Utah could take Los Angeles down in a playoff series. Jake thought that the personnel changes might be able to shake things up. “A lot of that rested on Boozer’s shoulders,” he said of the team’s malaise against the Lakers. “Jazz fans didn’t think they were going to win, the players didn’t think they were going to win … and that’s changed this year.” The Jazz’s recent 102-96 home victory over the Lake Show certainly had something to do with it, as well. “After that game, they showed me something,” said Spencer. “The Lakers are beatable, and the Jazz have that extra gear.” With the Jazz polishing off their seventh straight victory, and the Lakers dropping a fourth in a row to the Rockets, it’s certainly starting to seem plausible.
Most Popular Jerseys: Williams narrowly edging Millsap and Kirilenko for the currents, and an overwhelming Stockton presence for the throwbacks (including one fan even sporting his old Gonzaga digs.) No Boozer, and surprisingly, not that much Malone either.
Also Worth Noting: Gotta go back to Vegas just for a second. One of the things that really stood out to me about the country’s den of sin and iniquity was a missing amenity that I take for granted in most major US cities — sidewalks. Walking from my hotel to the strip, I was jumping from lawns to traffic islands, and even once on the main drag, I had to sprint-jaywalk across countless no-man’s-land areas to get to the always-shifting safe side of the street. My friend pointed out to me that this is because they want you to walk through the casinos instead, which is fair enough, but combining legal street-drinking with marginal secure walking space … just seems like a combustible combination to me. I mean, I’m cool and all, but not everyone is so lucky. You know.
Swag Acquired: A purple-and-white hat with the classic logo … and also a Jazz mug that I spotted as I was checking out. What can I say? The sight of that logo just makes me happy. (Also scored a complimentary Jazz bottle opener from Jake, who suggested I use it to crack open a celebratory drink after the victory. I said I would, but forgot and stopped at Carl’s Jr. instead. In time, Jake.)
Gleaming Spires – “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls?” (First Wave, XM 44) Bizarro new wave one-hit wonder from the soundtrack of every 80s movie, and the most undeniable of reminders that the 80s will never truly happen again.
Going rocky mountain high at the Pepsi Center tonight. Warm weather is finally around the corner on my trip — good thing, too, because I keep ending up in hotel and guest rooms with busted heaters.