A funny thing happened in Inglewood one day. A young upstart duo made up of
a savvy point guard and an athletic country boy busted onto the national scene by defeating Magic Johnson and the flashy world champion Los Angeles Lakers in game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals.
The Lakers couldn’t guard the pick and roll.
The Utah Jazz shockingly pushed the series to 7 games with their hard nosed style of ball.
They would go on to lose in 7, but a new era in the Western Conference was dawning just as the Lakers golden sun was begging to set.
Nearly 10 years after their epic 1988 7-game battle, the Lakers/Jazz rivalry experienced a re-birth.
The Lakers were eliminated in the 1997 NBA Western Conference Semifinals (4-1) by the Jazz in what will forever be remembered for the most famous pair of air-balls ever.
Vengeance would soon come. The bad blood was apparent at beginning of the 1998 season. In the first game of the season, Shaquille O’Neal slapped Greg Ostertag in a pre-game scuffle.
A few weeks later Kobe Bryant, now in his second season (and wearing a Dr. J style throwback afro) scored 19 points in his first game back in Salt Lake City, as the Lakers defeated the Jazz 97-92. The Lakers were off to a 9-0 start while the Jazz went 5-5. It seemed as if the younger more talented Lakers were ascending.
The Jazz who have always taken pride in defending their home floor remembered the early season defeat to the Lakers (complete with Kobe getting the last shot again, this time a slam dunk to end the game).
The Jazz took out that frustration in a late season playoff atmospheric game which featured the infamous throat slashing gesture by Greg Foster after a dunk in which he yelled “It’s over!”
The Lakers got some payback and defeated the Jazz in the regular season finale (complete with a Rick Fox hard foul on Foster), but the veteran Jazz team still managed to finish with the best record in the Western Conference for the second straight season, edging out the Lakers by 1 game.
The playoffs brought Isaiah Rider and the Blazers, then Gary Payton and the Sonics, which set the scene for the rematch in the Western Conference Finals with the hated Jazz.
Lakers fans already possessed a sincere deep rooted hatred for Karl Malone dating back to his 1992 comments about not wanting to play with Magic Johnson due to him being H.I.V. positive.
Not to mention that Utah was the anti-L.A.
Stockton and Hornacek had none of the swagger or Hollywood appeal of Van Exel and Eddie Jones. Rather it was comparing Shandon Anderson to Kobe Bryant, Bryon Russell to Rick Fox, it was clear that the Lakers had all the Hollywood luster and looked poised to avenge the 1997 ousting.
But even with all the bulletin board material of being eliminated the season before, being taunted by Greg Foster, and loosing the West’s top spot by 1 game, the Lakers were swept by the Jazz, the final game being played at the Forum to add insult.
Time does find a way of evening these things out. Shaquille and Kobe hoisted 3 straight trophies while the Jazz were eliminated in 3 straight first round series. Along the way former villains became family. Greg Foster picked up a ring with the 2001 Lakers, and Byron Russell and Karl Malone jumped on board in 2004.
It only seems right that the road for Kobe to accomplishing the goal of winning a ring as the primary player go through Utah. His first major playoff disappointment began there. His selfishness, shot selection, and rather he should have passed the ball to a teammate originated in Salt Lake City after the clanging of the second air-ball.
The Jazz and the Lakers will be forever intertwined. The 1988 series made Stockton/Malone a household name. The 1997 air-balls forever put Kobe Bryant’s shot selection under a microscope. Even the Utah Jazz’s 35 year play-by-play announcer Hot Rod Hundley is a former Laker. “I hate the Celtics!” said Hot Rod to me recently.
“I’ll always be Laker”.