It’s late July. The temperature outside is essentially that of the planet Mercury, and we still have August to get through. There’s not much on TV, and my doctors won’t let me drive, so I can’t even catch a movie matinee. So every night, I watch the news, especially the political news. Dang, that’s depressing, what with the current POTUS being infantile, unhinged, and bad at his job.
Usually, sports provides a respite. It’s nice, sometimes, to care about something silly and inconsequential, to root, to cheer, to give oneself purely to something that’s, yes, impure, commodified and marketed in the crassest possible ways. But which still can give pleasure, the way any extraordinary humans doing difficult things well can give pleasure, can be astounding and breath-taking and amazing. And that’s particularly true of professional team sports. We don’t just enjoy individuals excelling. We get to enjoy the pleasures of teamwork, of remarkable men and women doing something in tandem. We like it when our teams win. We like it almost as much when they almost win, while playing well.
Summer is time for baseball, the sport I’ve loved longest and best. And this summer just stinks. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and my team has achieved levels of suckitude I would not have previously believed possible. And our collective life-long enemies, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the best team in baseball. So no, I’m not taking much comfort in the game of baseball.
But I’m not just a baseball fan, and not just a Giants fan. I’m a Utahn, and a fan of the misnamed but deeply loved team known as the Utah Jazz. And last season, the Jazz were easy to root for. After the glorious Stockton/Malone years, the team had, inevitably faltered. A new coach (Quinn Snyder) and general manager (Steve Lindsay) were hired, both of them outstanding. The Jazz drafted well. They signed good players. They hired good coaches. And they began to form an identity. This Jazz team plays solid team defense. They move the ball on offense, and look for open shots. They became known for player development. A talented young center, Rudy Gobert, began a slow and steady improvement. Other young players took tentative steps forward. They made the playoffs last year, and were clearly a team on the rise. And then, two weeks ago, Gordon Hayward stabbed the Utah Jazz in the back.
Gordon Hayward, you have to understand, essentially defines a Jazz player. Nice kid, a family man, good values. Hard working, team oriented. A good scorer, a good shooter, but also an excellent defensive player. Not a super athlete, but a lean and quick 6′ 8″ small forward/big guard, a fine ball handler, a guy capable of creating his own shot. Our leading scoring player last year, and almost certainly the best player on the team.
It’s very difficult to build a championship team. Professional basketball players want to win championships. They also, for the most part, want to live in certain big cities, with the entertainment options big cities can offer. That’s not always true; some of the best teams are located in San Antonio, Oakland and Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, both New York teams are terrible, and only one of the two LA teams is competitive. But Utah will never be a preferred location for good players. What the Jazz have to sell is player development (the Jazz coaching staff does a great job of helping good players improve), patience and a stable franchise, with an enthusiastic and supportive fan base, good ownership and leadership.
Essentially, the Jazz want to become the San Antonio Spurs. That’s not so bad. The Spurs are wonderfully well coached, and their best players have played together for years. The Jazz could do that.
Except Gordon Hayward decided he didn’t want to wait that long. He was offered a lot of money (less than the Jazz offered, but still well over a hundred million dollars), to go to Boston and try to win a championship with the Celtics. He concluded, probably accurately, that the Celtics were closer to winning a championship than the Jazz were. And so, we lost him. He’s gone. We get nothing in return. We just lost our best player.
It’s depressing, and it makes you wonder if your favorite team will ever be able to compete. At the same time, I think the Jazz may be fine next season. I sort of can’t wait to find out.
What has to happen is for some of the younger Jazz players to take a big leap forward and fill the gap Hayward leaves behind. Rodney Hood, when healthy, has essentially the Hayward skill set. Rookie Donovan Mitchell could be a special players. Alec Burks could finally get healthy and live up to his potential. And Dante Exum has looked great this summer.
We could be better. But we won’t know until this winter. And in the meantime, it’s a hot summer. The Giants are terrible, and the political news couldn’t be more depressing. Soccer anyone?