When I was a kid, my dad would lie on the living room floor while we watched Utah Jazz games, his head propped up by a giant basketball-shaped pillow. The pillow was yellow and gold (not sure why green got the shaft) with the old Jazz logo embroidered on one section.
“Laying on the floor is good for your back,” he’d say.
“Okay,” we’d respond, my brother, laying sideways in the recliner while my body oozed slug-like into the contours of the couch.
Over the years, that pillow grew filthy and misshapen. My dad began pulling up the hood on his sweatshirt to protect his bald head from whatever grew in the pillow’s fibers. Meanwhile, everyone from Karl Malone and John Stockton to Bobby Hansen, David Benoit, and Antoine Carr graced us, and the pillow, with their televised presence.
When I was in third grade, an upstart Jazz squad took the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink. I’m talking about the Lakers. The 1980s, short shorts, Pat Riley’s hair, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the monastic A.C. Green. While losing to L.A. stung, we assumed the Jazz would eventually have their moment. But Utah didn’t reach the NBA Finals until I graduated from high school.
I spent my childhood waiting for that Jazz team to win a championship. As my dad’s face weathered and the weight of his head morphed the basketball pillow into a giant discus, a sinister thought emerged: What if the Jazz never win a championship? What if my dad dies without seeing Utah hoist the trophy? What if I never see it?
It certainly didn’t happen under Michael Jordan’s watch. The man was so bloodthirsty he beat the Jazz in the NBA Finals twice, just for good measure. The Jazz only needed to get a little bit better, but they couldn’t. They tried trading for Ronnie Seikaly who refused to leave Miami for Salt Lake. They tried acquiring Derek Harper who told the New York media, “You go live in Utah.” So the door closed on Malone and Stockton with their 1998 loss to Chicago.
The idea of replacing Utah’s two Hall of Famers felt impossible. I began thinking about how lifelong baseball fans in Boston and Chicago died without ever winning the World Series. The Red Sox went 86 years between titles. The Cubs went 108. Utah’s championship drought might outlive us.
After Malone and Stockton, the Jazz rebuilt around Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. I spent most of those years living in faraway cities, but I’d watch Jazz games with my dad over Christmas. He’d still lay on the floor, though it took him longer to get up when he wanted popcorn. I’d still slouch in the recliner, watching Jerry Sloan stalk the referees.
When I moved back to Salt Lake in 2010, my parents were in their 60s. A year later, my mom was diagnosed with cancer and my dad with Parkinson’s disease. The Jazz compounded our misery, missing the playoffs four straight years between 2013 and 2016.
“These are the bad Jazz,” I explained to a friend who accompanied me to a game against the Houston Rockets. At one point that night, Utah trailed by 50.
When the Jazz finally reached the playoffs again, my mom wasn’t alive to see it. My dad and I still watched games together, as much to comfort one another as anything. Parkinson’s ended my Dad’s floor-laying days, so the pillow got stuffed into a closet. Yet we remained hopeful that Utah’s playoff return might spark a championship run before it was too late.
Utah fell to Golden State in 2017, and Gordon Hayward left for Boston. The thought of rebuilding again felt hopeless. My dad was running out of time. Then Donovan Mitchell appeared, seemingly out of thin air. Poised and absurdly talented, Mitchell provided the one thing fans need: hope. With Rudy Gobert defending and Quin Snyder coaching, Mitchell’s Jazz just needed shooting and a little luck. Hang in there, Dad.
The Jazz got better as my dad got worse. They traded for Jordan Clarkson, but no matter how often we discussed it, my dad couldn’t remember Clarkson’s name. His long-term memory remained, but Parkinson’s halted the learning of most new information. My dad still watched the Jazz on TV but had trouble following an entire game. It was easier for him to review the box score afterward.
In 2021, we had to move my dad into a care facility that could better meet his needs. We sold the house—the place where I grew up, the home he’d worked his entire life to pay off, the house where my mom died. A lot of things got lost in the shuffle, the lopsided old Jazz pillow being one.
Not long after my dad’s move, the Jazz entered the 2021 playoffs with the NBA’s best record. This was their chance. Mitchell and Mike Conley got hurt, however, and Utah flamed out. After a disappointing 2022 campaign in which the players stopped playing for one another, Snyder resigned and management traded Mitchell and Gobert. Time to start over. Again.
But building a winner in Utah is much more difficult than in, say, Los Angeles. The Lakers can squander draft picks and make ill-advised trades because free agents like Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James will still come to L.A. The Jazz have no margin for error. Even when Utah drafts and develops good players, those players can opt to leave.
My dad passed away last spring, never seeing his favorite team win it all. Perhaps the same fate awaits all who, by choice or inheritance, root for the Utah Jazz. If the Jazz do win a championship someday, I imagine I’ll laugh and scream and cry a few tears of joy. But then I’ll probably get real quiet and think of my dad with his head resting on a basketball pillow somewhere.
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