Before I became a husband and before I was lucky to become a father, I was a Utah Jazz fan.
I have been a Jazz fan longer than I have been anything else, consistently, in my life. I have been a runner since my junior-high days, lacing up my running shoes nearly every day of my life and heading out onto the roads and trails of Utah, the plains of Illinois and Kansas, or the hills that line the Puget Sound in Washington state. But even before I became a runner, I cheered for the Utah Jazz.
Before a girl ever broke my heart, the Jazz had gotten there first and cracked it open.
In 1990, my dad splurged and bought us first-round playoff tickets against the Phoenix Suns, Game 5. The crowd in the Salt Palace, the old home of the Jazz, rumbled and shook beneath the stomping and cheering of the fans. We all stood for the last quarter, and the lead bounced back and forth between the Suns and the Jazz.
In the most cliché way, my heart raced. My dad, much taller than me, every time a player scored in the fourth, looked down at me and smiled. As a father now, I know that smile. He was so happy to give his son that moment. Today, I give my son that same, untethered smile too when I do something right. All fathers know this feeling.
As it always went, John Stockton found Karl Malone for an open jumper with 15 seconds left to tie the game at 102 a piece. The Suns inbounded the ball to Kevin Johnson, he dribbled up to the three-point line, spun around John Stockton and penetrated the lane, dishing the ball off to Mike McGee beneath the rim. McGee shoveled the ball back to Kevin Johnson, who had nearly fallen on the play. He gathered his feet beneath him with just about two seconds left on the shot clock. He pulled up and drained the jumper over the flying and outstretched arms of Bobby Hansen to win the game.
That was it. Game 5. We lost. We were out of the playoffs.
My heart broke.
Thirty years later, I like to have the games on when I cook dinner, the sound of the announcers chatting back and forth, the squeak of sneakers echoing through the kitchen, and the peripheral crowd cheering with me while I thaw the chicken in the microwave. I like to settle down after dinner with a glass of wine and finish the game. If we win or if we lose, that little rush of childhood rises up in me during a close game. That clichéd heat still hits me.
In our house, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have become the presence that John Stockton and Karl Malone inhabited during my youth. We love them both, so when they both contracted COVID-19, we worried, for sure.
My eight-year-old son doesn’t watch the games with me – yet – but he does love Donovan Mitchell. He loves that he is called Spida. He loves that he had a commercial with Tom Holland. He loves the Vivint Smart Home commercials that come on TV during the games. I think he sees a kindness in him.
When he found out that Gobert and Mitchell had contracted COVID-19 early on, his face saddened. He nearly cried. These two young men have been living in our house and on our television for the last three years. He knew their faces. And he was scared for them. It hit near home. Thankfully, they are already practicing again, healthily.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting we miss some things in this new reality, even when there are so much more serious things to worry about.
And I admit it, I miss the games. They were a stress reliever for me, and I’m sad they are gone.
But I think we all know that the NBA made the right decision to postpone the season and close arenas. In this time, we all need to focus on ridding the world of COVID-19. The NBA will come back. Our favorite players will join me while I cook dinner and drink wine while I watch the game.
Like any sane fans, our focus has shifted away from deep playoff runs. We have sheltered in place to share in and be part of the social responsibility to protect the ones we love – in my case, that same dad (and mom) that took me to the game so long ago and gave me that Jazz fandom that has stayed with me all of my life.
Stay home. Stay safe. Saves lives.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/FILE