Utah Basketball: Lamenting a Nuclear Winter in a Former Hoops Hotbed

Matthew CoxContributor IMarch 4, 2011

It's been a bad month to be a fan in Utah.
It's been a bad month to be a fan in Utah.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When I moved to Utah in 1997, many friends and family thought I'd experience some serious culture shock. Some differences proved to be a reality, but I also believed I was taking a little of my Midwestern home with me: I understood that Utahns loved basketball, and enthusiastically supported their teams.

Indeed, I came into a golden age in the late '90s, with Rick Majerus' University of Utah teams making successive runs to the Elite Eight and National Championship games, and the Utah Jazz, under the direction of another Midwesterner, coach Jerry Sloan, in back-to-back appearances in the NBA finals. In that first '97 season, Brigham Young University, the largest university in the state, finished 1-25.

Things have turned a little since then.

First, the Jazz began a slow slide in the Western Conference as stars John Stockton and Karl Malone aged, repeatedly falling short in the playoffs and never again returning to the Finals. Jazz fans became restless and began to place some blame on Sloan, whose fundamental and deliberate style held as little appeal to prospective free agents and lottery picks as Salt Lake City's homogeneous reputation.

Majerus' Utes continued their dominance of the WAC and Mountain West conferences, but became less of a factor in the national tournament, and fans grew frustrated with Majerus, who seemed to delight in courting annual job offers from bigger programs and whose often entertaining but caustic style won him few friends in the local media.

Both programs maintained respectability. Punctuated by tournament runs from smaller schools Utah State and Weber State as well as a resurrection of the BYU program by coaches Steve Cleveland and then Dave Rose, basketball fans had plenty to cheer about during the snowy Utah winters. I returned to my Indiana home, but continued to follow the teams, a happy lifer in Utah's basketball culture.

Flash-forward a half decade or so to the present: Utah, historically the state's standard bearing basketball program, sank back into oblivion after a few last gasps following Majerus' departure in 2004, and move next season to the PAC-12. But the Utes' frustrations of late had nothing on 2011 would bring. Bad things always come in threes, and the hoops fans of Utah have just witnessed some institutions burst into flame over the last month.

First, Jerry Sloan suddenly resigned as coach of the Jazz, after 22 seasons at the helm. Regardless of what camp their opinions of the old coach resided in, most Jazz fans felt he deserved a better exit than retiring following a sometimes-bitter feud with point guard Deron Williams.

Barely a week later, Williams was sent packing to New Jersey as part of a three-player deal that brought the Jazz a bevy of young talent and draft picks. Faced with Williams' free agency in 2012 and a fanbase now scapegoating him for Sloan's departure, Utah likely needed to move Williams while he still held maximum trade value.

Unfortunately, none of New Jersey's return package, including lottery pick Derrick Favors and point guard Devin Harris, is immediately ready to carry a team as its go-to star. Now Jazz fans suddenly facing a brand new reality for their franchise, historically a league model for stability. Or rather, blown to smithereens in the NBA of the 21st century.

The Jazz no longer enjoy ownership stability, with the death of longtime owner Larry H. Miller in 2009, the sudden exit of Sloan, who had coached the team since 1988 and "absolutely and without discussion" represented the law in Utah, and an unappealing small-market city for free-agent stars. The events suddenly cast the very future of the team in Utah into doubt.

Meanwhile, the collegiate Cougars roared to a 27-2 start and number three national ranking behind consensus All-American and electrifying scorer Jimmer Fredette. The national buzz was intoxicating for a state in dire need of a pick-me-up. But BYU's dreams of a Final Four or better took a serious blow this week as forward Brandon Davies ran afoul of BYU's sometimes controversial Honor Code.

Davies, the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, isn't the first high-profile Cougar athlete and unlikely to be the last to break one of the code's tenets, including abstaining from premarital sex, drug, tobacco and alcohol use, among other things considered a typical collegiate experience outside of Provo. Just a year ago, Harvey Unga, the school's all time leading rusher on the football team, lost his senior season to an Honor Code violation before turning pro.

Is it just plain bad luck or bad hoops karma, as some of the extremes of a passionate Utah fan base have been lamented here before?

BYU deserves some credit for keeping the appearance of selective enforcement of its rules to a minimum by refusing to bend standards for its star athletes, given that the alleged flaunting of the same rules by legendary Cougar quarterback Jim McMahon were practically the stuff of Utah lore. No urban legends here as McMahon himself documented his actions in his own book. 

But the integrity and good intentions of its college programs and franchises don't make the last couple of weeks any easier to swallow in the Beehive state.