It’s tough being a fan of a small-market NBA team.
Just when that kid your team drafted pans out into a star, he leaves for greener pastures. It happens time and time again.
Now, as I’ve said before, Jazz fans need to stop with the hateful comments about Gordon Hayward’s departure and move on, knowing that they’ve got Rudy Gobert locked down long-term. And Hayward’s decision to leave Utah for Boston was influenced as much by the presence of his former college coach, Brad Stevens, as anything else.
But it is part of a disturbing trend.
As I’ve mentioned in other spots in this newspaper, I have a side gig driving for a ride-sharing service. I was having this discussion with a passenger on the way to Park City on Wednesday — remember when guys used to stay in one place?
He reflected on when everybody loved Karl Malone and John Stockton and how they were synonymous with Jazz basketball for so many years. (Disclaimer: I did not love Stockton and Malone, though that’s because I wasn’t a Jazz fan and I was bitter at how often they used to beat my team of choice). He compared that to what happened last offseason when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State.
Durant and Russell Westbrook were kind of the modern-day Stockton and Malone — a pair of future Hall-of-Famers in a small market, leading their team nearly to the pinnacle of the NBA. It could have gone on forever if Durant had stayed in OKC, and the Thunder might have been able to do what those Jazz teams never could: winning an NBA title.
But, in this modern era where superstars seem just as focused on building their brand as winning basketball games, Durant saw the opportunity to move to the San Francisco Bay Area as a win-win. Not only could he finally win that elusive championship (which he did with a memorable MVP-winning performance), but he got big-time exposure by being in a bigger market.
It’s the same reason Carmelo Anthony forced a trade from Denver to New York back in the day (how’s that one working out for you, Knicks fans?). There are fewer players like Stockton, Malone and San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan out there these days. The only player I can think of who has been truly loyal to one franchise his whole career who is still playing is Dirk Nowitzki, and Dallas isn’t a small market.
But it’s always going to be hard to keep players in Utah. There are no big-time marketing opportunities here. Salt Lake City has a lot of things going for it, but glitz and glamor aren’t among them. If a slower, more relaxed lifestyle is your thing, then you’ll stay. But the Jazz haven’t been able to hold on to a superstar since Stockton and Malone retired — and even the Mailman went title-chasing with the Lakers at the end of his career.
And Utah isn’t exactly a hotbed for home-grown basketball talent. If there was a superstar out there with Utah ties who would stay here long-term, it would certainly help solve the Jazz’ issue with holding onto high-priced free agents. It’s what helped Denver land Paul Millsap, who spent much of his childhood in the Mile High City.
But, unless the next Jazz superstar is currently attending college or high school in the Beehive State, the frustration of watching the Jazz essentially develop talent for the NBA’s showpiece franchises will continue.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He, for one, doesn’t care about Salt Lake City’s lack of nightlife. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.