SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 7: the Utah Jazz huddle up against the Dallas Mavericks on November 7, 2018 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Classic connections: 40th-season bridges past and present for Utah Jazz players

by Aaron Falk

Every day for one school year when he was 7 or 8, Raul Neto would open up his book and see it: a picture of John Stockton taped onto the first page. Neto’s father was a fan of the legendary point guard, which meant the young Neto was, too. He still thinks about that book sometimes now, as he suits up for the same team as the Hall of Famer once did.

“Just being able to play in this franchise right now is something that makes me happy,” Neto said. “I think that makes my dad proud.”

This is the 40th season since the Jazz moved to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in the summer of 1979. The milestone evokes plenty of memories for longtime fans and former players—and it also means something special to each of the players who wear the Jazz jersey now.

“I went from being in Europe a few years ago and not really enjoying anything about basketball to getting cut by the Clippers and then being thrown a lifeline here,” forward Joe Ingles said. “Utah feels like home for us now. When we got back [from summer in Australia] it felt like a weight off our shoulders. It just feels more normal to be here, which is weird because I’m a very proud Australian. But just being a part of the team and what Gail Miller and her family stand for, it means a lot.”

Some players grew up watching Jazz greats.

“You’ve got Pistol Pete, arguably the best ball-handler in the history of the game,” guard Naz Mitrou-Long said. “You’ve got Jeff Hornacek. His story is amazing. Going from a walk-on at my alma mater Iowa State, to setting records, to a great NBA career. He’s someone who stands for what I stand for—that’s hard work and beating the odds.”

Thabo Sefolosha recalls tuning into the NBA Finals as a kid in Switzerland.

“Now to have the chance to play for a team that I watched in those Finals, and those great years with Karl Malone and John Stockton, to have a chance to wear that jersey and try to help the team get back to those heydays is unique,” Sefolosha said.

Other players simply grew up with the Jazz.

“I was 19 when I came here,” Alec Burks said. “I became a man here. They made me mature, as a man and a father.”

Derrick Favors hardly said a word on the flight to Utah when he was traded here in 2011, but he has developed on and off the court in Salt Lake City.

“Since the day I got traded here, they told me they believed in me and they were going to help me reach where I wanted to go,” he said. “I’ve been here nine years now. Hopefully, I can be here nine or 10 more.”

Donovan Mitchell’s connection started in Louisville, Kentucky, where he first met Jazz great Darrell Griffith. Mitchell wore the Jazzman’s jersey when he won the 2018 Verizon NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and now he’s proud to wear the purple Classic Edition jersey himself.

“It’s pretty cool to go from 35 (Griffith’s jersey number) to 45,” Mitchell said. “It’s a great salute.”

Jae Crowder, meanwhile, beams with pride when he thinks about wearing the same jersey that his father, Corey Crowder, wore when he played for the Jazz in the early 1990s.

“It’s more than a dream come true,” Jae Crowder said. “It’s come full circle for my family.”

That’s what the celebration of the 40th season of the Utah Jazz is all about: honoring the past and bridging to the future.

“I have a deep love for everybody who’s here now, but also for the rich history that we have,” guard Danté Exum said. “Just talking to people, they’ll tell you how they loved the Jazz and now they’re starting to love the new Jazz. I see a lot of fans and they say they had season tickets for Stockton and Malone and they say, ‘Now I have season tickets for you!’ We’re building excitement back in the city. Hopefully, we can do something special.”

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