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Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag, back in Utah, reminisce on NBA Finals trips

Former Jazz players Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag talk at a press conference at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

Walking back into the Delta Center, former Jazzmen Greg Ostertag and Bryon Russell saw the two statues of their teammates, John Stockton and Karl Malone.

But missing was one of their coach, Jerry Sloan.

“What he did for us and for this organization, you can’t even put a stamp on it,” Russell said.

Ostertag joked that the starting five of the 1996-97 team should have statues, complete with Sloan yelling at him.

“I figure he’ll be there eventually. Especially (Jazz owner) Ryan (Smith) being in here, I think Ryan’s making a lot of good changes and stuff like that. I like the direction that the franchise is going,” Ostertag said.

The two former Jazz players were back in Salt Lake City Tuesday as the Jazz prepare to celebrate “1990s Night” on Wednesday as Utah plays the Denver Nuggets.

“It’s neat. This is one of my favorite places in the world. I love coming to Utah. It’s got a lot of good memories for me,” Ostertag said.

Of course, any time players from the only Jazz teams in franchise history to make the NBA Finals are in front of the media, there’s talk of two shots.

The first, John Stockton’s game-winner over Charles Barkley and the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals that sent the Jazz to their first-ever NBA Finals. The second, Michael Jordan’s series-winner in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

“To be a part of the team that obviously was the first team to take the team to the Finals, that was cool. I mean especially when John hit the shot in Houston, that was fantastic to be a part of that,” Ostertag said.

The former Jazz big man recalled saying in the locker room postgame that there was enough time for people all over the state, including St. George, to drive to the airport and welcome the team home. That’s exactly what happened, as tens of thousands of people showed up to greet the team as they arrived home from Houston.

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The raucous atmosphere at the Delta Center during the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals left an impression on Ostertag, who called the arena one of the best places to play in all of basketball.

“To be on the court in that atmosphere and not be able to hear the ball hit the floor standing next to it, and having to know what the plays are just by what we’re calling with our hands because you can’t hear anything,” Ostertag said.

On those Jazz teams, everyone knew their role and accepted it.

“You knew Karl was going to touch the ball 40 times a game. He had 20-plus points. My job was to clog the middle, get some rebounds, block shots and hopefully get six to seven points a game with six to seven rebounds,” Ostertag said. “That was my job and I knew it and that’s the role I accepted. He (Russell) was our prime defender.”

“The dirty work,” Russell interjected.

“Yeah, he was going to be the guy we were going to put on the best two, three guard and he did a hell of a job,” Ostertag said.

The Jazz matched up against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in both Finals appearances, losing both series 4-2. Utah was on the wrong side of an iconic moment in NBA history each time — Jordan’s “Flu Game” in 1997 and “The Last Shot” in 1998.

Following the 1997 Finals loss, the team stayed in Utah during the offseason and worked out, with Karl Malone taking the lead.

“It showed in our work ... it was like we was a fine-tuned machine and we pretty much didn’t miss on any cylinder,” Russell said.

Utah cruised to its second-best regular-season showing in franchise history, going 62-20. The Jazz gutted out a 3-2 series win over the Rockets in the first round, then dispatched the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1 and 4-0, respectively, to set up a rematch against the Bulls.

“The pieces were all put together right and we just ran into one of the best ever,” Ostertag said.

Some 25 years removed from the series, no longer able to get fined by the NBA for talking about referees, Ostertag let it all out about Dick Bavetta’s missed calls in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Referees waved off a good Howard Eisley 3-pointer due to a shot-clock violation (replay showed the ball left Eisley’s hands before the buzzer) and a Ron Harper shot with four minutes left that was ruled good, but came after the shot clock.

“You can look back on things that happened and during that game with the takeaway from the wave-off 3 that the next day, some of you remember, the next day in the paper there was the picture of the 0.1 on the clock and the ball in the air,” Ostertag said. “Dick Bavetta cheated us out of that one. Then later they gave them a 3 that was after the buzzer. I mean, I’m not taking nothing away from the Bulls, they were fantastic teams.”

That Game 6 in 1998 ended with one of the most famous plays in all of sports — “The Last Shot.”

With 22 seconds left and the Jazz up by one, Jordan stole the ball from Malone on the left block, then dribbled down the floor.

With eight seconds remaining, Jordan gave Russell a push and buried the open jumper to give Chicago the lead. Stockton’s last-second 3-pointer missed, and Chicago won its sixth NBA championship.

“If a ball bounces the right way in one of those games. I think if we go to Game 7, I think we win,” Ostertag said.

The 1998 Finals series between the Bulls and the Jazz was covered in “The Last Dance,” the 10-part Michael Jordan documentary that was released in 2020.

“People ask me all the time, did you watch the, what’s that stupid Michael Jordan show called, ‘Last Dance’?” Ostertag said. “I’m like, no. I was there. I saw it. I saw the push off firsthand. I was there.”

Russell, who did watch “The Last Dance,” was asked to be in the documentary.

“I said no,” Russell said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to bust his bubble. It’s his documentary, his story to tell. So let him tell the story.”

Even though both Finals trips didn’t end the way the Jazz wanted them to, the two players have fond memories of the experience.

“We’ve been somewhere that a whole lot of teams haven’t been and it was so electrifying,” Russell said. “The Finals, both years back to back. It was unbelievable.”

As for what the two former Jazzmen are up to now, Ostertag lives in Mount Vernon, Texas, a small town with a population of 2,491. He’s a farm real estate agent and owns a sports bar in Mount Vernon. He also owns a farm, plays hockey and coaches 10-year-old basketball.

“I have a bunch of crazy animals, two camels and way too many horses and cows, chickens and emus and I love it,” Ostertag said.

As for Russell? Let’s just say he’s not living the farm life.

“I’m a California boy. I’m out there with the sunshine and having a good time and I’m not raising a farm,” Russell said. “No pigs, no cows, nothing. I’m just out there golfing with (Quincy Lewis) every now and then when I come around.”

Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan makes the winning shot during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 14, 1998. | Scott Cunningham, Associated Press
Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan makes the winning shot during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 14, 1998. | Scott Cunningham, Associated Press