For reasons of desire and need, because you can’t fill every minute satisfactorily and because they asked the Heat about Bimbo Coles and got turned down, because it’s important to be fundamentally sound and because the crowd in Utah is what it is, the Jazz have, over their several decades in Salt Lake City, enjoyed the stylings of a large number of memorably doofy white guys. It’s a tradition that stretches from the Frank Layden era all the way into the present and will remain the case throughout Kyle Korver’s forthcoming 18 seasons as team president. As a managerial approach, it’s problematic, but it is heartwarming to see so much faith misplaced in Greg Foster and Adam Keefe, Matt Harpring’s scoring prowess severely overstated, the coif-disrupting abandon with which abstemious golf dads delight in Joe Ingles’s beer hall chippiness. You get the sense a lot of these people would get just as turnt for live center court readings of old William F. Buckley columns, but they’re cheering for basketball, and you can’t look sideways at that.
The tendency for the Jazz fanbase to god up players who look like 1970s newscasters does a small disservice to John Stockton, who rolled out of bed several steps ahead of the defense, but it has also made cult figures out of Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek, and Bob Hansen. It is its own kind of NBA kitsch, one that sharply defined the Jerry Sloan-coached teams that competed for titles in the ‘90s: Stockton, Malone, and a whole lot of what was typically described as class and grit. A report from the 1996 Western Conference Semifinals, positively teeming with Jazz Energy: “after Game 3 last Saturday, Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek shockingly (but gently, of course) cut an interview short—because he didn't want to be late for church.” Those squads were like if Tommy Heinsohn’s Celtics had fielded several clones of Dave Cowens.
It speaks to the flagrant aesthetics of Greg Ostertag’s game that he was hardly celebrated in Utah. On paper, he was right up their alley: built like something out of Polish folklore, permanently on the edge of a fight he was going to lose, a player talented in either highly specific ways or not at all. A buffoon, but from a precise partisan vantage point, perhaps our buffoon. New York once fell in violent lust with Anthony Mason. These things do happen.
Ostertag joined Jerry Sloan’s outfit in 1995, holding down the third center spot for a team that fell one game short of the Finals, and he averaged about 20 minutes per night during the ‘96-’97 and ‘97-’98 seasons, both of which were ended by Jordan’s Bulls. He then featured prominently on a succession of aging Jazz squads that continually fell short of expectations as Stockton and Malone deteriorated. Sloan went back and forth on whether or not Ostertag should start, but for nine seasons, he got significant floortime whenever he was available, a pile of meat to soak up contact and spend fouls. This was back when almost every NBA team had a guy like that. If you weren’t lucky enough to employ Alonzo Mourning or Shaquille O’Neal, you at least needed somebody who could whale on those guys. Ostertag was 7-foot-2, 280 pounds. He left a mark.
To expect much more out of the galoot was folly. Terminally uncoordinated, he didn’t offer any offensive threat, and on the other end of the floor, he was a smart positional defender given to spectacular feats of clumsiness. He was only an adequate rebounder. Ostertag’s lone inelegant strength was getting in the way—a large object obstructing defenders, driving lanes, and much more talented big men. Have you ever played ball in a church with a support beam in the middle of the floor? He was like a beam that could move around, kind of. This had its utility—advanced stats like Ostertag a lot, which might be enough justification to burn the analytics movement to the ground—but that didn’t make him any more pleasant to watch.
He fell in and out of shape, showing up for his rookie season well over that listed 280-poind weight and doing the same in the fall of 1997, right after signing a six-year, $39 million contract extension. Karl Malone, Adonisesque and infinitely more motivated, was frequently unhappy with him. When there was buzz before the 2001-02 season that Knicks GM (and former Jazz personnel honcho) Scott Layden wanted to bring Ostertag to New York, Utah fans booed him with aplomb in a preseason game against New York, as if to say please, please take this large buzzcutted problem off our hands.
But Ostertag stuck around, all the way to the end of Stockton’s career and past the point when Malone fled to chase a ring in Los Angeles. He didn’t evolve, showing up one season surprisingly ripped or extending his range beyond Literally Beneath The Rim. He remained competent at the very narrow things he was competent at until he hit his 30s, and then as many indifferent big men do, he fell off a cliff and exited the league shortly thereafter. When he stood out, it was as a minor antagonist in a star player’s movie—trying to scuffle with Scottie Pippen in the ‘97 Finals, getting slapped to the floor by an injured Shaquille O’Neal in the middle of practice. His finest moment might have been his adamant rejection of the NBA’s dress code policy: “[I will] get the worst-looking [suit] they’ve ever seen on me. I’ll go buy one off a guy in the street.” Either that, or the time or he broke out a Chippendales dance at a season ticket holders’ event.
For Ostertag’s part, he seems a little embarrassed about squandering his potential. From a 2017 radio interview: ”I’ve got a lot of regret in my life. One of them is not being the player for those guys that I could have been and should have been, taking for granted that I was seven-foot, and only being as good as I was, not being better.”
Of course, he doesn’t have to apologize for anything. There have been many more ignominious careers than his, and he contributed, in his way, to a handful of really good teams. But if Greg Ostertag is remarkable, it is for representing the stark limits of Jazz fans’ capacity to appreciate players who looked like them. They wanted him to be Mark Eaton, and they would have exalted him had he cleared that relatively low bar, but instead he was a source of frustration and disappointment. Ostertag never found love, not even in the one place that might have given it to him.
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