Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls already faced a daunting task going up against John Stockton, Karl Malone, and the Utah Jazz in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals. The raucous crowds at the Delta Center made those matchups all the more challenging.
Jackson elaborated on how crowd noise impacted his coaching in a diary he kept for former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rick Telander in the 1998 NBA Playoffs. The Zen Master even said he needed a particular type of earplugs to avoid permanent hearing loss.
The Bulls struggled to beat the Jazz at the Delta Center
Although the Chicago Bulls dominated the 1990s, they had a hard time beating Utah on its home turf. This rang especially true in 1997 and 1998.
The Bulls lost their lone regular-season matchup against the Jazz at the Delta Center in November 1996. It got even tougher during the Finals.
Chicago took the first two games at the United Center but dropped each of the next two in Utah. Phil Jackson and the Bulls might have lost their grip on the series entirely if not for a heroic Game 5 from Michael Jordan, a performance that would eventually be dubbed the “Flu Game.”
The two teams met again the following summer, and this time the Jazz had home-court advantage. Utah likely felt strengthened by playing at home, especially after going 2-0 against the Bulls during the regular season. Indeed, the Jazz won Game 1 in overtime.
However, Chicago showed tremendous heart. It won Game 2 in Salt Lake and, after taking 2-of-3 in the Windy City, won a grueling Game 6 behind Jordan’s 45 points.
The Bulls successfully conquered the Jazz and triumphed in enemy territory. But doing so came at quite the cost, especially for Jackson.
Phil Jackson wore specialized earplugs to manage crowd noise
Phil Jackson needed some assistance to feel comfortable coaching the Bulls in Utah.
Jackson revealed during a personal diary (h/t ESPN) kept during the 1998 NBA Playoffs that an audiologist sent him earplugs ahead of the 1997 NBA Finals. He wore them during games at the Delta Center in ’98, noting just how rowdy Jazz fans could be, especially ahead of the opening tip.
“We got to the Delta Center for Game 1 of the Finals and the noise was astonishing. I wore earplugs that an audiologist sent to me last year when we also played Utah in the Finals. She said I should be worried about permanent ear damage, and I am. The noise really is beyond the realm of tolerance. Last year, I’d go back to my room and my ears would ring for hours. They’ve toned down the motorcycle sounds some, but the introduction is the worst — the bombs, the flares, the balloons bursting in sequence.”–Phil Jackson (1998), via ESPN
Utah used to pump up the home crowd with all sorts of theatrics.
As Jackson mentioned, the Jazz had motorcycles revving and fireworks exploding throughout the arena before the games began. A superfan nicknamed “Jazzman” adorned himself with all sorts of team gear and face paint.
Michael Jordan’s children explained during The Last Dance that their mother believed Utah’s environment was too “hostile” for young kids, which is why they never traveled to Salt Lake for road games. Given Jackson’s description and his worries about hearing loss, it’s easy to understand that decision.
Jackson had more success at the Delta Center as head coach of the Lakers
While the Zen Master probably hoped ’98 marked the final time he’d have to coach against the Jazz in the playoffs, he again traveled to Utah for playoff basketball in 2008, this time with the Los Angeles Lakers. The results were similar, at least initially.
The Lakers took a 2-0 lead over the Jazz during the 2008 Western Conference semifinals, only for the Jazz to even the series at the Delta Center. Utah won 54 games that season, and it fed off the home crowd to claw back into the series.
Fortunately for Jackson and the Lakers, Game 5 took place in LA. The Lakers regained the advantage at home before closing the series in Game 6 at the Delta Center, thanks to 34 points from Kobe Bryant.
The two teams met in the first round the following season, but LA easily beat the Jazz in five games, though Utah did win Game 3 at home. Jackson and Co. then swept the Jazz in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals en route to a second consecutive championship.
Still, while Phil Jackson’s teams dominated the Jazz in the playoffs, he appeared to understand just how challenging it would be to win at the Delta Center.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.