I’m grateful to have grown up in the same city as the Utah Jazz. While they have yet to win a world championship, the story of the NBA can not be told without them. Larry H. Miller, Jerry Sloan and others have created a culture that has been emulated by many. Here is my version of the franchises 25 best players. I’m only factoring in each guys time playing for the Jazz (including New Orleans).
#25- MATT HARPRING (474 games) Harpring was a hard-nosed player who brought stability with 15 footers off of a curl play. Matt enjoyed irritating Carmelo Anthony.
#24- BRYON RUSSELL (628 games) Bryon was the 45th overall pick in 1993. His 32 minutes a game in a ton of post season contests is why he beat out Donyell Marshall and John Drew for this spot on the list.
#23- RICH KELLEY (497 games) Kelley’s most productive year for the Jazz came with him scoring 15.7 points. He was also second in the NBA in rebounds (12.8) and eighth in blocked shots (2.1).
#22- GAIL GOODRICH ( 182 games) After an excellent career, Gail played his last three seasons in New Orleans. He could still fill it up. His best ever field goal shooting (49.5 percent) came with the Jazz in 1977-78.
#21- TRUCK ROBINSON (125 games) Len “Truck” Robinson made his time with the Jazz count. He averaged 23 points and 15 rebounds in his two seasons in New Orleans. The 6’7″ Robinson was invited to the All Star game in 1978.
#20- DERRICK FAVORS (478 games) Favors is a stout presence protecting the paint. He has also has shown value at center. Derrick has very good hands and continues to seem like an x factor in the team’s success.
#19- AL JEFFERSON (221 games) Al Jefferson will not go down as the biggest of names in basketball circles. With that said, Al could score and rebound in any city. In three campaigns with Utah, he dropped 18.5 points and pulled down 9.5 boards a night.
#18- DONOVAN MITCHELL (55 games) Mitchell has arrived! Mature. Playmaker. Clutch player. His rookie awards won’t mean much long-term. This guy will end up in the Hall of Fame.
#17- MEHMET OKUR (474 games) Memo once put on a two month run of clutch shooting that would have made Larry Bird blush a little.
#16- JEFF MALONE (279 games) Malone had a remarkable ability to score, falling backwards. In his four years in Utah, Jeff shot 88.1 percent from the free throw line.
#15- PAUL MILLSAP (540 games) Paul was another drafting gem the Jazz can be proud of (47th overall in 2006). He’s the classic lunch pail player who has turned into a low-level NBA star.
#14- THURL BAILEY (708 games) Thurl was consistent. Old reliable. He was one of the best sixth men of his generation. Over the 1988 and 89 seasons he scored 19.5 points a night. Bailey made himself available in the community and fans in Salt Lake City love the man.
#13- RUDY GOBERT (301 games) The impact he makes on an NBA game is quietly all time great. The skill and the wingspan are outrageous. Rudy’s intense desire to compete is why the franchise trusts him.
#12- GORDON HAYWARD (516 games) In his seventh season in Utah, Hayward grew into one of the 25 best players in the world.
#11- RICKEY GREEN (606 games) I can still hear Hot Rod Hundley yelling, “the fastest of them all.” Green had three straight steals seasons of 2.3, 2.8, and 2.7 per game.
#10- CARLOS BOOZER (354 games) In May 2007, Carlos scored 35 points, and grabbed 14 rebounds in a game 7 at Houston. He also had memorable big game battles with Gasol and Odom where he held his own. I would often watch Boozer from 20 feet away. His high arcing baseline jumper was automatic.
#9- ANDREI KIRILENKO (681 games) “AK-47” was an exotic talent. He was like an elastic band being shot out of a cannon. Kirilenko’s help defense and shot blocking made him a league wide stand out. Some of his all around talents, left him in statistical categories only he and Hakeem Olajuwon share.
#8- DARRELL GRIFFITH (765 games) The 1981 NBA Rookie of the Year, Griffith was an offensive star for five seasons before an injury. Darrell and his chain were 1980’s cool. His athletic play and rainbow jumpers are a popular memory in Jazz lore.
#7- MARK EATON (875 games) He was never appreciated by Jazz fans while he was active. Mark was the Defensive Player of the Year twice, and made five All-Defensive teams. He led the NBA in blocks four times. Eaton’s 5.6 rejections per game in 1984-85 is the best shot blocking season in NBA history.
#6- JEFF HORNACEK (477 games) His handles made Stockton’s life easier. Jeff’s sweet passing was over shadowed by his ability to shoot. Hornacek had the gift of ridiculous, crafty shot making.
#5- DERON WILLIAMS (439 games) For a small window of time, Williams was the best point guard in the NBA. I always trusted his outside shot. Deron’s level in Utah, landed him on the Olympic “Redeem Team” in 2008.
#4- PETE MARAVICH (330 games) Arguably the most important model of showmanship the game has ever seen. “Pistol Pete” added an artful texture to basketball’s history. It’s awesome he played for the Jazz.
#3- ADRIAN DANTLEY (461 games) AD would spin the ball in his hands, rock you to sleep, and score buckets for a living. He averaged 29.6 points on 56.2 percent shooting from the floor in his Jazz career. Dantley carried the Jazz organization before they were a true contender.
#2- JOHN STOCKTON (1,504 games) I loved to watch John think the game. His decision-making was so good, it seemed tangible. Most would be surprised John scored just under 20,000 points and hit 51.5 percent of his field goals. Stockton crushed bigger people’s bodies fighting through screens for two decades.
#1- KARL MALONE (1,434 games) “The Mailman” led the Western conference in scoring six times. Malone may be the best player ever, without a ring. Red Auerbach said of Karl, “He’s a 6’9″, 260 pound monster, who runs the break like a deer.”
We lost one of the world’s great people just over one year ago. As missing him continues and even increases, it’s also getting easier to understand the impact he had on my life. I’m learning to have a friendship with my memories of him. Outside of his loved ones, sports was Rusty’s number one passion. I’m excited to share more of the things that made him tick.
#1-KARL MALONE WAS HIS FAVORITE NBA PLAYER OF ALL TIME: He used to study Karl on VHS tapes rewinding them over and over. He especially loved Karl’s post moves. Rusty loved his defense and his over the shoulder pass. He would boast “nobody runs the floor and rips down the rim like Karl.” In high school he signed his name Rusty “the mailman” Riggs.
#2- HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO THROW THE BALL IN THE POST: The first time we played in the “Roundball Ruckus” (3 on 3 basketball tournament) I blew our last game. I was being smothered on the perimeter and kept turning the ball over as Russ begged for the ball down low. We lost the game because of this and Russ was pissed. In rare form he gave me a personal jab over me “not being able to make a simple post pass.” It hurt to let him down and needless to say by the next year, I was a master at the variety of ways to pass the ball in the post. I got Rusty the ball, he scored 16 of our 20 points and this time we won. He pushed me with joy and yelled, “that’s how you pass the ball in the post boy!” That moment meant a ton to me. Every time I make a post pass, it’s him.
#3-RUSS HAD AN EXTRA GOOD REASON TO FOLLOW DEREK SMITH’S CAREER: Rusty played on the same field with Derek Smith in ninth grade. Riggs knew exactly how tough and good Derek was from that experience. Rusty watched him play every snap of his high school career. We were blown away how good Derek was at football, especially on defense. After Snow College Derek had gone on to play at Arizona State. One night in 1996 I got a call from Russ saying “Derek Smith is dominating against one of the best teams in the country.” That was when we realized Derek was really on his way. Derek played 12 seasons in the NFL against and with people that were larger than life to Rusty and I. Smith was a starter and one of the best tacklers in pro football. Derek gave Rusty a great deal of inspiration.
#4- HE WAS A DALE MURPHY FAN: Russ took a lot of pride in the fact that Dale Murphy was a Mormon. He would always bring up his back to back NL MVP awards and liked to mention how close he was to being a Hall of Famer. He was annoyed his guy was two home runs short of 400. I spent a couple of hours with Murphy in 2002. He was such a nice guy. I told Dale how much Rusty admired him.
#5- HE LIKED TO SAY GOODBYE TO THE VISITING NBA TEAMS: One of his favorite things to do after going to a Utah Jazz game was watch the visiting team leave on their bus. Russ was a die-hard fan. He would have no problem waiting an hour to catch a glimpse of the players. It wasn’t just him being in awe, he wanted to be close to something he knew he could be a part of as a future media member. He loved that we were flipped off by a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
#6- HE WAS GOOD AT MAKING PREDICTIONS: He seemed to be on fire for about a decade predicting games. It became a bother for me because he would use it as argument leverage. If he didn’t agree with me on something he might go, “look here little Jaybird, you don’t have to watch any NBA playoff games this weekend. I’ll just tell you what will happen and save you the time.”
#7- HE WAS SO HAPPY JARED AND I WORE IDENTICAL SHIRTS: For months Rusty had been anticipating meeting, and playing basketball with my buddy Jared. I can’t remember why, but I ended up making the horrible decision of wearing the same t-shirt as Jared. The shirts had a cartoon face of Michael Jordan. This was like handing Rusty comedy dynamite. For about twelve years he made a phone books worth of jokes over this.
#8- HIS NAME BECAME “RUSS” IN THE HOT SUMMER OF LOUISIANA: When he left on his LDS mission in early 1994, his name was Rusty. In the community of Algiers ( New Orleans) he came away with a different name. He was playing basketball on a hot summer day. Coming from Highland Utah it was culture shock for Rusty and his companion to be the only white people among 25 guys. Rusty described the competition as “unbelievable”. He said the best player there was a 6’8″ black guy who had played at the University of Houston. The guy was cool to Rusty as he dominated everyone. As Riggs started to perform some guys started calling him “Utah.” The stud ball player started calling him “Russ.” He adopted the name from there with pride. It was important for him to earn the respect of these guys.
#9- HE ADORED MARCH MADNESS: He could sense the NCAA Tournament coming each year. He bragged about teachers in high school that would play the tourney on t.v. during class. Rusty would go to the games anytime they would be in Salt Lake City. His biggest selling point was how popular March madness was. I eventually caved to its popularity which made him happy.
#10- HIS WADE/LEBRON ARGUMENT WITH ME BECAME LEGENDARY: It started in the spring of 2006 when I said, “right now Wade is as good as LeBron.” Russ freaked out over my statement. From that time on LeBron James versus Dwyane Wade was a factor in our friendship up until four days before Russ passed away. It would probably rank as one of our eight greatest sports arguments. I had several niche advantages in this debate, but he won this one with the safe choice of James on his side. He would often make remarks like, “Wade in a little back pack on LeBron’s back like Yoda and Luke.”
#11-RUSTY HAD GREAT APPRECIATION FOR MARSHALL FAULK: August 10th, 1992: He was there to witness San Diego State getting their first ever win in Provo. Marshall gutted the Cougars for 299 rushing yards and three scores. That game was burned into Rusty’s memory and he followed Faulk for his entire NFL career.
#12- HE HATED THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH: He believed hating the school on the hill was part of his life’s job description. I felt like he put 80 percent of the energy into hating Utah as he did loving BYU. If someone walked by with Utah gear on it’s as if he was smelling an enemy from a strange planet. Utah wins hurt him. Utah losses made him feel great. Utah beating BYU was a nightmare, and beating Utah was like winning the Super Bowl for Russ. When BYU quarterback Max Hall verbally ripped Utah to shreds after a 2009 win, I’ll never forget Rusty’s words. “To say everyone at the University of Utah is classless is obviously not true. It was crazy for him to be so harsh with the microphones in his face. Part of me loves him more for ripping them so bad though.” He was unapologetic for feeling this way about the U of U.
#13- RUSS, HALLOWEEN, AND LAMAR ODOM GO TOGETHER: I have a random but clear memory of Halloween night 2008. I was driving on Redwood Road and on the phone with Russ. We were arguing about Lamar Odom. He claimed Lamar was not going to get any better while I stated he could still improve by a level. We must have gone on about this for an hour. That was the same call in which he told me about his families Halloween tradition to eat donuts and chili. He laughed when I said it was weird yet made perfect sense. Odom went on to get better, but not enough for me to ever bring it up again.
#14- HE HAD TO KNOW THE SCORE NOW: When he was in the rare situation of having to work during a BYU football game, he was not going to wait until later to watch on tape in its entirety. We were broadcasting a football game at Davis High School years ago. BYU was playing at the same time. Every time we went to commercial he yelled “score?” Russ ended up buying a student dinner to keep him updated throughout the night. On the drive home he said he was going to go re watch the game. I asked him if he was sure Ruth had taped it? He said, “bro, she’s a professional at this point.”
#15-HE GREW UP ON NFL FILMS: We always shared common ground here. It makes sense that he loved “NFL Films.” Ed and Steve Sabol captured the art of football in a very romantic light. It was about the sights, sounds, and by far the best view of the National Football League. It’s no surprise Riggs dug this part of pro football. He was a very sentimental person.
#16-HE LOVED HIS GAME DAY ROUTINE: BYU game day Saturday’s were his greatest reward in the life of being a sports fan. He would only allow college football talk on the radio. It’s the only time I remember him never listening to his R&B music. He was feeling joy as he heard scores from other games around the country. He always parked in the same neighborhood. I often said, “are you sure you can park here?” He’d always respond, “my family has been parking here for 25 years dude.” He would often park in tight spaces, weird angles, whatever it took. He was parking in this little semi-circle no matter what.
#17- LAVELL EDWARDS STADIUM WAS HEAVEN ON EARTH TO RUSTY: He always wanted to be there early. We would walk down the North side of the stadium when we arrived. As Russ got near , his religious type experience would begin. You could almost hear “Rudy” music as he would soak in just how happy he was to be there. Russ thought this stadium was a hallowed NCAA beauty and he felt lucky it was like his back yard. He would often go to an intersection to sell an extra ticket. I initially struggled to realize this was legal. He would constantly make fun of me for it. He would go “Jay, scared to cross the road.”
#18- HE WAS NEVER LOYAL TO AN NFL TEAM OVER THE LONG HAUL: He liked the 49ers as a kid and then later on as he followed Steve Young. He spent some time cheering for some of Andy Reid’s Eagles teams. He was never really attached to an NFL team. He knew it would be over load with the energy he put into BYU and Utah. The April before he died he claimed, “I guess I’m cheering for the Detroit Lions now.” The Lions had two BYU players ready to make an impact.
#19- BYU OVERMIAMI WAS HIS FIRST BIGGEST WIN AS A FAN: September 28th 1990: Rusty was there to see his Cougars beat the number one ranked Miami Hurricanes 28 to 21. On his mission tape in 1995 he describes this day. “At the time I’d never been so pumped up for a game. When Miami came onto the field with all their glory and cockiness I got a rush and lost a little breath. Ty threw for 406 yards, and we beat them! I’ll never forget the embrace with my dad and just going crazy. This was my “1984.”
#20- RUSS WAS VERY GOOD AT BASKETBALL: American Fork High School had a large student body and was one of the best basketball schools in the state of Utah. He was in the last group of five guys that did not make the varsity team his senior year. He was a star on his “city league” team. Of the 20 or so people we hung out with over a few year window, he was the best player of the group. He was a solid defensive player, but awesome on offense. Bigger guys who would play physical (i.e. Alan Owens and Kevin Franson) could give him fits, but Russ scored points. He had several pet moves in the post including a tricky hesitation drive he was proud of. He could shoot outside and developed three-point range in his early twenties. An inside player who would get hot shooting outside is nice. Remember that he was six feet four inches tall. Rusty scored buckets. He got hot and usually stayed hot. I was very proud of the basketball player he was.
#21- HE WAS ABLE TO INTERVIEW JERRY SLOAN: While working for the ‘”Davis County Clipper” Russ had the opportunity to interview Jazz legend Jerry Sloan. Jerry is a hard-nosed man and I was curious to ask Russ what his first question was? He said, “right before I opened my mouth I thought don’t say anything stupid, think defense.”
#22- RUSTY SPENT MANY HOURS TALKING ABOUT TONY ROMO: Because of my interests, Russ spent more time talking about Tony Romo than I’m sure he would have chosen to otherwise (Steve Riggs and Dan Merrill got a taste of these talks). Russ was a master at arguing. He knew how to jab me with Tony’s failures but keep me on board by praising his talent. The last play Russ saw Romo make was a season saving, fourth down pass to beat the Redskins in 2013. Russ text me, “and with a hurt back? That’s pretty impressive Tony.”
#23- A LOOK AT THE LAST 3 BYU FOOTBALL GAMES HE WATCHED: The last home game he saw was a 59-13 victory over Idaho State. The last regular season game was a 28-23 win at Nevada. The last BYU football game he ever saw was a 31-16 loss to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl. The game was December 27th, 2013. When BYU lost it hurt Russ. At 38 years old he had gotten good at knowing how to handle it.
#24- RUSS WAS AN ALLEN IVERSON FAN: He didn’t love him right away. Over time he saw a guy tough enough to live diving on the floor, and brash enough to take on Jordan. Russ was mesmerized by Iverson’s quickness. He backed him the entire way during his 2000-2001 MVP season.
#25- HE BAILED ME OUT AT DAVIS HIGH SCHOOL: He and I were broadcasting a High School football game on TV. He got several of these little gigs over a few year period and always asked me to join in. This was being taped beforehand and would be played later in the night. We had to do a shot of ourselves on the sideline before we went up to the booth. I kept screwing it up. I was stumbling on the line and messed up for the third straight time. I walked away in disgust as the camera guy seemed a bit surprised. Russ bumped me and said, “compared to what you have done, this is like goofing off in the back yard. This is too easy for you bro. You got this.” I calmed down and made it happen. His support was like a jolt of excitement. As the play by-play guy he nailed his job like always.