Thursday, July 28, 2005

Commentary: Ostertag’s back in Utah? Duck!

Former Kansas University center's return to Jazz won't come without an explosion of opinion


Greg Ostertag is a rare kind of athlete.

Did I just use the words Greg Ostertag and athlete in the same sentence? It's the end of the world as we know it.

See, that's what I'm talking about.

Almost no modern-day athlete gets treated like Ostertag. He's a lightning rod. He's more than a lightning rod. He's the frickin' storm itself. When news broke that the enigmatic 7-foot-2 center with the funny-sounding name and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't game was returning to the Jazz via trade, the reaction was general disbelief and, in many cases, anger.

Activity around water coolers buzzed. Sports-talk radio went throttle up. The Tribune marked the event by assigning two staffers and two columnists to the story, and draping a large main headline across the next morning's sports page: "Ostertag coming back."

A secondary headline should have read: "For the love of man, no, no, no, no, please God, no."

Either way, you would have thought Elvis had returned, or, at least, Karl Malone.

On the court, too frequently, there was an unmistakable disconnect between Ostertag's brain and his body. He would miss a dunk or mishandle a pass, and next thing, both his confidence and his game would fail.

During his first nine-year stint with the Jazz, dude showed moments of brilliance and hours of confusion. He played one night with passion, and the next with apathy. And the results were drastically uneven.

Ostertag made life more miserable for himself because he unsheathed for all to see an ability to play at a high level, sometimes at important junctures, but just as quickly sheathed it again. He was good enough to bother Hakeem and Shaq in playoff games, and bad enough to get dominated by every other Tom, Dick and Vlade.

Worst of all, Ostertag couldn't explain his erratic play.

He was mystified by it.

"(A) lot of people have tried to figure me out," Ostertag said near the end of his first stint with the Jazz. "I don't know how they think they can do that when I can't even do it myself."

Another time, he said: "I'm trying to find a way to be intense every night, to be ready to play. Sometimes, I'm great, and, sometimes, I don't belong out on the court. I don't know. Someday, I'll figure it out, maybe as I get more mature. I'm working on it, I really am -- I'm looking for answers."

If he ever found them, they were slippery beggars.

Ostertag, too, may have suffered, at intervals throughout that search, but he at least collected $40 million in salary for his trouble. Fans booed him, they ridiculed him, they used his name as the butt-end of jokes. He became a laughingstock and that cannot be satisfying.

"(Bleep) 'em," he said.

Years ago, I came up with a little endeavor called "The Karl Malone Game." Its essence was this: Go up to a stranger and say the words Karl Malone. And, then, sit back and watch what happens. People gushed over him and they hated him.

Ostertag is the only other player in the history of the Jazz who elicited strong enough responses to make that thing work. I've played "The Greg Ostertag Game," again and again, over the past few days, and it's a lit fuse into a powder keg of emotion.

Greg Ostertag.


Commenting has been disabled for this item.