Although the story of Jazz basketball is a tale of two cities — Salt Lake City and New Orleans — Charles Dickens did not have the Jazz in mind when he wrote of the best of times, the worst of times. But more than a century later he could have. After the move from New Orleans in 1979, the Utah Jazz spent six years living on the edge, a customary position when the club was in New Orleans, where the story begins.
In 1974 a nine-man group, mainly Californians, spent $6.15 million to form the expansion New Orleans Jazz, the eighteenth franchise in the National Basketball Association. The colors of the Mardi Gras –purple, green and gold — were chosen as the Jazz colors. State hero Pete Maravich, college basketball’s all-time leading scorer at LSU, was acquired for a high price from Atlanta and the fledgling Jazz were ready for the inaugural season. The Jazz lost their first eleven games, and coach Scotty Robertson was fired four games later. The die had been cast. The Jazz won only 23 games in 1974-75 seasons. In their five years in New Orleans, the Jazz never played .500 ball even though they did win 39 games in 1977-78. That was also the year Maravich wrecked his right knee, Louisiana businessman Andrew Martin sold his 20 percent of the club to the Californians, and the Jazz drafted Lucy Harris of Delta State, the first woman ever picked in the NBA draft. It was later revealed that Lucy Harris was pregnant, prompting quips the Jazz had actually drafted the rights to her firstborn.
The next season the Jazz won only 26 games, which included a 4-37 record; but even more crippling for the franchise was the mammoth rent. It was time to move, thought Sam Bettistone and Larry Hatfield of Santa Barbara, who were now the co-owners of the team. After a hasty demographic survey, Battistone announced the move of the team to Salt Lake City, a community which had sorrowfully witnessed the demise of the beloved American Basketball Association Utah Stars just five years before. The scars from the Stars, the speed of the move, the late arrival in June of management personnel and the lukewarm appraisal of the Jazz product resulted in a tepid Utah reception.
Not having the move from New Orleans approved until the 1979 NBA June meeting proved to be a big obstacle to the front office, most of whom had accompanied the club from Louisiana. They had only a few month to organize ticket sales, advertising, marketing, and broadcasting rights. They were in strange territory and spent too much time talking to people who had impressive titles on their business cards but who didn’t make the final decisions. The newly arrived Jazz didn’t know the Utah shakers and movers. The 1979 Jazz draft was a complete bust, with their first pick gone by opening day.
Deseret News publisher Wendell Ashton led the effort to sell season tickets and acquire corporate financial support, but both were very slow in developing. Many observers thought the Jazz were just stopping by (and later happenings added credence to that apprehension.) Even though the Jazz sponsored a contest to pick a new nickname and team colors, the old ones were retained after the move from New Orleans. As incongruous as jazz and the mardi gras are in association with Utah, Battistone had made up his mind that the trappings would not change, explaining he wanted those who criticized the Jazz in New Orleans to be reminded it was the same franchise that had later earned success in Utah.
Battistone’s faith was rewarded by 24 wins and an average home attendance of 7,821 the first year at the Salt Palace. A rare bright spot was Adrian Dantley, who had been acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers for Spencer Haywood at the start of the season. Dantley was named the fist Utah Jazz All-Star and led the West in scoring with 23 points in the league’s all-star game.
When Frank Layden left the Atlanta Hawks to join the Jazz, he was given the choice of becoming either general manager or head coach. He took the G.M. job, knowing that he had a better chance of surviving the early years way from the sidelines. Former Stars coach Tom Nissalke, who holds the rare distinction of being named Coach of the Year in both the NBA and ABA, took the Jazz job, totally cognizant of the dearth of talent.
The Jazz, during the first three years in Utah, averaged 16 wins a year and a home attendance of 7,665 per game. There were problems off the court, too. On News Years Day 1980, Bernard King was arrested on five felony sex charges. Five months later, Terry Furlow was dead of a car accident. Cocaine was in his blood. In September 1982, twenty-nine year old forward Bill Robinzine committed suicide. Two months later, John Drew was placed in a rehab center because of drug use.
When the Jazz acquired Drew and Freemen Williams from Atlanta for number one draft pick Dominque Wilkins 3 September 1982, it was widely rumored both Drew and Williams were having substance abuse troubles, but the Jazz had to gamble. They needed an immediate, massive cash infusion and Atlanta was sending $1 million to the Jazz as part of the Wilkins deal. Layden made the deal with old friend Ted Turner from a public telephone at the Jeremy Ranch golf course.
In February 1983 the Jazz traded young Danny Schayes to Denver for veteran Rich Kelley and again quick cash, thought to be $300,000. The Jazz front office was living from payroll to payroll amid fears of late personnel checks. Battisatone tried a three-for-one ticket campaign. There were rumors the Jazz would merge with Denver. Eleven games — Jazz “home” games — were scheduled for play in Las Vegas for the 1983-84 season in hopes of generating quick cash. That same season there were worries the Jazz were headed to Miami. The next year the new home of the Jazz was thought to be Minneapolis, one report claiming that Battistone had already signed the necessary papers.
These were, indeed, the worst of times.
But apparently the Jazz heeded the advice of French writer Alexandre Dumas that “all human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope.”
Without warning, things started to turn around on the court. Despite having to play the Las Vegas games, the Jazz had a turnaround of 15 games — 30 wins the previous year to a modest 45 — to capture the 1983-84 Midwest Division, the first time ever. It marked the first-ever playoff appearance, and that was just the beginning, because in the subsequent eight years the Jazz were one of only seven NBA teams to make the playoffs each spring.
In 1984, the Jazz cleaned up on postseason individual honors, becoming the first team ever to have four separate players win NBA league individual titles: Adrian Dantley (scoring), Mark Eaton (blocks), Rickey Green (steals) and Darrell Griffith (three-point field shoot accuracy). General Manager Frank Layden, who had assumed the duel responsibility of coach on 10 December 1981, was named NBA Coach of the Year and of the NBA Walter Kennedy Award for contributions to the community.
Perhaps Layden’s biggest contribution was his good humor, his ability to draw attention away from the Jazz woes on and off the court with his overwhelming personality. Layden was the Jazz savior in the early years.
Another key figure arrived during the Cinderella 1983-84 season. The youthful David Checketts traveled from Boston to become executive vice president of the organization. Checketts, currently general manager of the New York Knicks, knew the Jazz could not survive strictly on gate receipts and nominal advertising. He set in motion guidelines for realizing outside revenues, e.g. Pro-Image stores, TCI cable telecasts and the Jazz Radio Network.
However, it was Larry H. Miller who ensured the Jazz entrenchment in Utah and Salt Lake City. The immensely successful automobile dealer bought 50 percent of the Jazz in the spring of 1985 from the beleaguered Battistone, whose efforts to keep the Jazz a float in the early years should not be ignored. A little more than a year later Miller purchased the remaining 50 percent of the franchise, promising a rosy future.
The Jazz, guided by the savvy director of player personnel Scott Layden, drafted wisely, picking eventual all-stars Karl Malone and John Stockton. Jazz tickets became a hot commodity. Sellouts were taken for granted, but the Salt Palace, at 12,666, was the smallest arena in the NBA’s smallest market. Enter Miller again. A new 20,000 seat arena became the new home for the Jazz at the start of the 1991-92 season.
In 1979-80, the direct economic benefit the Jazz brought to the community was estimated at $1 million. Now it is in excess of $10 million. Intangible benefits to the state, including national publicity the Jazz bring to Utah, has been gauged to be in excess of $90 million each year.
Apparently there is an international impact, too. Several years ago a Salt Lake businessman was in Haiti and he was wearing a Utah Jazz cap. “Ah, the Utah Jazz,” said a Haitian. “The Mailman” (Karl Malone).
In recent years the Jazz have won division titles, played in the conference championship, and hosted the NBA All-Star game at the Delta Center. Jazz teams have won consistently and have included players of the highest caliber. The NBA has grandiose international plans for the future and the Jazz, once the ugly stepchild and now one of the most respected franchises, will be right there.