| 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.