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Utah Jazz at 40: Looking back at how Utah landed an NBA franchise 40 years ago

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Jun 7th, 2019 @ 10:42am


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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Yes, pro basketball existed in Salt Lake City for a few years before the Utah Jazz. There were the Utah Stars and the Utah Rockies (sort of) from the American Basketball Association, as well as the Salt Lake City Prospectors in the Western Basketball Association.

Those teams didn’t last terribly long, or in the case of the Rockies, never even take the court. However, after the ABA/NBA merger, there was renewed excitement when on June 8, 1979, the NBA approved a plan to relocate the New Orleans Jazz to Utah.

Here’s a look back at the days leading up to the move 40 years ago Saturday:

New Orleans’ departure

On March 7, 1974, New Orleans became the 18th franchise in the NBA after businessmen Fred Rosenfield and Sam Battistone led a group that pooled together and paid $6.15 million to enter the NBA, according to sportsteamhistory.com.

The league officially admitted the New Orleans Jazz as an expansion team in June that year. However, the team struggled during though first five seasons, never posting a winning record and going 161-249 in the NBA during that time.

The bigger struggles came in the front office. As noted by sportshistory.com, the team struggled with an 11% amusement tax and with having local business support. Team owners felt the team wouldn’t survive in New Orleans, so they filed the paperwork and sought a move elsewhere.

"Pistol" Pete Maravich (44) of the New Orleans Jazz drives through the three-man defense of former teammates on the Atlanta Hawks Mike Sojourner (40), Dwight Jones (13) and Tom Henderson (14) in the first half of the NBA game in Atlanta on February 8, 1975. (Charles Kelly, AP Photo, File)

The meeting in Chicago

The New Orleans owners eyed Salt Lake City for the move. That was big for a city that had attempted to snag an NBA franchise for a decade. In December 1969, Salt Lake City unsuccessfully bid for an expansion team, according to the Associated Press. Franchise bids were instead awarded in Cleveland; Portland, Oregon; and Buffalo, New York, instead.

The following year, the Los Angeles Stars of the ABA relocated to Utah. The franchise won an ABA title in 1971 and remained in the state until it folded just before the ABA and NBA merged in 1976.

The aforementioned Rockies? They were supposed to relocate from St. Louis that year, but they weren’t among the teams selected to remain after the merger.

The New Orleans Jazz proposal was Utah’s best chance. As the Deseret News reported on June 7, 1979, Battistone had ties to the state, which explains why Utah was even considered. He served on the advisory board for BYU’s business school, had a restaurant from a chain he owned in the state and enjoyed skiing in the mountains — and his in-laws were originally from Utah.

By June 8, 1979, the only remaining step was a league vote. Dave Blackwell, the late sportswriter for the Deseret News, traveled to Chicago to cover a special NBA owners meeting that day. He reported that the meeting was expected to be short because the New Orleans proposal was the only item on the agenda and the franchise never filed paperwork for alternatives to Salt Lake City.

This meant the only options on the table that day were either allow the team to move or force the team to stay in New Orleans. By the day of the meeting, the move seemed likely to pass.

Finally, 40 minutes into a closed-door meeting at the Sheraton O’Hare Motor Inn, journalists could hear applause from inside the room, Blackwell reported. The league owners agreed to allow the move after it was apparent a deal wouldn’t be reached to keep the team in New Orleans. The decision was made amid threats of lawsuits in New Orleans against the organization for leaving.

NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien credited then-Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson and Chamber of Commerce president Wendell Ashton for their tenacity and selling The Salt Palace as an NBA venue.

“Utah is one of the leading hotbeds of basketball in the country,” he added, according to the Deseret News. “Salt Lake will be a positive addition to our league.”

According to articles from wire services, some optimistic fans thought that the league would return to New Orleans soon after the move. However, it wouldn’t happen until the original Charlotte Hornets franchise moved there in 2002.

Those in Utah were excited.

“I’ve always felt Salt Lake City is a basketball town,” said Doug Borg, who managed The Salt Palace at the time.

Utah Jazz 40 years later

The Jazz collected their first winning season in 1983 and went on to make appearances in the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Larry H. Miller purchased the team in the mid-1980s to prevent the Jazz from moving again.

Larry H. Miller, right, presents Sam Battistone, left, with a large $8 million check symbolizing his purchase of a share of the Utah Jazz franchise on May 10, 1985. In 1986, Miller purchased majority control of the organization to keep the team in Utah. (Photo: Paul Barker, Deseret News Archives)

In 2017, Gail Miller placed the team in a legacy trust, which essentially prevents the team from moving to another city. So it appears — unlike the decision made 40 years ago — the Jazz aren’t going anywhere.

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Carter Williams

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