For the longest time, at least until Real Salt Lake, the Utah Jazz were the professional sports team in Utah. Sure, we had some random minor league teams, even super successful ones, but the Jazz were the only game in town. For eight, and sometimes nine months a year, the Jazz dominated the local sports scene, and have had some pretty good highs, as well as some lows.
The Jazz weren’t “born” here, anyone that knows about Utah should realize that there isn’t much of an organic jazz music scene here. The Jazz started out as an expansion team in New Orleans in 1974. And, despite having one of the best players of the era – Hall of Famer “Pistol” Pete Maravich – the New Orleans Jazz just weren’t that good. The best record they managed during their time in The Big Easy was 39-43, and they never really established themselves as something to do in the city, rotating between three venues and often being displaced by Mardi Gras festivities. The team drew well, but the lack of success made it difficult for the team to succeed financially. A new home was needed, and the ownership decided on Salt Lake City, in part because of the success that the ABA’s Utah Stars had experienced in the city.
The Utah Jazz arrived in Salt Lake to minimal fanfare and a disappointing first season, winning only 24 games during their first season in Utah. The team continued to struggle for the next couple of years, winning 28, 25, and 30 games over the next three seasons. The team finally found some success during the ’83-’84 season, winning the division and making the playoffs for the first time. However, the owners were still struggling to make money with the team, and rumors persisted that the team may be on the move again. Following their first playoff season, the team’s fortune began to change, both on and off the court.
In the 1984 draft, the team selected an unheralded guard from Gonzaga named John Stockton. Fans attending a draft party booed the decision and questioned why the team would waste a pick on another guard when they had a pretty solid starting back court already. However, the ’84-’85 season saw continued improvement from many players that would form the core of the team for seasons to come, with Mark Eaton becoming a defensive stopper and leading the league in blocks per game. The team managed to make the playoffs again, and the summer of 1985 saw the drafting of Karl Malone, as well as the first investment in the team of Larry H. Miller, who purchased 50% of the team to keep them from moving. He would by the remainder of the team the following year, and the Jazz were no longer a threat to leave Utah.
Years of success followed. Boisterous coach Frank Layden was replaced by task master Jerry Sloan, and pieces were added year after year that kept the Jazz competitive. They made the playoffs every year between 1984 and 2003, culminating in back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals against the Micheal Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in 1997 and 1998. While the Jazz lost both those Finals in 6 games – I still think MJ pushed off Bryon Russell on that famous shot – they showed that small market teams could compete in the NBA with an ownership group that cared about the team and the city. There were some up and down years from 2003 on, but the Jazz always ranked in the top 10 in attendance at the
Delta Center EnergySolutions Arena Vivint Smart Home Arena, and this year’s team looks like they might make it back to the playoffs for the first time since the lockout-shortened ’11-’12 season. It’s an exciting time to be a Jazz fan again.
And none of that would be possible if not for Larry H. Miller and his family. Larry Miller passed away in 2009, and fans that remembered the ownership turmoil of the mid ’80s had reason to think that maybe the Jazz could be sold and move. Basketball franchises were being sold for record amounts as the NBA started making even more money, and you wouldn’t have blamed the Miller Family for cashing in after nearly 25 years of ownership. The Wizards, Warriors, Hornets, and Nets all changed ownership groups at that time. And while Salt Lake City couldn’t compete with the size of those markets, there were plenty of bigger cities hoping for an NBA team. But it was not to be. The Miller Family, led by patriarch Gail Miller, committed to Salt Lake City and keeping the Jazz in Utah. Recently, in an unprecedented move in major sports, the team announced that ownership would be transferred into a “perpetual legacy trust,” run by the Miller Family, that will keep the Jazz in Utah for generations to come.
The Jazz are home to stay, and while my dreams of owning them (after winning the lottery) are probably shot now, I’m glad that they’ll be around for a long time. I look forward to someday getting season tickets and taking my family to games, waiting and hoping for that eventual championship that I’m sure will come some day. In an era where professional teams abandon long-time homes for greener pastures, I’m happy that the Jazz will be sticking around permanently.
Until next time…