About Utah: 'Jazz' name belongs back in New Orleans

Published: Thursday, April 19 2012 11:01 p.m. MDT

Michael Brandy, Deseret News archives

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First, I'd like to make it clear that I am not related to Tom Benson, nor have I ever bought a car from him, nor do I owe him money.

We've never met and aren't likely to meet, but I understand the new owner of the New Orleans NBA franchise is interested in acquiring the team name that belongs to Utah's NBA franchise — namely "Jazz" — and for the life of me I can't understand why we don't let him have it.

This does not appear to be the prevailing feeling. Ever since Benson mentioned he wants to lose "Hornets," the team name he inherited, in favor of something more endemic to New Orleans — and what could be more endemic to New Orleans than Jazz? — the reaction in Utah has largely been no-way.

It seems that a majority of Utah Jazz fans think it would be blasphemous to give up the name, and in New York, NBA commissioner David Stern joined the chorus when he said of the Jazz name, "It belongs to Utah."

But why would we want it?

I remember how the name got here in the first place. Sam Battistone was the original owner of the New Orleans Jazz. In his five years in Louisiana he lost money like he'd invested with Bernie Madoff, which caused the 1979 bailout to Salt Lake City, a place Battistone chose because he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had an affinity for the area.

He brought everything with him, the team name, the team's official colors of green, purple and gold — they're the Mardi Gras colors — even Louisiana basketball legend Pistol Pete Maravich.

The colors were fine, the arrival of NBA-caliber basketball to Utah was Christmas morning kind of stuff, but ... that name.

When people brought up the incongruity of Jazz in the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Battistone explained that he kept the Jazz name so that when the franchise made it in Utah it would always be a reminder to the people back in New Orleans that he could be successful.

But the trouble was, he wasn't successful. The franchise didn't make it in Utah — not on Battistone's watch.

Someone once said of Battistone, "Sam's problem is he treats a loan like it's income."

He basically financed the franchise with credit card debt.

To make his payments, he sold off players, he sold playing dates to Las Vegas (it was why the Jazz were playing the Lakers in Vegas when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the NBA scoring record in 1984), he sold everything that wasn't tied down just to try and stay afloat.

I'm absolutely sure he'd have sold the team name back to New Orleans if at the time anybody in New Orleans wanted to buy it.

After six years, Battistone was out of money and out of time — fully prepared to sell the Jazz to out-of-staters — when the late Larry H. Miller stepped in and saved the team for Utah.

Miller's rationale for rescuing the Jazz had more to do with emotion than practicality. He said losing the state's NBA franchise to somewhere else would be like losing Canyonlands. The team was Utah's treasure.

So that's the history of the Jazz name — an in-your-face to New Orleans from Sam Battistone.

Since Battistone's long gone, why keep it?

Especially why keep it when there's a car dealer in New Orleans who is willing to buy it back?

I'm not sure what the going price is for a team name, but since Benson paid $338 million for the franchise, that's a good place to start.

The team formerly known as the Jazz would conceivably get enough money to go out and buy a free agent and, as the Tribune's Steve Luhm mentioned in a recent column that was also favorable to shedding the Jazz name, Utah would instantly have an entirely new merchandise line to market and sell.

As for a new name, the franchise could hold a name-the-team contest that would generate even more interest.

I always thought a good name would be the Utah Black Diamonds — a reference to the ski and snowboard runs that rate Most Difficult labels. But as the ever-politically correct Doug Robinson was quick to point out, there may be a risk of that generating unintended racist overtones.

So how about Utah Diamonds?

Or Utah Canyons? Or Utah Gold?

Something indigenous to Utah.

And send the Jazz back to New Orleans, where it belongs.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: lbenson@desnews.com

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