Brad Rock: It wasn't just basketball for Jazz's Harrison, it was entertainment
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — He’s not one of the famous faces of Jazzdom. Few ordinary fans know Grant Harrison. But they know his work.
Friday he retired as game operations/promotions director for Utah’s NBA team. From here on, it will be someone else’s concern if the sound system dies during the anthem or “Bear bowling” runs amok. He now has the luxury to laugh if the scoreboard lights go out, which has happened on occasion. If the roof leaks, as it did prior to a game in 1996, he can yawn. Not so for the Jazz. They’re losing their longest continuous full-time employee, dating back to when the team moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake, 34 years ago. Before that, he had a similar job with the Utah Stars of the ABA. When the now-defunct league played its All-Star game in Utah (1973), Harrison hosted it, just as he did when the NBA played its All-Star game two decades later.
And of course he was there when the Stars won the ABA championship in 1971. Everyone claims that, but Harrison has the pictures to prove it.
He also did work for the Utah Prospectors (basketball) and Salt Lake Stingers (volleyball).
“I look back at all of it and say, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Harrison, 67, says.
For 44 years, promotions have been his thing. Every ceremony, tipoff, firework display or balloon release — in fact, every non-game-related event imaginable — was under Harrison’s direction.
So if you don’t like adults wearing foam bumper costumes, or the Stones playing on the JumboTron, blame him. He was the guy in charge of feel-good arena experiences.
“We wanted to make sure they had a great time, no matter what the outcome of the game,” Harrison says.
The thing about Harrison’s job was that it wasn’t really just “game operations.” It was “everything operations.” It’s true he was there for 1,700-plus Jazz games alone. But he was also there for everything else. When Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek had their numbers retired, and a curtain was raised to unveil their jerseys, Harrison was on the other end of the rope.
He even oversaw the public memorial service for former Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.
Harrison arranged for every national anthem, including what he considers one of the best, when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir raised the roof on opening night shortly after 9-11. He also arranged one of the worst, when a singer from Air Supply nailed the audition but forgot the words when it was show time.
“Is it going to be a Whitney Houston anthem, or a Roseanne Barr anthem?” Harrison says. “You never knew.”
Consequently, Harrison always had a backup plan. Besides the scheduled performer, there was always a recorded version available. A third option was the ever-popular audience sing-along.
Finally, there was Harrison himself, who sang in an amateur band as a youth, and says he could have filled in if needed.
“But I’m not going to do that,” he laughs.
It would be wrong to say Harrison has been the face of the Jazz, but he did help create it. He outlasted such icons as Jerry Sloan and Hot Rod Hundley, and began his career before longtime TV analyst Ron Boone. Maybe his biggest coup was hiring the mascot, Bear, from Sioux Falls of the CBA. You might say Harrison’s paw prints were all over the move. It was he who pushed making the mascot a bear, instead of a bird or dinosaur.
“A bear is indigenous to Utah and can be fierce, but it can also be a teddy bear,” he says.
Kind of like Karl Malone.
Polls always verified what Harrison suspected: Bear was more popular among fans than even players, excepting Malone, Stockton and Hornacek.
“If you wanted to put a face on the franchise now, it’s Bear,” Harrison says. “It has to be.”
That’s good news to Harrison, who was told long ago by Stars owner Bill Daniels that it was an entertainment business, not sports. The Jazz were the fourth or fifth team to have a mascot and second to use a blimp for promotions.
“You can’t control what the team does,” Daniels would say, “but you can determine whether the fans have a good experience.”
Thus, goofy-but-addictive acts such as quick-change artists, jugglers and trampoline dunkers became the norm. Bear rode a cycle down the stairs and sprayed Silly String into the crowd. Harrison’s motto: Never allow a lull in the action.
But on Friday he actually did.
He has seen pro basketball in Utah through Daniels, Sam Battistone, Larry H. Miller and beyond. On the player side, his career stretched from Zelmo Beaty to Gordon Hayward. He met hundreds of stars, from Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, to Madonna, Billy Ray Cyrus and Eva Longoria.
Mostly, though, he made sure the show inside the show happened on cue. Because even if the Jazz lost, he never wanted to be the one who hit the false note.
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