Doug Robinson: Dynamo Fred Ball wishes he were still working

Published: Saturday, March 22 2014 8:35 p.m. MDT

In 1977, the Jazz sold about 1,200 season tickets in New Orleans. Ball and Ashton told Battistone they could do better in Utah. They began a campaign to sell tickets in Salt Lake City before any team had even committed to move there. They sold 12,000. The Jazz came to Utah in 1978, but the team performed poorly and, predictably, ticket sales soured. The Jazz grew desperate. At one point they offered four season tickets for the price of one. Ball bought the first season tickets offered — six of them for $39 apiece, on Row 2, center court. Frank Layden, the team’s famously humorous coach, liked to tell the story of a fan who asked him what time the game started that night. “What time can you be there?” Layden replied.

Car magnate Larry H. Miller saved the team from leaving town when he bought the Jazz and applied his business acumen to the franchise. The arrival of Adrian Dantley, Rickey Green and Darrell Griffith made the team competitive. The arrival of John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jerry Sloan shortly thereafter made the Jazz an elite team, and the small-market team became one of the great success stories in professional sports.

As if all this weren’t enough to keep Ball more than occupied, he always had other side ventures. During the first decade of his work at the chamber he conducted marketing seminars around the country. He flew out of town on Friday evening and returned Sunday, usually accompanied by one of his four daughters. He also held several LDS Church positions, including assistant director of the LDS Church hosting organization, bishop and member of the Sunday School General Board. There was more. In the ’80s he co-hosted a Sunday afternoon show on KSL-TV called “Utah Business” with Keith McCord and later hosted a daily radio show called the “Metro Business Report.”

And still he got offers to do more. He received a call from Vice President Bush asking him if he would organize a chamber of commerce in Belize to kick-start the business community there as part of a Central American initiative. For a year Ball spent one week each month in Belize to carry out the assignment. He made his final report to Reagan and Cabinet member Caspar Weinberger in the White House.

“This was all heady stuff for a guy from Ogden,” he says.

After 25 years with the chamber, Ball announced his retirement in 1995 shortly after Salt Lake secured the Olympic bid. His retirement lasted only hours. Zions Bank hired him as senior vice president, and for the next 16 years he was a salesman again. Part of the job included hosting a daily radio show called “Speaking on Business” in which he featured a different company. He put 30,000 miles a year on his car driving to interviews with businesses in Utah and Idaho. He featured thousands of companies over the years. To this day, he is stopped in restaurants and stores by strangers who hear him speak.

I know that voice! You’re Fred Ball.

Ball might never have slowed down if circumstances hadn’t demanded otherwise. In 1999, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Surgeons removed most of his pancreas, gall bladder, stomach and small intestine and hoped for the best. He was told he had a 3 percent chance to live three months. He was hooked up to feeding and draining machines until his body learned to function again minus a few parts. After 6½ months, he was unhooked from the machines for four hours a day, so every day at 10 a.m. he raced to the bank to work until 2 and then raced back to the hospital to get hooked up again.

“I didn’t eat or drink anything for 6½ months,” he says. “As soon as I was able to eat, I jumped in the car and drove to the New Yorker for a chicken fried steak, and lost it all in the parking lot.”

Ball’s survival makes him an oddity. Once he found himself on a conference call with eight doctors from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who wanted to interview him. “You’ve lived longer than anyone we’ve known who underwent this surgery,” they said, explaining their interest in him. “You’ve made history.”

Ball returned to work for another decade and was still working at the age of 78 when he was struck down by another health calamity in fall 2010. This time his small intestine — what was left of it — had died. He underwent more surgery. Twice his family came to the hospital to say goodbye at the behest of doctors. But the four inches of small intestine that remained after the surgery revved back to life again and he was able to go home. This time he retired for good, “but not because I wanted to,” he says.

So now he is on the sideline. He dabbles on the computer (he was doing Facebook and Twitter almost as soon as they went online), works on his book, digs in the herb garden in his back yard, reads books on his Kindle, serves on boards for the American Cancer Society and the Hale Theater and exercises three days a week at the gym. He and Joyce, his wife of 60 years, often fly south in the winter to a home they lease in Palm Desert, Calif., but there is reason to linger in Utah with their four daughters and 18 grandchildren.

“I feel good,” he says. “I try to keep busy. I’d go to work tomorrow if I could.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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