SALT LAKE CITY — Darrell Griffith — Dr. Dunkenstein or the Golden Griff, if you prefer — vividly remembers being in the Salt Palace before one particular tipoff in the spring of 1984. Up to that point of his career, he’d played in about 300 pro games with Utah, the majority losses.
“My first two years with the Jazz were my worst years in sports,” the 1981 NBA Rookie of the Year admitted. “It didn’t reflect on the Jazz itself. It’s just that we (weren’t) winning, and that’s rough.”
But similar to the season he’d just finished, this particular night 30 years ago was different.
The Jazz, a team that started a decade earlier in New Orleans and began with nine-straight losing seasons, were about to play in the first playoff game in franchise history on that April 17 night.
Before beginning their series against rival Denver, however, the squad stood on the court as a Midwest Division championship banner was raised to the rafters to commemorate a year of firsts.
First winning season. First division title. First playoffs.
“That was a big moment for me as a player, because you want to be able to leave a legacy of winning,” Griffith recalled. “In a short period of time to make that change, it was very fulfilling.”
Three decades later, that 1983-84 team was honored by the organization Saturday during a festive night at EnergySolutions Arena.
Thousands of purple posters were given away with detachable trading cards of players such as Griffith, Adrian Dantley, Mark Eaton, Thurl Bailey, Rickey Green, Bobby Hansen, John Drew and Rich Kelley.
Multiple key figures from that historic Jazz team — Eaton, Bailey, Griffith, Kelley, Jerry Eaves, Frank Layden and Phil Johnson, among others — were introduced and given a standing ovation during a first-half break.
Hundreds of autographs were signed before tipoff of the Magic-Jazz game.
And a season full of memories were rekindled.
Layden, the head coach from 1981-88, wore a flashy championship ring as a tribute to that 1983-84 team that finished 47-35, won the first division title in Jazz history and made it to the Western Conference semifinals after beating Denver in the playoffs.
Layden, who was also the general manager at the time, fondly recalled how things came together for that special season.
He had saved Green from Billings, Mont., and the CBA a couple of years before only to enjoy “The Fastest of Them All” becoming an All-Star point guard. He’d discovered the gritty Hansen while watching film of Joe Barry Carroll. Eaton’s game blossomed quicker than anyone expected from the former mechanic. Bailey had a strong rookie season after winning a national title at North Carolina State. Dantley’s unique offensive talents helped him transform into an All-Star and the NBA’s top scorer.
“It was just the perfect combination for us to win,” he said.
Despite going 30-52 the previous season and 107-221 in the first four years in Utah after relocating from the Bayou, the Jazz came into their own in that pivotal 1983-84 campaign.
“They matured,” Layden said. “We had the guy that led the league in steals (Green). We had the guy that led the league in blocks (Eaton). We had the guy that led the league in scoring (Dantley).
“With a little coaching, we probably would have won 55 games.”
That kind of humor, Bailey and Griffith said, helped the Jazz survive and thrive under his leadership. To that point, Bailey smiled while referring to how Layden used to respond to fans who’d ask what time the Jazz game started by saying, “What time can you be there?”
Griffith said Layden tried to make Jazz players have fun and feel comfortable, even allowing them to wear casual clothes on flights instead of suits like other teams sported. He believes that translated into better team chemistry.
“We were a team that was tired of losing. Frank put together the right formula and it just clicked for us that year,” Griffith said. “We went from the bottom to winning the Midwest Division. It originated with Frank. Frank gave us this attitude of, ‘Have fun, relax, don’t take the game too serious even though it is serious.'”
Layden loved his coaching staff, which included his son, Scott Layden, and Johnson, and tried to keep things simple for his players.
“We had three rules: be on time, play hard and play smart,” Layden said. “That’s almost like you tell your kids. If they do those things then you’re going to be successful.”
Although it wasn’t as exciting as that spring evening in 1984, this fun night in 2014 served as a multifaceted reminder of that critical period in franchise history.
For one thing, that team offers a glimmer of hope after bad seasons, which could provide some comfort in this season, considering the Jazz picked up just their 23rd win over lottery-bound Orlando.
On top of that, if not for the success of the 1984 team, the Jazz might not have been around in Utah to challenge the Lakers in that epic seven-game playoff series in 1988 or for the unforgettable Stockton-to-Malone NBA Finals trips or for the sweet-but-short-lived Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer era or for a game this season when fans could celebrate the impressive past while watching the intriguing future play on the court.
How important was the success of that Jazz team?
“It saved the franchise,” Layden said. “Without a doubt.”
At that time, after all, the Jazz weren’t just lacking winning seasons. They were lacking steady ownership, a long-term building and a sense of security in the community.
“This was groundbreaking. This was trailblazing in a way,” Bailey said, echoing his old coach. “Maybe if not for that particular year, the importance of that year, who knows how long it would have (kept) going.”
That season’s success lit the spark for a historic run of success for the organization, which had a flurry of fortunate events happen from 1984-86. In the summer of ’84, John Stockton was drafted. The following June, Karl Malone was picked up in the draft. Adding even more stability, Larry H. Miller became the outright owner in 1986.
The Jazz went from being an instable organization that played 11 home games in Las Vegas during the 1983-84 season as it searched for stability to one that, Layden said, was being approached about its secrets to success from other pro sports teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Dodgers.
“In the next five years (after 1984), we won more games per dollar spent than any team in any professional sports,” Layden claimed. “We were ahead of Moneyball.”
The icing on the cake was how the Jazz outlasted the Nuggets in that playoff series, taking on the nickname of “The Team with Heart” after an inflammatory column from a Denver writer suggested otherwise.
“We all came together then. We believed in each other. The community was just starting to rally, too,” Bailey said, adding how much he appreciated billboard signs that popped up on the freeway. “That was kind of the beginning of the Jazz fans. I think it really solidified that this organization was on its way.”
Thirty years later, that organization officially offered its thanks.
1983-84 Utah Jazz
J.J. Anderson SF 6-8 195 Bradley
Thurl Bailey PF 6-11 215 N.C. State
Tom Boswell PF 6-9 220 South Carolina
Adrian Dantley SF 6-5 208 Notre Dame
John Drew SF 6-6 205 Gardner-Webb
Mark Eaton C 7-4 275 UCLA
Rickey Green PG 6-0 170 Michigan
Darrell Griffith SG 6-4 190 Louisville
Bobby Hansen SG 6-6 190 Iowa
Rich Kelley C 7-0 235 Stanford
Jeff Wilkins C 6-11 230 Illinois State
Record: 47-35 (first winning record)
Season: Midwest Division champions (first division title)
Playoffs: Beat Denver first round; Lost to Phoenix in Western Conference semifinals (first playoffs)
Awards: Adrian Dantley: All-Star and Most Improved Player; Rickey Green: All-Star; Coach/GM Frank Layden: NBA coach and executive of the year
League leaders: Dantley, scoring (30.6 ppg); Eaton, blocks (4.3 bog); Green, steals (2.7 spg); Griffith, 3-point percentage (.361)