They started playing in the Salt Palace in October 1979 with Adrian Dantley, who stayed a while, and a bunch of others, who came and left. "Boy, we had a cast of characters," remembers former player Allan Bristow. "A lot of misifts," observes Jazz general manager David Checketts.
Three coaches, 68 players and 442 losses later, the Jazz will complete their 10th Utah season tonight by playing Golden State in the Salt Palace and retiring jersey No. 1 for team president Frank Layden at halftime.Nobody, after all, illustrates the ups and downs of the Jazz in Utah better than Layden.
He joined the team just before the move from New Orleans and chose to be the general manager, knowing a coach would have to take the blame for a bad team. He eventually took over as coach in a cost-saving move, won his first game and later lost 18 in a row. He delivered the franchise's first winning season and a division title, feuded with and personally traded Dantley and was booed frequently, until taking the two-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in a playoff series.
After that, he quit coaching last December - and it's amazing how much he's improved as a coach since then, according to public sentiment. "I left at the right time," Layden says now. "Jerry (Sloan) has brought them up to a different level . . . the timing was perfect."
And the Jazz only needed 10 years to win 50 games in a season.
The early years
"Ten years? Boy, time flies," Dantley said recently.
Twenty players wore Jazz uniforms - the ones they brought from New Orleans - that first season. Pete Maravich. Bernard King. Terry Furlow. Mack Calvin. John Gianelli. Greg Deane. Jerome Whitehead. Brad Davis.
"We were like a revolving door," says Layden. "It was crazy - too much impatience. The problem with the team was we didn't have a philosophy."
Money was another factor, after owner Sam Battistone's original New Orleans partners left him on his own. "Those were some difficult times," says Battistone, who now operates his restaurant chain from Palm Springs and frequently attends Jazz games.
All of which left Coach Tom Nissalke in what Layden describes as an "impossible situation."
Nissalke, who has stayed in town as a club/restaurant owner, gave up his job by mutual agreement in December 1981, during the third season. "It was probably the most disorganized team I'd ever been associated with," he says of the early days. "It was really operated on a shoestring. I got so discouraged . . . There isn't even a semblance of the team now - it's like two different worlds."
The Layden years
Layden, the coach, did not exactly turn things around quickly. The 18-game losing streak was his first test.
"What I did - and it's been well documented - was to make fun of it," says Layden, who always had the choice of becoming strictly a GM again.
"He had such a way about him, even when things might be going badly," says two-term assistant coach Phil Johnson. "I don't know a lot of people who could have survived that situation."
Before Layden's first full season came the good and bad of the 1982 draft - drafting and trading Dominique Wilkins to Atlanta, and finding Mark Eaton in the fourth round. In the middle of that season - mostly for financial reasons, again - Layden traded Schayes to Denver for Rich Kelley and gave the starting center's job to Eaton.
"A lot of credit has to go to Frank for playing Mark Eaton," observes Bristow. "What a great franchise move that was. Considering Mark's background, no one knew he was going to develop into a player."
The drafting years
"If you've got the right people drafting the right guys, you can't help but get better," notes Dantley.
That's true, as long as you sign them. Checketts joined the Jazz after they had drafted Thurl Bailey, and made signing first-round choices an organization rule. Recalling a meeting with Layden and Battistone, Checketts says, "We had to make a decision right now as to whether we were going to be in the basketball business. If you're in the basketball business, you don't sell players."
Besides signing Bailey, the Jazz drafted, signed and kept All-Stars John Stockton and Karl Malone in the next two years. Before selling the team to Larry Miller, Battistone was reportedly offered $6 million for Malone. Says Checketts, "I really think he wanted to do that."
The Miller years
The last time the Jazz won a Midwest Division title, Miller was a self-described "casual fan." Now, he owns the team and is building his own arena.
After buying half the team in 1985 to prevent a sale and probable move to Miami, Miller bought the whole franchise the next year to stave off a move to Minneapolis. Since then, he's resisted offers to sell, while signing Malone, Bailey and Stockton to new contracts and becoming the driving force toward the new arena.
Sitting in the Salt Palace one night, Bristow remembered a much different atmosphere. "We were tenants," he said. "It wasn't like the Jazz were the focal point of this arena."
This season, they had sellout crowds for all but one game and sold the last 2,500 tickets for their first two playoff games in two hours.
That's what 10 years - and 50 wins - will do for you.
The Utah Years
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