WHEN THE UTAH Jazz open their 17th season in Utah this Friday it would be fitting to begin with a tribute to one of their Utah founders, Wendell Ashton, who passed away this past August 31st. Normally, a moment of silence is appropriate in honoring great persons for their great feats. But to truly honor Wendell, a moment of action would be more proper. Everyone in the Delta Center could turn to the person in the next seat and say something nice about them, and about Utah.
That was Wendell J. Ashton. Say something positive and say it fast. He lived life as if the 24-second clock was always on. He used to do his daily jog in combat boots so he could get in twice the workout in half the time. When he was 76.His life was a blur. He invented aerobics and never realized it. He ate Ben & Jerry's every night of his life and never put on a single pound.
Getting the Jazz to Utah was just one of the things he concerned himself with. He did that in 1979, squeezing it in between saving the Utah Symphony, serving as president of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, and publishing the Deseret News. (As bosses go, Wendell was just about perfect. If you wanted to do something he'd say "Do it," and he wasn't always hanging around the office).
Former Jazz owner Sam Battistone remembers one of the first times he flew to Utah from New Orleans to discuss the potential move of the Jazz from the French Quarter to First South. He and his partner, Larry Hatfield, had arranged for a meeting with Wendell at a downtown hotel. At the hotel, Hatfield took a call from Wendell. "I'm running a little late," he said. "Tell Sam I'm doing my home teaching. He'll understand."
"It was the last day of the month," says Battistone, like Ashton a Mormon who knew the nudge of a monthly home teaching deadline when he felt one.
Wendell Ashton was a religious man. But as Frank Layden says, "He was genuinely religious. He didn't wear it on his shoulder."
Layden was the Jazz's general manager in 1979. He not only credits Wendell for being the Jazz's biggest early supporter, but for being his mentor as well. "The confidence he placed in me had a lot to do with my success, with the reason I'm here," says Layden. "This may surprise you. But outside of my dad, Wendell Ashton is the greatest man I ever met. That's no smoke job. He was just a wonderful guy. I never knew a man so well-rounded, so patient, so fair. And he was a bulldog. If he had a task and he believed in it, watch out and get out of his way."
One of those tasks - and it was merely one of thousands - was to establish NBA basketball in Salt Lake City. The Jazz and Utah was a match first made in Wendell's mind. After that, he figured all he needed was to make the right converts.
His recent passing reminded Battistone of the NBA owner's meeting held in Chicago in 1979 - where the vote was held to determine whether the Jazz would be allowed to leave New Orleans and move to Salt Lake City. The first order of business was a meeting of the advisory board, where separate presentations from New Orleans and Salt Lake delegations were heard.
First up was New Orleans. "The mayor was there and some other influential people," remembers Battistone. "They took kind of a cavalier attitude. They talked about why they didn't think the team should leave. Then they left and Ted Wilson, who was the Salt Lake mayor, and Wendell Ashton came in.
"Before he sat down, Wendell walked around the room to meet the different owners there. He recognized every one of them and beyond just introducing himself he had some little story or anecdote for each one. I remember the Washington owner was there and he talked about their coach, Dick Motta, being a Utah boy. To other owners he'd talk about a newspaper editor he knew in their city or something like that. Each guy on the advisory committee got the same treatment, something personal from Wendell. By the time he got to his seat, I looked over at David Stern - he wasn't commissioner then, but was a legal counsel for the league - and he looked at me as if to say, the decision has already been made. I think that one action by Wendell Ashton got us the move. He'd really done his homework. Later that day, the board voted unanimously to let us go.
"I can't think of anybody in the state or the city who had any more to do with helping the Jazz get to Salt Lake and with making them a success."
It was no surprise to Battistone that when Wendell Ashton finally did stop, it was on the last day of the month. He was the kind of man who liked to make sure he'd first gotten his deadlines out of the way.