Years before any of the professional sports championships were won there, and long before the likes of John Stockton and Karl Malone overwhelmed opponents on its floor, the Salt Palace hosted its first major event.
Forty years ago today — on July 12, 1969, just a night after a huge venue-warming party and a month after its completion — Glen Campbell crooned his Western-style tunes to a sold-out audience of 13,420 inside a sparkling, new, odd-shaped arena.
Kind of fitting, really. Reminiscent of other local icons — a la Donny and Marie Osmond and the Utah Jazz's dynastic duo — the Salt Palace was a little bit country and a whole lot of pick-and-roll.
And that just scratches the surface of what took place inside the city's cream-colored cylinder after the guitar-playing Campbell, a very popular entertainer at the time who'd yet to become the Rhinestone Cowboy, took the first strum in the arena known as "The Drum."
Fitting too, that the heavy-metal band Megadeth belted out the last note there in 1993.
Plenty of rock-and-roll happened there as well.
For more than decades, including all of the 1970s and '80s, the Salt Palace was the hot spot in Utah for sports, entertainment and large-scale business wheeling and dealing.
So what if John Denver once supposedly likened it to a grain silo?
Without this big bin, which has since been demolished and replaced by an even bigger (but more aesthetically pleasing) bin for conventions, Utah likely would have never attracted professional basketball, minor-league hockey or the Winter Olympics.
Not to mention Miley Cyrus.
On top of that, who knows where Elvis Presley, Styx, Boston, Frank Sinatra, the Harlem Globetrotters, Bob Dylan, Wilt Chamberlain's volleyball club, John McEnroe, Ozzy Osbourne, U.S. presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton would have gone to perform, play or pontificate during their visits to the Beehive State?
Though it quickly became too small for its own good — ironically, because it helped attract big names and games to the area — the Salt Palace's arrival on the social and sports scene exactly four decades ago was, as was once written in the Deseret News, "hailed as evidence that Salt Lake City belonged on the list of major cities."
On May 18, 1971, its main tenants helped put the city on the map of title towns, too.
Thirteen years before the Jazz claimed the first of their Midwest Division crowns as Salt Palace occupants, a different set of stars — the Utah Stars — aligned for a riveting championship run to cap their inaugural season in the Beehive State.
Winning the American Basketball Association title at home in Game 7 — a 131-121 victory by the Stars over the Kentucky Colonels that resulted in Zelmo Beaty and Willie Wise being carried off the court by jubilant fans — arguably tops the list of most magical moments in the Salt Palace's history.
That, at least, is the case made over the years by the old-school basketball buffs like Wise, who later played for Seattle and Denver. No offense in that claim intended, of course, to the Jazz, who won several division championships there, or to the Golden Eagles, who skated to a couple of their multiple minor-league hockey titles inside the building. Or to anybody else — Lawrence Welk and the short-lived Salt Lake Stingers pro volleyball team included — who played there.
"When you consider all the components, it was quite a feat for someone like (Stars coach) Bill Sharman to put them together and make them a cohesive unit to win a championship — regardless of whether it was in the NBA or the ABA," Wise told the News in a 30-year anniversary story. "I think that's something that should go down — at least in the history of Utah — as the greatest sporting event or greatest sporting team.
"Not taking anything away from (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone, of course," Wise added, "but still the fact remains that they haven't won anything and we did."
Ron Boone had the pleasure of playing for both the Utah Stars and Jazz in the Salt Palace. Thirty-eight years later, the current Jazz TV commentator makes no hesitation to declare his favorite moment: "My memory is 1971, ABA championship."
Though playing a different sport and at a different level than the ABA — which many claimed at the time to be the rival and equivalent of the NBA, talent-wise — the Golden Eagles also added some first-place hardware to the Salt Palace trophy case.
The Golden Eagles' first game in the arena — a 4-2 win over San Diego with 6,023 fans in attendance — was on Oct. 10, 1969. It changed leagues a few times — going from the Western Hockey League, to the Central Hockey League, to the International Hockey League — but Salt Lake's hockey club consistently won games and trophies in the Salt Palace between 1969-91. In 1975, the Golden Eagles claimed their first championship in the CHL by downing the Dallas Blackhawks 5-4 in double overtime to the delight of 11,018 fans.
The Golden Eagles won four more league titles — split between the CHL and IHL — with cup-clinching victories taking place on Salt Palace ice in 1980 and '81 in front of 11,000-plus fans.
Art Teece, one of the Golden Eagles' former owners, considered the Salt Palace and hockey to be perfect partners.
"Probably from a hockey standpoint it was one of the best in the country," Teece told the Deseret News in 1993. "Every seat was good, right on top of the play."
For years, the same could be said of the building and basketball.
Boone smiles thinking about the place and how it helped introduce Utahns to pro hoops.
"It was a fun arena," he said. "It was open. Some arenas are dark, that one was bright. You could see exactly what was going (on)."
Though the Stars folded after their flash-in-the-championship-pan season — officially calling it quits in 1975 — the fan-friendly Salt Palace again became the home of top-tier basketball in 1979.
It wasn't exactly love at first shot for Utah and the Jazz, who brought their Bayou-based name, their struggling franchise and their losing tradition from New Orleans. Only 7,721 fans attended the first Jazz game at the Salt Palace — a 131-107 loss to Milwaukee on Oct. 15, 1979 — and it wasn't until March 27, 1980, when the arena sold out (12,015) for the first time.
Unlike the Stars, there was no first-year title for this organization. The Jazz went 24-58 that first season and continued to have their share of ups and (mostly) downs over the next few years, even flirting with another possible relocation. But Hall-of-Fame players such as Adrian Dantley, Stockton and Malone came along and helped solidify the franchise's spot in the community by picking up more wins, division titles — the first coming in 1984 — and fan support throughout the '80s.
Eventually, as the Jazz's success and popularity grew, the Salt Palace just became too darn small. That evolution led to then-owner Larry H. Miller opting to take his basketball team a few blocks down 100 South to build a new, sparkling-but-not-so-odd-shaped arena, the Delta Center.
In the same calendar year three teens were tragically trampled to death in the Salt Palace at an AC/DC concert, the Jazz played their final game in the aging arena. The Jazz's not-so-grand-finale happened on May 12, 1991, when Utah lost 104-101 to Portland in Game 4 of a second-round playoff exit.
But Boone knew its time was up, and he wasn't too bummed out. It was necessary, he said, for the Jazz to leave the Salt Palace to thrive and survive. It just so happened that the old arena couldn't thrive nor survive without the Jazz.
"It was outdated for the most part," he said. "You just had to make that change."
Before the Salt Palace was torn down on March 19, 1994 — it was less than 25 years old — Mark Eaton took a stroll down memory lane, where he had swatted away oh-so-many shots.
"I have a lot of special memories attached to the sports arena," he said at the time. "The first nine years of my career were spent here — and they were the best years of my career."
Frank Layden, who was a Jazz coach and team president during the Salt Palace days, sentimentally claimed at the time "a little bit of Frank Layden is going to go with it."
The building's charm simply won him over after his initial lukewarm feelings about it not being up to NBA standards. But some improvements were made, including to the lighting, the floor and the dressing room, that he believed made the facilities "among the best in the league."
"There was a closeness there, a rhythm," Layden told the Deseret News. "The sound system, the fans, the scoreboard — everything just worked together like a ballet."
Columnist Lee Benson, who covered hundreds of games there earlier in his career, summed up the feelings of many whose hearts held soft spots for the Salt Palace in a column about the arena's memorable moments that ran shortly after the final Jazz game there in '91:
"There was the Utah Stars Championship Night in 1971, culminating in style the first year pro basketball played in the Salt Palace. There was the Night Karl Malone Got Snubbed by the All-Star Voting and scored 61 points.
"In their own way, they were all memorable. Almost a thousand hockey matches, and almost a thousand more basketball games.
"No one can say the building didn't get used. Or that it won't be remembered."
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