SALT LAKE CITY — With the future of Utah Jazz basketball facing major uncertainty ahead of the 1983-84 NBA season, team owner Sam Battistone boarded a private jet to Las Vegas.
Center Mark Eaton and head coach/general manager Frank Layden were also on the flight, among others, with the organization set to announce at a press conference that 11 “home” games would be played at the newly-built Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“We played in Vegas to make more money,” Layden recalled, laughing. “To see if we could draw more people. Our building was so small here, so we didn’t have the nice new building they have now.”
These days, the Jazz have sold out 74 consecutive games at Vivint Arena — including all 41 regular season home games for the fourth time in franchise history — and also sold out both home playoff games, but that wasn’t the case 36 years ago.
“It was challenging because it was basically 30 home games and 52 road games and we made the best of it,” Eaton admitted. “We understood what the financial situation of the team was at that time, but it was definitely challenging.”
Obviously, home games are no longer played in Sin City, with the Las Vegas experience stopping just two games into the 1984-85 season, but the Jazz’s summer league roster is headed back for 2019 Las Vegas Summer League action from July 5-15 in the same building where the Jazz once called home. In fact, one of the Thomas & Mack Center’s major milestones happened on Nov. 23, 1983 when the Jazz were a part of its first-ever NBA basketball game in a 128-117 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
However, Utah’s back-to-back reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert wasn’t even aware of that era in franchise history, probably because he wasn’t born until 1992 in France.
“I wouldn’t like it. It wouldn’t feel like home if you have to fly to play in there, then you’ll go with a disadvantage,” Gobert told the Deseret News. “That would be weird.”
Back then, games at the Salt Palace weren’t drawing huge crowds and the Jazz weren’t giving them a reason to show up, either, with a 107-221 record during their first four seasons in Utah.
They also failed to reach the postseason throughout that stretch.
It wasn’t until 1983-84 when things started to click.
“I think we just had a good team that was starting to gel together,” said former Jazz guard Darrell Griffith, who led the league in 3-point percentage (.361) that season.
“We had just got Thurl (Bailey) and made a few trades and we just had a great season,” he described. “It all came together for us. We as a team believed in ourselves and for me, the time in Vegas, that whole year was the most fun year I had in professional sports. I had an absolute blast; it was awesome, and I loved it.”
Utah would reach the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time after finishing 45-37 during the regular season. Adrian Dantley and Rickey Green were both named All-Stars, while Layden won NBA coach and executive of the year.
That squad is now remembered as "The Team With Heart" after being criticized by former Denver Post sports columnist Woody Paige for having “no heart” following a Game 3 loss against the Denver Nuggets. They ultimately bounced back from that to win the first round series, 3-2, after being fueled by his criticism.
But perhaps the biggest moment of that season came on April 5, 1984, when Los Angeles Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA’s all-time scoring leader against the Jazz in Las Vegas, with Utah losing 129-115.
Abdul-Jabbar nailed his trademark skyhook shot against the Jazz in Las Vegas to pass Wilt Chamberlain’s career total of 31,419 points, and his 38,387 points throughout his 20-year career still stands as the all-time record. Utah’s Karl Malone is No. 2 with 36,928 total points.
“I was actually on the court and that was a great moment,” said Bailey, a rookie at the time fresh off a NCAA national title at North Carolina State University. “That was a great moment in history to be a part of for one of the greatest players to play the game and to be a part of that history is awesome.
“We had a really good team in that time, and we were kind of in the transition, trying to figure out where we were going to be, but I remember the moment clearly of him sweeping that skyhook across the lane over Mark Eaton,” he continued. “Matter of fact, whenever I see the video or the pictures, it’s kind of cool. They beat us that night but even with that, it’s good to be a part of history in some way.”
For Las Vegas games, Jazz players would stay at the famous Dunes Hotel, now the Bellagio, on the Strip, which Eaton says was “not the best for the health and well-being of the team.”
However, Griffith enjoyed the setting for personal reasons — notably the sunshine.
“I was just excited to be in a market with the weather and everything that just kind of fell into place,” Griffith described. “Being in Salt Lake City, it was a cold market, snow and then you go to a place where it’s warm all the time, as a player you travel to Phoenix and LA and places like that and think, ‘man, it’d be nice to play in a place like that,’ and that opportunity almost happened to us because of the uncertainty of the Jazz.”
Largely due to the success of the Jazz’s “Team With Heart,” late Utah businessman Larry H. Miller would come in to save the franchise from moving to possibly Miami or Minnesota by purchasing half of the team in 1985 and ultimately taking over to build the team into what it is today.
Current Jazz players, such as Gobert, couldn’t fathom playing home games in dual cities, but Layden’s humor and leadership helped keep the gang intact even through those rough experiences. Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays recently announced that they will play home games in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal to explore dual cities like the Jazz did in the 1980s.2 comments on this story
However, Layden doesn’t envision that approach working because he’s been down that lane before. Sure, Jazz summer league games are cool there, but not during the regular season if you ask him.
“You’ve got to be really comfortable in your place and sell them like that,” Layden said. “But like I said, all of the problems you have, there’s no reason to experiment and see if something else works because you don’t build a loyal fanbase unless you have a good place to play and it’s a place that people like to go to with good parking, good seats and good food.”