'I didn't think we would make it': An oral history of the first season of the Utah Jazz

by Aaron Falk

On April 6, 1979, the New Orleans Jazz capped off another losing season with a 140-131 defeat at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. The loss was no surprise. The Jazz had not had a winning season in any of the team’s five years of existence. That season, their final record would be 26-56—the worst among the NBA’s 22 teams.

The shocker came a week later.

That’s when news leaked that owners Sam Battistone and Larry Hatfield were looking to move the team out of Louisiana.

Frank Layden, then an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and Tom Nissalke, who had just been named the NBA’s coach of the year with the Houston Rockets, found themselves in contract negotiations without knowing where the team was headed. David Fredman, the Jazz’s head of public relations in 1979, had been hearing rumors of a possible move for some time. But even he would be stunned by what would happen over the coming months.

There would be attempts to keep the Jazz in New Orleans, negotiations with league executives, and then on June 8, 1979, unanimous approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors to move the team to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Somehow, they would move Mardi Gras to the mountains.

The question was: Would they survive it?

As the Jazz celebrate their 40th season in Utah, this is how Fredman, Layden, Nissalke and former Deseret News sportswriter Linda Hamilton remember the first days of the Utah Jazz.

A COMPLETE OVERHAUL

LAYDEN: “I was an assistant in Atlanta and I used to like to go to New Orleans to scout. I could see a game of the team we were going to play two nights later. I’d go over there and I could fly over at like 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I could fly back after the game and be back in bed by midnight. I did that a lot. I did that so often that I started meeting people at the Super Dome.”

FREDMAN: “I was doing public relations for the Jazz at the time. I first started hearing rumblings late in the year. We were having trouble at the time in New Orleans securing dates for home games because of conventions. The last year, in February and March we played like seven home games. We knew that if that kept up it was going to be hard to be competitive there.”

LAYDEN: “One day, a guy, one of the lawyers, said to me, ‘Are you maybe interested in a change. Maybe coming here? Keep it under your hat, but there’s going to be a complete overhaul here.’”

FREDMAN: “There were a lot of lawsuits being filed. Our trainer Sparky, Don Sparks, under the threat of lawsuits he went and rented storage lockers in New Orleans. He would go late at night and take the equipment and put it in those lockers because we were afraid we’d show up and there’d be a padlock on the locker room.”

LAYDEN: “My first interview was in California. In Santa Barbara. That’s where the Battistones had their business, the restaurant chain. It was kind of like a Denny’s. But the second interview was in Salt Lake at the Balsam Embers restaurant. The third interview was at the Balsam Embers. I was like, why are we here? They said they had business in town.”

FREDMAN: “At first, I just couldn’t figure out of all places, why’d they want to move to Salt Lake City, Utah. But Sam Battistone was married to a woman from Utah and really felt it would have a chance.”

HAMILTON: “Our publisher Wendell Ashton helped talk Sam Battistone and Larry Hatfield into moving here. We were writing stories throughout the process. A lot of people didn’t think we would get the team.”

LAYDEN: “Wendell Ashton went to New York himself and said to the NBA commissioner that the Mormon church will not let the Jazz fail. We will build a new building. He wanted to build it on the same block as Abravanel Hall. He was a visionary and he wasn’t afraid to attack big things.”

HAMILTON: “It was kind of Wendell’s team, or at least he thought it was. Wendell was always trying to help Salt Lake grow. You get them here and you get Utah in every sports section in the country every day of the season. You’re in the standings if nothing else." 

FREDMAN: “It didn’t go public until after the season was over. Then it very quickly came to a vote in June.”

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

LAYDEN: “When they offered me a job, they asked me if I wanted to be the coach or the general manager. I said both. Red Auerbach told me that if you want respect, you have to be the guy who signs the checks. They said no to that. So I looked at our team and this team is awful. I said you could hire Johnny Wooden and it wouldn’t make a difference. You’re not going to win with these guys. This is going to take some overhaul and some patience. It’s too nerve-wracking to coach here.”

NISSALKE: “I was coaching in Houston and they changed ownership. They wanted me to be the general manager. They wanted to make Del Harris the head coach and they wanted to kick out Ray Patterson, who had been my mentor since he was my high school coach. That was something I didn’t want.” 

LAYDEN: “I met Tom when I was in Atlanta.”

NISSALKE: “Frank was the assistant coach in Atlanta and we’d played them in the playoffs. We got to be somewhat friendly during that series. He called me and said, ‘How about coming up to Atlanta? I want to talk to you about something.’ We talked and he was still fairly evasive about the team that he was talking about.”

FREDMAN: “Sam Battistone asked me if I would be willing to move to Salt Lake. I said yes and he asked me why I would do that. I said because there are only 18 teams and only 18 of these jobs and I want one of them.”

NISSALKE: “Frank asked me to fly out to California with him, which I did. We drove up to Santa Barbara and that’s when I met Sam Battistone and Larry Hatfield, his partner. That was a surprise to me.”

FREDMAN: "We had Sparky the trainer, a ticket manager, a person from accounting, me and Hot Rod. That was about it that moved from New Orleans.”

NISSALKE: “I’d coached in the ABA with the Stars and that team went bankrupt. Then I met Larry and Sam and I didn’t realize that this was going to be an under-financed team. But it didn’t take long when I got out here. They were two of the finest men I’d met in sports, but at the time they just didn’t have any money. I often wonder, gosh, I wish I could have met these guys when they had a sack full of money.”

LAYDEN: “I didn’t think we would make it. My wife Barbara said, ‘What’s it going to be like out there? We’re from Brooklyn, New York. We’re going to be as west as west can be. I said don’t worry. Three or four years tops and they’ll move this team to Anaheim or whatever. This is just a jumping off spot.”

‘IT WAS A STRUGGLE’ 

FREDMAN: “I’d never been to Salt Lake. My first day here was the first day on the job when I moved. We got here and we moved into what was then a brand new Salt Lake Hilton, which is now the Sheraton. We got here late so we were trying to prepare for the draft. It was a whirlwind of activity.”

LAYDEN: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’d never done much of that before. I’d been the athletics director at Niagara when I was coaching there. But this was a lot. I didn’t have the business acumen to do the things that had to be done outside. We needed to sell advertising. I really didn’t know where to start. I was trying to get players and scout and everything else. It was a challenge." 

FREDMAN: “But we got here and found out that the Chamber of Commerce had done a great job selling season tickets. We’d already had more season ticket subscriptions than we’d ever had in New Orleans.”

LAYDEN: “I thought it would be tough. It’s not necessarily stealing the entertainment dollar, but it was stealing space in the papers. Who’s first? It wasn’t the Jazz. The hockey team used to get more publicity than we did.”

FREDMAN: “They had just played the NCAA tournament here. We’d found out that a lot of the stat crew at the University of Utah had done the Utah Stars. That was one of the things in the early days that was a relief because just trying to put on an NBA game is a lot harder than you’d think.”

LAYDEN: “I wanted to come in here and convince these people that we were a welcome addition. I knew Jack Gardner who was the coach of the University of Utah. I said I want people up at the university to have a feeling that we are helping them, not hurting them. I want them to take recruits to our games. I did the same thing at BYU. I met with the high school association and promised to put on clinics. They asked if we could not play on Friday nights. That was a big football and basketball night for them. I said certainly. We blacked them out.”

NISSALKE: “I thought they should have tried to get the Stars name. They had those iconic uniforms.”

LAYDEN: “There was a contest to name the team. Battistone was the one who said we could have a contest but we’re going to stay the Jazz. I want people to know this is the same team they laughed at.”

FREDMAN: “I’ll always remember the trade for Adrian Dantley got one paragraph in The Salt Lake Tribune.”

NISSALKE: “I was stunned when I saw the talent because I’m thinking we’ve only got two players that could make the team in Houston. We’ve got Ron Boone and Adrian Dantley. That was it.”

FREDMAN: “Ron was a very popular player with the Stars. They’d won a championship and he was a big part of it. He brought a toughness to the team. I know Tom Nissalke loved him. He had some veteran leadership. I think it led to Ron’s future. Not that he hadn’t done enough as an ABA player, but it navigated his future into broadcasting and being a big part of the Jazz.” 

LAYDEN: “I knew Dantley as a kid. When I was coaching college, his coach was a good friend of mine. Spencer Haywood wouldn’t come here. I talked to him. He said, I ain’t playing out there.”

FREDMAN: “Dantley brought credibility. They had Jamaal Wilkes and Dantley, so they felt like they needed a power forward so they traded for Spencer. It gave us somebody that we could hang our hat on. It gave us a bona fide superstar to say this is our guy.” 

LAYDEN: “I talked to Bill Sharman who used to coach in Utah and was coaching the Lakers. He said, ‘I’m having a hell of a time signing Dantley. His agent is killing us.’ I called his agent and he said he’ll play in Utah. Of course, one of the things he knew was here he’d get the ball and he could shoot it anytime he got it. Which he did do, and he was very good at it. But neither Haywood or Dantley were going to take us to the promised land, to the playoffs.”

NISSALKE: “One of the writers, Dave Blackwell, asked me how we’d do in a game against the University of Utah. I said we’d probably beat them by 30. There’s such a difference. But I said in the NBA, we’ll probably win 15 games. I think we won 23 that year.”

HAMILTON: “They were very good at losing.”

NISSALKE: “We practiced at Westminster and that was a dump. It really was. Now it would be different. They’ve got a beautiful gym. They’ve got a lot of facilities. But then it was a dank locker room. The floor was terrible.”

LAYDEN: “It was a struggle.”

FREDMAN: “We had to cut a lot of corners. One year we started with 11 players and everybody else had 12. Frank always joked, but it was only half joking, that we ought to sell the 12th spot on the roster.”

NISSALKE: “They used to say that when the players got paid, they’d run to the bank before Dantley got there to cash his check.”

HAMILTON: “The Salt Palace, you were close to everybody if you were anywhere in the lower bowl. The crowd was really close, so it was kind of an intimate feeling." 

NISSALKE: “I remember it from the early days. Five years earlier in the ABA, I was more enamored. But as I got there, wow, those lights, it was like playing in a local bar. There were big cracks in the floor. It was probably as bad a situation from a coach’s standpoint as it could possibly be.”

NISSALKE: “Any time we won, it was an event. It really was.”

FREDMAN: “Our biggest crowds those days were people coming to see other teams. The Lakers, the Celtics, the Knicks. I remember a lot of BYU people came when Seattle was playing." 

HAMILTON: “They probably averaged 6- or 7,000 people the first year.”

LAYDEN: “We did that by conning them. A dollar fifty to get in. We had the Chicken. We brought the Chicken and he brought people into the building. I used to tell the ushers to open the doors up after the half. If anybody wants to wander in, let them. Get ’em in here and they’ll like it and they’ll want to come back.”

NISSALKE: “Somebody called Frank up and said, ‘What time does the game start?’ and Frank said, ‘When can you get there?’”

FREDMAN: “Being in Utah, I was inundated with calls from dance groups. ‘My group can dance at halftime.’ OK, can you sell 500 tickets? Whether they were good or not it didn’t matter if they could buy X-amount of tickets.”

LAYDEN: “But you can’t fool them all the time. You can have Pete Maravich and Pete was great. Oh my goodness. But Pete Maravich used to put a lot of people in other people’s places. In our place, once they saw him a few times that was it. It would be Pete with 35 and the Jazz 80 to the other team’s 110. Eventually, you’ve got to win.” 

FREDMAN: “Even though they came out to watch the other teams, you could tell there was a love of basketball here. Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State had all gone to the NCAA tournament. And Sam would tell me that most churches had their own gyms. There was a basketball hotbed. There was an inkling in the market that if we ever really gave them something, it would take hold here.”

LAYDEN: “We had a hardcore group of boosters and they did corny things. Birthdays for the players, they’d send a cake to the locker room and sing happy birthday to them. It was great. It was unbelievable. We had a band in the Salt Palace, which I thought was great. We gave them seats. We didn’t pay them. And they were funny. They’d play funny songs. They’d play things when the players fouled out.” 

NISSALKE: “The fans we did draw were fervent. There just weren’t that many.”

FREDMAN: But Frank always had a belief. He’d say, ‘We’re going to win. Let’s just hope we’re still here when we do. When you go back to those early years, never I could I have envisioned the Jazz could have become what they are for this state. But when you see the city excited like this past season, that’s very exciting for me. It brings back the memories of what it took to build this.”

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