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Tom Nissalke, the first head coach of the Utah Jazz, dies at the age of 87

by Aaron Falk

Thomas Edward “Tom” Nissalke, who won Coach of the Year honors in two leagues and helped establish a basketball legacy in Utah as the first head coach of the Utah Jazz, died Thursday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 87.

“The Miller Family, along with the Jazz organization, are saddened to hear about the passing of former head coach Tom Nissalke," team owner Gail Miller said in a statement. "As our first head coach when the team moved in 1979 from New Orleans to Salt Lake City, he was instrumental in helping the franchise transition to its new home. We express our appreciation for all he did as the Jazz coach and for introducing the NBA to our community. Our thoughts are with Coach Nissalke’s daughter, son, grandchildren and friends during this time.”

Nissalke was born July 7, 1932, in Madison, Wisconsin. He coached his way through the high school and college ranks before breaking into the pros as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1968. As the head coach of the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals, Nissalke won the league’s Coach of the Year award in 1972. Five years later, he won NBA Coach of the Year honors with the Houston Rockets.

Nissalke spent two seasons (1974-76) with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association. That stint helped pave the way for Nissalke to become the first head coach of the Utah Jazz, when owners Sam Battistone and Larry Hatfield moved the team out of New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke coached a Jazz team short on talent and finances.

“It was probably as bad a situation from a coach’s standpoint as it could possibly be,” he once said.

Late in his life, Nissalke would chuckle as he reflected upon the circumstances that brought him back to Utah and the condition of the Jazz’s roster and finances during his time as head coach.

“Frank [Layden] 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,” Nissalke recalled. “… 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.”

Nissalke took the job but said he quickly realized the team would have troubles winning. The Jazz went 60-124 during his time as head coach.

“Anytime we won, it was an event. It really was,” he said.

Still, Nissalke said he could tell there was an interest in basketball in Utah.

“The fans we did draw were fervent,” he said. 

Nissalke was fired in 1981 but remained on good terms with Battistone and the Jazz. He went on to become the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers for two seasons. He finished his coaching career as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets.

After coaching, Nissalke returned to Utah, working as a radio analyst for Jazz games.

“I stayed here and I liked it,” Nissalke said in the fall of 2018.

He became co-owner of the Green Street club. He served for a time as the chairman of the board of the YMCA. For nearly a decade, he visited the Utah State Prison once a week.

“I didn’t go to church,” Nissalke said. “Some of my Mormon friends told me that was my mission. That was a great experience.”

Even well into his 80s, the first coach of the Utah Jazz would gather with people from his condominium near the mouth of Emigration Canyon to watch his old team play. Before tipoff, Nissalke would stand before the crowd, and break down the storylines and keys to the game. Afterward, he stuck around to answer questions — a coach to the very end.

Nissalke was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and dealt with a number of health issues late in his life.

Nissalke was preceded in death by his wife Nancy. He is survived by his son Thomas Jr., daughter Holly, and two grandchildren.

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