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Making a U-tah Turn : Jazz Left New Orleans For the Wilderness Then Helped It Bloom

February 28, 1995|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — Picture the patriarch searching for a haven, cresting the surrounding mountains and looking down into the valley upon the present site of a bustling city.

He wonders just one thing. . . .

Where is he going to find a deli in this Godforsaken wilderness?

Not only that, do they have Italian food in Utah? And just where is Utah , anyway?

"There was no deli," says Jazz President Frank Layden, remembering those frontier days of 1979. "In fact, we were lucky we had pizza. I thought Utah was in Europe. No really, it was just unbelievable."

Professionally, things looked worse. Layden had taken a job as general manager of the New Orleans Jazz. But before he could put his first rookie on waivers, his franchise was moved from the epicurean, never-a-dull-moment French Quarter to Utah, where they once had an ABA team, which folded, and dullness looked like a civic aspiration.

Presumably, the Jazz selected Utah because there was no arena on the dark side of the moon. Having failed in a small market, owner Sam Battistone (a Mormon, although he lived in Santa Barbara) found a smaller one. For good measure, he kept the name--Utah Jazz?--giving his franchise one of the bad starts in sports history.

Since then, it has had one of the great rallies. The Jazz now has a new 19,000-seat arena, which it fills nightly. It has averaged 52 victories the last seven seasons and is one of two teams, with the Portland Trail Blazers, that never has been in the lottery.

Because kids do not come out of school saying, "I must see Salt Lake City!" one might ask how Jazz officials did it.

They out-thought everybody or got lucky or, best of all, both.

Time and again, they made stars of players others passed on (Karl Malone, 13th pick in the 1985 draft; John Stockton, 16th in 1984) or pulled off the trade everyone wanted (Jeff Hornacek last season), or flimflammed someone out of a useful player (Felton Spencer for Mike Brown in 1993; Adam Keefe for Ty Corbin in 1994).

The wise guys always were writing them off, but today they're on a 58-victory pace. For thefirst time in years, Malone hasn't delivered his nobody-here-is-committed-to-winning-please-trade-me speech.

"It's just luck," says Jazz Director of Operations Scott Layden, son of Frank.

"It's something that just happens in basketball. Hopefully, you can stay lucky and things work out. We were taking a lot of heat this summer for being stagnant. This was after we had made the trade for Adam Keefe and signed a free agent, Antoine Carr. And everybody's saying, 'Wow, you guys aren't doing much, you didn't get Scottie Williams, you didn't get Robert Parish, Frank Brickowski, Michael Cage.' For whatever reason, it's just worked out with these guys."

*

The first season in town, the Jazz went 24-58 and attendance dropped more than 1,000 from New Orleans. This was no surprise to Frank Layden, who had chosen to be general manager "because nobody could coach this team."

The next two seasons, attendance dropped from there. The Jazz drafted Dominique Wilkins--and traded him to Atlanta for troubled John Drew and $1 million.

"We were picking third that year (1982) in the draft," Scott Layden says. "We couldn't fail, OK? You had James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins and Terry Cummings. We're picking third, OK? If you're picking fourth, you're dead. You get Bill Garnett. Picking third, we can't make a mistake. The phone's ringing off the hook, so we know that the pick's valuable.

"We had to make payroll, so we sold Dominique back to Atlanta."

In that draft, however, the Jazz used a fourth-round pick for Mark Eaton, a 7-4 benchwarmer from UCLA who at times hadn't even made the Bruin traveling squad. The next three No. 1 picks were Thurl Bailey, Malone and Stockton. A new power was born.

A new owner, car salesman Larry Miller, came in with a splash. He was a shameless hot dog who specialized in baiting opposing players (then-Jazz executive Dave Checketts, sitting next to him, got in trouble for a crack to Olden Polynice about stealing televisions), and last season disgraced himself by picking a fight with two Denver fans. However, Miller also built the Delta Center and let his basketball people run the basketball end.

For most of the '80s, Frank Layden was coach and general manager. At one time or another, he had input from Checketts, a bright young executive who now runs the New York Knicks; from now-Coach Jerry Sloan and assistant Phil Johnson, a coach of the year himself; and from Scott, who had worked his way from college coach to Jazz assistant, scout and personnel director.

No workaholic, Frank contented himself with laying out the philosophy and keeping everyone entertained with his New Yorker Lost in Utah schtick .

Here, for example, is Frank on Eaton:

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