The players who saved the franchise reunited with Jazz fans Saturday night, receiving the cheers and appreciation of a 30-year legacy.
No statues on the EnergySolutions Arena plaza honor the contributions of Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton and the rest of the 1983-84 Jazz. Yet those tributes to John Stockton and Karl Malone would stand in front of some other building in some other town, if not for the work of that team.
In other words, without the statewide stir created by those guys, nothing would have compelled the late Larry H. Miller to impulsively declare, “The Jazz can’t leave.” Utahns’ attachment made the team worth keeping — instead of being sold and moved to Minnesota or Miami, as would have happened without Miller’s series of investments.
So it was that Rich Kelley, Thurl Bailey and Jerry Eaves joined Griffith, Eaton and coaches Frank Layden and Phil Johnson in Saturday’s observance, along with front-office figures including Dave Checketts. It was disappointing that other players couldn’t come, because Adrian Dantley, John Drew, Rickey Green, Jeff Wilkins, Bobby Hansen, J.J. Anderson and Tom Boswell were part of a team that captivated Utah.
The players who did return were greeted warmly during a brief, between-quarters introduction, besides signing autographs and appearing in video highlights.
The history lessons are meaningful. The ’83-84 Jazz won 45 games and beat Denver in the memorable “You Gotta Have Heart” playoff series, before Stockton and Malone arrived. And if you’re wondering how much the Jazz can improve next season, it’s instructive that with Dantley healthy (after missing 60 games the previous year) and Bailey drafted at No. 7, the Jazz made a 15-win jump. So anything in that range would be asking a lot in 2014-15.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. More than anything, the Jazz of 30 years ago made Utahns care about them. “This was groundbreaking; this was trailblazing, in a way,” reflected Bailey, now a Jazz broadcaster.
This was a college basketball state, until the Jazz’s fifth season in town. Crowds filled the old Salt Palace, with barely 12,000 seats, only when the Celtics or Lakers came to town. The Jazz moved 11 home games to Las Vegas that season, part of a desperate strategy to make the franchise viable in this market.
And then the team suddenly started winning. In his first three years, as the No. 2 overall draft pick from national champion Louisville, Griffith played for Jazz teams that won 28, 25 and 30 games. They jumped to 45 victories and a Midwest Division championship in that breakthrough season.
“To be able to turn a franchise around the way that we did … that was probably, from a Jazz standpoint, my most fulfilling year,” said Griffith, whose No. 35 — like Eaton’s No. 53 — hangs in the ESA rafters. “You always want to get to a championship, but just to make that step up was awesome. … The fans started to believe in us. It was awesome to see how they cared.”
The Jazz thrived with a low payroll to such an extent that Layden, also the team’s general manager, said the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Dodgers called for advice. “We were ahead of ‘Moneyball.’ We had to be,” he said.
Just when you think you’ve heard every Layden story, he breaks out another one.
Personally, I resented the Jazz’s success in ‘84, because I covered the Triple-A Salt Lake Gulls. Having the local NBA team play until mid-May diminished my beat. Thirty years later, I’m more appreciative. Judging by Saturday’s response, a lot of folks feel the same way.