Before the Spartans, the Smelterites ruled Murray High
Along 5900 South at the Oliver Farm, David Kezerian practiced basketball with his teammates from Murray High. Baskets hung at opposite ends of the dirt-floored barn as Kezerian and company drilled and conditioned throughout the season.
A close group of friends dedicated to basketball and civic pride, they were the children of immigrants who migrated to Murray at the turn of the century. Like most of the new arrivals to South Salt Lake, they came to work at the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO).
"They were exceptional players who loved playing basketball," Kezerian remembers when talking about those practices at the old dairy farm. "Sometimes the ball would fall in the pig pen, but we'd wipe it off and keep playing."
In picking up those loose balls, they would see their namesake off in the background. The ASARCO smoke stacks loomed in the distance at 5300 South and State Street, pumping out black smoke. The region's largest refiner of lead, ASARCO's two towers could be seen throughout the valley, one reaching 300 feet and the other extending 435 feet. These smoke stacks were seen throughout the community as their largest employer and the nickname of Kezerian's basketball team.
The moniker took hold during Murray's 1931 state basketball championship season. Those who worked at ASARCO were called smelters the process of removing metal from ore. Bunny Ankney, Murray's museum assistant, said the name Smelterites was attached to the team because of ASARCO's sponsorship and the firm's omnipresence in the valley.
"ASARCO paid good wages, attracting people from around the world to Murray," Ankney said. "They transformed Murray from a community of farmers to a diverse group of people. Workers at the smelts made Murray what it is today."
Kezerian's father worked for ASARCO for 30 years. The higher wages allowed him to provide for the family of eight during a time when social services were limited for students. A dedicated student, Kezerian was student body president in 1943 and a forward on the Smelterites basketball squad, which sported purple and orange uniforms.
With fewer than 300 students at Murray High, they were a close-knit community. The rally from the stands during basketball games still causes Kezerian to smile.
"We are Smelterites!" they would yell. "You smell wrong, we smell right!"
The battles in the Pacific and Europe's shores found their way to Utah, canceling the 1943 state championship tournament, but Kezerian knew he played on an extraordinary Murray basketball team.
"I'm sure we would have won that year if the war hadn't broken out," he said. "Beating Jordan, Granite, Cyprus and Davis, I thought we were excellent."
In 1954, Murray High moved across State Street to its current location. In preparation of the new campus, students of the 1952 class were asked to rename the mascot. ASARCO had closed its doors in 1949, and the name Smelterites had fallen out of favor with the community, according to D. Wright, the communications director for the Murray School District. In voting for a new name, the student council narrowed its choices to the traditional Smelterites and the new Spartans. In the end, the antiquated Smelterites fell to the Spartans as the new mascot of Murray High.
The 1952 class of Murray High was the last to graduate as Smelterites.
The Murray landscape has changed in 60 years. The twin stacks at AMARCO were imploded for the Intermountain Medical Center in 2000. The only remnants can be found on Murray's logo and trademarks. But Kezerian's affection for the community never has wavered.
After graduation, the lifelong resident enlisted in the Army. Kezerian graduated from the University of Utah after being discharged and became a letter carrier for 20 years. Walking 14 miles per day with more than 45 pounds on his back, he often thinks of his time as a Smelterite.
"I am always proud that I went to Murray High," Kezerian said. "There were only 300 of us, but we all knew that our school was excellent."
When asked about the Spartan name change, he paused long, thinking back to those days at the Oliver farm when he practiced with his teammates.
"It's a fine name," he said. "But for me, we were always Smelterites."