Editor’s note: If not for the coronavirus outbreak, the NBA regular season would be over, and the Utah Jazz would likely be in the playoffs. In the spirit of postseason fervor, The Salt Lake Tribune is doing a multi-part series on the most impactful playoff runs in Jazz history. Today: Part 1 — 1983-84: The Jazz save professional basketball in Utah.
The first nine seasons of the Jazz franchise — whether in New Orleans or Salt Lake City — were … well, what’s the most apt superlative here? Bad? Poor? Mediocre? Inferior? Awful? Dreadful?
Anyway, you get the point.
While the Jazz were initially a popular draw in New Orleans, they were beset by financial problems, with an onerous local “amusement tax,” and a dearth of both local investors and corporate sponsorships combining to wreak havoc on the organization’s bottom line.
Whatever the franchise hoped its move west might provide in terms of organizational stability, the on-court product actually deteriorated following the relocation. The Jazz’s five years in New Orleans saw them amass a combined record of 161-249 — a 39.3% win rate. In the team’s first four years in Utah, meanwhile, it went 107-221 — a winning percentage of just 32.6%.
The team’s dire finances led to scheduling 10 of its 41 “home” games for the 1983-84 season at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas in an effort to drum up interest and pry open some wallets. Frank Layden, then the Jazz’s front office executive and head coach, would later reveal that another poor performance on the court might have prompted owner Sam Battistone to relocate the franchise again.
While Layden “thought we were on the brink of being pretty good,” he was also realistic about their situation: In the preseason, the Jazz’s over/under win total was set at 39.0, and they were given +8,000 odds to win the NBA championship.
“Before the season started, I told Sparky, our trainer, Don Sparks, the last game of the season was against San Diego, and so I said, ‘Well, instead of going home, why don’t we stay in a motel? We’ll get our wives to come out … and we’ll stay a few days and and take it easy down there for a while,’” Layden recently recalled to The Salt Lake Tribune. “So in other words, I thought when the season would end, we’d be going on vacation rather than going into the playoffs.”
He wasn’t alone in that estimation.
“Well, the vibe wasn’t very good. I was on a pretty big high coming off of a national championship at N.C. State and then getting drafted first round, seventh pick by the Jazz, so I was really excited and hyped,” said Thurl Bailey. “… But when I got to Salt Lake, one of the first people that kind of took me under his wing and pulled me aside was Darrell Griffith. … And Griff’s reality to me was, ‘Listen — don’t have a lot of expectations early because we’ve struggled over years … winning’s been tough.’ And so he didn’t want me to come in with all this anxiety and expect big things.”
The script gets flipped
Turns out, however, that some big expectations were warranted.
Though the team got off to a pedestrian 7-9 start, the Jazz followed up by winning 13 of their next 14 games — including eight in a row — and firmly entrenched themselves among the best teams in the Western Conference.
They had the West’s best record at the break, meaning Layden got to join Adrian Dantley and Rickey Green at the All-Star Game. Bolstered by an offense that played at the league’s third-fastest pace and scored the fifth-most points, Utah finished the season at 45-37 overall, giving them the third-best record in the West, and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs as a result of winning the Midwest Division.
“At a certain point in that season, we just kind of felt that we're kind of in this groove,” Bailey said. “We weren't shocked at all; I think we really felt that we were a team to be reckoned with, that we had the pieces.”
Dantley led the league in scoring (30.6 ppg) and was named the NBA’s Comeback Player of the Year. Green led the league with 2.65 steals per game. Second-year center Mark Eaton was tops in blocks (4.3). Griffith was No. 1 in both 3-pointers made (91) and 3-point percentage (36.1). Bailey was named to the All-Rookie Team. Layden won Coach of the Year.
“Frank did a masterful job of coaching and making everybody buy in to what he was doing. And it resulted in winning a division and having a banner raised,” Griffith said. “So to me, that was probably the foundation of the Jazz’s playoff success. That made us relevant, that made the fans realize that, ‘Hey, we’ve got a good team here.’ It woke everybody up in the NBA.”
The Jazz’s first-ever playoff series would come against the similarly-high-octane Denver Nuggets. Their inaugural postseason game took place on April 17, 1984 at the Salt Palace. A tight first half saw Utah take a two-point lead. However, a 41-point third quarter enabled the Jazz to take a 15-point advantage into the final 12 minutes. The Nuggets’ high-scoring trio of Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe and Dan Issel almost brought Denver back, though, with a 38-25 fourth quarter. Still, Utah held on for a 123-121 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-five series.
Denver, however, stole Game 2 in SLC, racing out to an early lead, then coasting to a 132-116 victory. Game 3 saw the Jazz surge ahead early, the Nuggets rally back, and Denver ultimately prevail in a taut finish, earning a 121-117 win to put Utah on the brink of elimination.
Denver Post sports columnist Woody Paige famously opined afterward, “The Jazz have no heart.”
Big mistake, as it turned out.
“I think it really pissed Frank off maybe even more so than us,” Bailey said. “As the leader, as the coach of a team, he basically put that that feeling in us collectively, that people don't think we have a chance. This guy writes this article, that we don't have any heart, and that really fueled, I believe, something different.”
Layden, ever the master motivator, seized on the theme.
“Woody Paige gave us some ammunition saying that we didn't have heart. He could have said a lot of things, like we didn't have coaching, or we didn't have shooting, we didn't have this or that. But we didn't have heart? He was attacking our character!” Layden said, his voice rising.
“That was the year of Barney Clark [receiving the first-ever] artificial heart up at the University [of Utah]. So I got the doctor, the guy that invented it [Robert Jarvik], and I got him to bring the heart and a couple of his people to the locker room,” the coach added. “So we had the artificial heart there — which was like a carburetor, you know? — and we passed it around and I said, ‘Well, we got a heart now!’”
With Adrian Dantley pouring in 39 points, the Jazz pulled off a 129-124 win in Denver to force a decisive Game 5 back in Salt Lake City. There, buoyed by the raucous crowd and “You gotta have heart” promo materials plastered everywhere, they crushed Denver 127-111 to advance to the Western Conference semifinals vs. the Phoenix Suns.
A series lost, but a franchise reborn
Utah knocked off Phoenix in Game 1, but would go on to drop the next three in a row, with Game 4 proving particularly … well, heartbreaking. They led by three in the final seconds, only to see the Suns’ Walter Davis drill a turnaround, game-tying triple just before regulation ended. Down by 1 with 4 seconds remaining, Layden drew up the perfect play — Green circling left off a screen out beyond the arc, getting the inbound pass, accelerating past the defense and cutting into the lane for an open layup … only to shank it off the back of the iron.
Rather than tying up the series at two, the 111-110 defeat put Utah in a 3-1 hole it would not climb out of.
“That’s vivid in my mind,” Bailey said, “… The right guy had the ball. … I think every person who’s ever been in a position like that [had a time when] it hasn’t come through the way they wanted. Yeah, he missed the shot, but it wasn’t necessarily that shot that ended it all. We had an opportunity to win, and they were the better team.”
Layden agreed, putting more blame on himself for not instructing the Jazz to foul Davis at the end of regulation.
“Rickey Green was the best guy at making layups going full-speed probably in the whole league — and he just had the bad luck to miss it. He didn’t want to miss it. He didn’t try to miss it. He just happened to miss it. And that’s the way it goes,” Layden said. “That’s what sports are about, you know what I mean? It’s just one of those things.”
Utah won in Game 5, but was blown out in Game 6, bringing a disappointing end to its shockingly successful season. Still, it enabled the franchise to continue on in Utah, as part-owner Larry H. Miller would go on to buy out Battistone’s shares, solidifying the Jazz’s future.
“That year in 1983-84 was pivotal, and making the playoffs was pivotal, because I think the right people saw what [the team] could be,” Bailey said. “It really is a pivotal year that I think saved the franchise, because the Miller family recognized the importance of having the Jazz in this community.”
Layden still gets goosebumps remembering the atmosphere in the Salt Palace when the Jazz clinched their first trip to the postseason.
“That was one of the great thrills, by the way. When we clinched the playoffs, I remember the publicity man coming in [the locker room] and saying to us, ‘Hey, we want to bring the team back out because people won’t leave,’” he said. “So we went back out and circled the floor and shook hands with all the people in the first couple of rows. And that was probably the most dramatic, the most touching thing that ever happened in my career.”
• 1987-88: Trading haymakers with the champs
• 1991-92: Further than ever, but still coming up short
• 1996-97: Breaking through to the Finals for the first time
• 1997-98: Finals hopes dashed by the Jordan buzzsaw again
• 2006-07: A new-blood group provides some new hope
• 2017-18: From lottery-bound to a sparkling foundation