The question hung in the air as Larry Miller filtered his answer through what seemed like 10 layers of brain matter. As he considered it, he whispered a comment under his breath, like Popeye used to do for all the more mature minds watching, that was unexpected: “Hmm. That’s something I haven’t ever thought about.”
The question: Should the arena you built for the Jazz be replaced?
I’m not certain he ever gave a full response to the inquiry, even after he thought about it, but the immediate expression on his face looked like he’d been hit in the forehead by a swinging socket wrench.
That was then, this is now.
Considerations/responses are being given to that question some 15 years later and under new team ownership, privately if not publicly. Possibilities run from keeping a new arena, as well as development around it, downtown or constructing a new complex at The Point of the Mountain or on open space in Utah County or … or … or. (See Andy Larsen’s in-depth Tribune report.)
Jazz owner Ryan Smith is juggling his options — of which he says there are more than a few — contingent, some say, on the opportunity for him and his partners to lure an NHL team — somebody else’s or an expansion franchise — to Utah. That might justify a new build of a new building for both the Jazz and a hockey team, and there are many leaders in Salt Lake City who are worried not only about who’s going to pay for all this, but also that Smith might — no, no, really — locate a new structure outside the state’s capital city.
Don’t do it, Ryan. Not that last part, anyway. The Jazz might as well be playing in Egypt as Utah County or at The Point of the Mountain. Good places to live, lousy places to house pro teams. Population growth is happening, exploding, we all get it. Forty years from now, Brigham City to Santaquin will be one mass of suburban sprawl. But the City By What’s Left of the Lake, the City That Was Saved From Hordes of Devouring Crickets By Hungry Flocks of Seagulls, the City That Was Settled in ‘47, is exactly where the Jazz belong, not Saratoga Springs or Bluffdale or Vineyard.
No decisions have been made on any of this, and the exact timeframe for when they will be spins in the air at present like a Keyonte George 25-foot jumper.
A look in the rearview: Miller built the Delta Center under his personal supervision, as though he were constructing his own residence. He often donned a hard hat and walked straight through the project, citing the exact number of cubic yards of concrete being poured into it. There was more than money that had been spent on the Jazz’s new home in the run-up to its opening in 1991.
Thirty-two years on, the structure that was first named the Delta Center, or as it technically is identified now, just plain Delta Center, without the article, has in fact reclaimed and regained that name. In the in-between, the building was rather awkwardly called EnergySolutions Arena and then Vivint Arena. Neither of those ever really seemed to sit just right, some fans clinging to the familiar and favored original. As of a few weeks ago, they must cling no more.
But what of the building itself? What of the question that stumped Miller himself: Should it be replaced?
The arena went through a $125-million renovation a number of years back and was updated in numerous ways, including affording fans more dining options and more comfortable seats. But compared to other, newer NBA venues, some of which have taken on the feel of shopping malls and community hubs, Delta Center lacks … what’s the word, pizzazz?
Even worse, what’s good for basketball is bad for hockey. If Gordie Howe’s game does come to Utah, the building’s sight lines are less than ideal. NHL folks know this and some of them would prefer that a more suitable hockey arena, whether or not it includes accommodation for basketball, be planned and its build underway before a franchise arrives in or around SLC.
Either way, a recent survey by sportsbooksonline.com of thousands of combined ratings and rankings of NBA arenas, taken from reviews on Yelp, Tripadvisor and Google, placed the Delta Center 24th out of 29 arenas. Not stellar. On the other hand, one person’s castle is another’s chuckhole.
This survey had the FedExForum in Memphis as the top-rated venue. Thereafter, New York’s Madison Square Garden, L.A.’s Crypto.com Arena, Miami’s Kaseya Center and Chicago’s United Center were bunched together, followed by Orlando’s Amway Center, Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Indiana’s Gainbridge Fieldhouse, OKC’s Paycom Center and New Orlean’s Smoothie King Center.
Delta Center landed in a group with Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena, Philly’s Wells Fargo Center, Phoenix’s Footprint Center and Charlotte’s Spectrum Center. Ties were broken by the larger total number of reviews submitted.
Finishing last was Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center.
What does all of this mean? Not a lot.
A new arena is likely on its way, wherever it’s located. Between Smith’s hunger for an NHL team and the demand for increased resources that come via income generated for basketball and hockey franchises through neighboring development of restaurants and retailers — slices of which are awarded to teams by various means — are too great to ignore.
Personally, I like the — forgive the article usage here — Delta Center, better than many other NBA venues. The building is not as huge and inclusive and comprehensive as some of the others, but it has a good feel to it. And as far as what it gives the Jazz in regard to a competitive advantage, noise level and energy, that’s fairly well documented. Ask the players about that. It’s one of the loudest arenas in the league and while the fans should be given much credit for that, there’s something about the venue’s makeup in its finest moments, the way the sound builds and reverberates inside of it, caroming off the walls and the ceiling that makes it sound as though a squadron of fighter jets is taking off and landing at mid-court in the middle of playoff games.
In terms of age, DC is the third-oldest arena in the NBA, behind only Madison Square Garden and Minnesota’s Target Center. It’s not an old classic like MSG, not new enough to have every imaginable convenience. As mentioned, the place has been renovated, and the comfort level deserves to be rated higher than 24th.
I will mourn its passing when it happens. The sight lines may leave much to be desired for hockey, but for basketball, the crowd is on top of the court unlike any other arena. Plus, the building has its history, having hosted everything from All-Star games and NBA Finals games and a gazillion playoff games to Olympic events to tennis matches to draft parties to retirement tributes to minor league hockey games to Monster Truck events to concerts, including bands like the Rolling Stones and U2, and artists like Elton John and Garth Brooks, among other notables and extravaganzas.
It is nicely located near the center of Salt Lake City and there’s something to be said for the symbolism and pragmatism of Utah’s top-level pro teams’ home being near the heart of the state’s urban hub. Same thing if Salt Lake ever attracts an MLB team. Those who have traveled to watch games — baseball or otherwise — in the country’s leading sports cities know there’s something invigorating and authentic about an urban environment. College football fans might disagree — it’s tough to beat the setting of, say, LaVell Edwards Stadium — but many fans of professional outfits in places from Fenway to Petco to MSG would not, acknowledging the heartbeat of the city.
The need, if that’s what it actually is, for more favorable financial pop directly adjacent to the arena might be solved by way of redevelopment around the current space.
As rumors and considerations swirl, then, bottom line here is, being the sentimental fool that I am, I prefer the House That Larry Built and I like where he built it. I like the memories and the ghosts that live there, from Michael Jordan smoking his victory cigar to Paul McCartney singing “Blackbird” to wood planks being spun at high speed into the sides of exterior walls during a tornado. As the years go by, that combination of pressure for more money, more corporate suites, more space, more convenience, more development, more modernization, more, more, more, improved sight lines to watch the puck slide, improved this, improved that, will demand a dramatic change, something new.
Doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Larry Miller, the keen business titan, would understand that. He once told me his greatest gift was his vision, an ability to “see what others do not see.” When he was yet alive, he didn’t see this prospect. But even he, another sentimental fool, would approve of a rebuild — if appropriate cause and logic arose. It’d be a sweet thing, though, not just for him, but for everyone, including prospective Jazz players, to keep the team he saved for Utah in the state’s largest city, its capital, in the man’s hometown, in the city where he was born and where he is buried. Don’t move it to The Point or Utah County or out in Egypt somewhere. Daybreak might be good for the Triple-A Bees. But for the big stuff, the biggest stuff, Salt Lake City is the place, right? Even Brigham Young said that. It’s a major league town, fit for the NBA, fit for MLB, fit for the NHL. It’s the Jazz’s proper home.