56°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

NBA in Vegas: Utah Jazz introduce pro sports to Las Vegas in 1983

Updated May 2, 2020 - 2:54 pm

EDITOR’S NOTE: The NBA planted its seeds here during the 1983-84 season and still has a growing relationship with the city. Las Vegas is home to its annual Vegas Summer League and Board of Governors meetings and has been mentioned as a potential site of the NBA playoffs should the coronavirus pandemic-interrupted season resume. In a five-part series beginning today, the Review-Journal is detailing the league’s history in Las Vegas.

The road could be lonely in the NBA during the 1983-84 season, especially in the wee hours of the morning, when cities were closed to players hungry after 48 minutes of grueling competition.

Such wasn’t the case in Las Vegas, the only 24-hour market in the league that season and a home away from home for the Utah Jazz, who played 11 games that year at Thomas & Mack Center in an effort to conjure regional support — and had a hell of a time doing it.

“I’ll never forget that season,” said former Jazz shooting guard Darrell Griffith. “It’s a very electric atmosphere. All the guys handled themselves well. Nobody got in any trouble or anything. It’s just that (we) had an abundance of sunshine and warm weather every day we were there. It was just a great atmosphere to be in.”

Welcome to Sin City.

“It was very unique and very odd and very weird and it didn’t fit right in a lot of ways,” said former Jazz public relations director Laura Herlovich, who still lives in Las Vegas. “But it certainly kicked off pro sports in Las Vegas, and I just really hope people don’t forget that because the Jazz deserve kudos for how weird that was. And it was weird.”

Laura Herlovich was the publicist for the Utah Jazz in 1984. She currently resides in Las Vegas ...
Laura Herlovich was the publicist for the Utah Jazz in 1984. She currently resides in Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Review-Journal file)

Utah at that time was among the least successful franchises in the NBA, failing to qualify for postseason play in all nine of its seasons — including four straight in Salt Lake City. Owner Sam Battistone sought to generate more interest and additional revenue by playing part-time in Las Vegas and received approval from the league’s Board of Governors as long as local sports books didn’t field bets on the pseudo hometown team.

The books pushed back before eventually agreeing to remove the 11 home games from the betting boards.

“It’s just interesting to sit here today and look at the changes that have taken place over the years and see what has happened with gaming and professional sports and what we were facing at that time,” Battistone said. “We were mainly trying to make the franchise successful in Salt Lake, and we felt that Las Vegas was a great market. Fans (turn out) here for basketball, and the chance to participate in an NBA franchise I think was exciting.”

Darrell Griffith (35) of the Utah Jazz cuts by Brad Davis (15) of the Dallas Mavericks during t ...
Darrell Griffith (35) of the Utah Jazz cuts by Brad Davis (15) of the Dallas Mavericks during the first period of the NBA game in Dallas January 20, 1984. (AP Photo/David Breslauer)

The Jazz conducted their training camp in Las Vegas and partnered with the defunct Dunes Hotel during the season, introducing the players to a vibrant culture much different from that in Salt Lake City. They played the first-ever game at Thomas & Mack, losing 128-117 to former UNLV standouts Reggie Theus, Sidney Green and the Chicago Bulls before a crowd of 13,186.

Locals attended games throughout the season and enjoyed having an NBA team in the market, but never really bought into Utah’s brand of patient basketball, favoring instead the run and gun approach of Jerry Tarknian’s UNLV Rebels.

“We didn’t really have a homecourt advantage. It was more like a neutral site,” said Adrian Dantley, the Jazz’s star small forward and the 1983-84 scoring champion. “At that time, UNLV was hot, more than any NBA team coming to play.”

Utah’s fans in Salt Lake City were also frustrated that 11 of their home games had been taken away. Nonetheless, the Jazz had their most successful season to that point, finishing 45-37 to capture the Midwest Division and clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth.

Thomas & Mack Center is seen on Oct. 4, 1983, as paving continued on the parking lot around it. ...
Thomas & Mack Center is seen on Oct. 4, 1983, as paving continued on the parking lot around it. (Las Vegas Review-Journal file)

Dantley averaged 30.6 points and was an All-Star starter, earning All-NBA second-team honors. Point guard Rickey Green was also an All-Star, averaging 13.2 points and 9.2 assists, Griffith was among the league’s most productive two-guards, scoring 20 a game.

General manager and coach Frank Layden earned Coach of the Year honors and helped the Jazz to their first postseason series win, a 3-2 victory over the Denver Nuggets. They lost 4-2, though, to the Phoenix Suns in the conference semifinals and returned to Utah permanently the following season, save for two more games at Thomas & Mack and one in New Orleans.

“It was more of an adjustment going back than it was going from Utah to Las Vegas,” Griffith said. “We had to go back and face reality, and that was our normal. Cold weather, four or five inches of snow every winter. … Not taking anything away from Salt Lake City, but it is what it is. Vegas had a lot more entertainment opportunities. From a player’s standpoint, lifestyle was just a little bit more (chill).”

Sam Battistone stands in his Field of Dreams sports memorabilia store at the Forum Shops in Cae ...
Sam Battistone stands in his Field of Dreams sports memorabilia store at the Forum Shops in Caesars Palace in 2007. Battistone is the onetime owner of the NBA's Utah Jazz. He still resides in Las Vegas. (John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal file)

Battistone sold his ownership stake in 1986 and has lived the last 20 years in Las Vegas, where he’s watched the Golden Knights flourish as one of the NHL’s top draws while awaiting the arrival of the Raiders this fall. He said he thinks this market is ready for an NBA team and remembers the role it played for the Jazz, who qualified 20 straight years for the postseason.

Beginning with that 1983-84 campaign.

“There were some interesting things that happened during the year, but all in all, it was a major step forward,” Battistone said. “The success that has happened with the Knights and with the Raiders coming in, even a year ago, you wouldn’t have even expected all these things to take place.”

Las Vegas, he said, “has proven itself to be a major market and deserves to have an NBA franchise.”

Contract reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST