December 4, 2012
I never trusted the old Salt Palace basketball arena to play it straight. It always had something up its sleeve. Like that one night early in the 1971-72 ABA season during my short tenure as a spotter for the Utah Stars P.A. announcer when the Virginia Squires and their star Charlie Scott came to town for the first time.
I couldn’t wait to watch Charlie strut his stuff in person. In his second year out of North Carolina, Scott had become one of the rising stars of the fledgling American Basketball Association.
While we were setting up our courtside theater of operations, the Stars public relations director, Harvey Kilpatrick, stopped by with a heads-up to pay special attention to a Squires rookie who had come out early as an undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts and had, so far, left jaws agape wherever the team played.
But what we came across that night was almost incomprehensible. Not only was the kid’s raw above-the-rim skill set off the charts, but you could tell right away that this Julius Erving cat was about to change the sport forever. Utah had met the teenage "Dr. J," replete with Afro and attitude. Charlie who?
The Salt Palace stars would align for me once again nearly twenty years later. A friend of mine had procured use of the late Craig Badami’s seats just a few rows off the floor for a Jazz game. Coach Don Nelson had brought his Golden State Warriors to town, which goes a long way toward explaining why Craig’s tickets were available.
Not long after tip-off, a line of young tall males began filing into a row of empty seats even closer to the floor than we were. The buzz in our section had it that they were members of the University of Utah Running Utes. Then it happened.
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Looking down the row we were sitting in, I couldn’t help but notice the not-overly-svelte profile of Ute head coach Rick Majerus squeezing by a group of fans and heading my way. With the coach’s reputation for classic repartee preceding him, when he sat at my right elbow, I stuck the left one into my friend’s ribs. We were grinnin’ fools even before his two assistants joined him!
If memory serves, although he had quickly become a fan’s and sportswriter’s favorite, it was his first full season as Running Ute head coach. It also might have been the last year the Jazz played in the Salt Palace before moving on to the venue first known as the Delta Center. A quite interesting convergence, if it were true.
Directly across the court from where we sat, Nelson and his staff went about their business trying to keep their club from allowing "Stockton-to-Malone" to eat them alive. Current Jazz coach Ty Corbin, along with Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton, were also on that squad.
As Majerus had history as an assistant under Nelson during the latter’s final season coaching the Milwaukee Bucks, Rick’s underlings kept peppering him with questions about those he knew on Golden State’s current staff. You could see both of the young lions mentally filling out résumés as they peered into their respective futures.
Knowing he had graduated from a Jesuit high school and university in Milwaukee (Marquette), I asked him if he knew that Stockton had a similar history in Spokane at Gonzaga. He did, and for the next 15 minutes or so we were treated to inside Catholic humor and tales of his initial encounters with Mormons. He found them both lovable and hilariously proper.
When the Jazz staff began their during-timeout shtick of tossing small balls into the stands, he mentioned that "you could never get away with that (stuff) at a game in New York. There, the fans would throw them back at you ‘with ultimate pace,’" as he put it.
As one would have guessed, as a beer-and-bratwurst kind of guy he found himself a stranger in a strange land here in Utah. He moved into a suite at the Marriott University Park Hotel rather than an apartment or house because, as he told the local pundits, "there’s clean towels, my bed is turned down every night and there’s a mint on my pillow."
During a timeout early in the fourth quarter, Tom McCarthy, a friend from the Salt Lake Tribune, came by to grab Coach for an interview. "Don’t forget where you found him," I hollered. Majerus turned and, with a smile, pointed at the jacket he had left on his seat.
They broke the mold when they made Rick Majerus and, when word began circulating in Utah’s sporting circles last Saturday that he had passed away, memories flowed like flood tide. Everyone in Utah had his or her own stories. Obviously, he had a great basketball mind but for Utah sports fans, he had so much more!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.