SALT LAKE CITY — As 2019 turned into 2020, two men exited the stage without whom it is not far-fetched to suggest that professional basketball would not exist in Utah — while a third man, still very much alive, made his exit from full-time sportswriting, leaving a huge void in the Utah sports scene.
First to go, on Dec. 29, 2019, was Ladell Andersen, the legendary basketball coach who made stops at the University of Utah (as an assistant), Utah State University and Brigham Young University — the Utah trifecta — while winning 62% of his games without ever being fired.
And if that wasn’t enough, in between the Utah State and BYU stints, he coached the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association for two seasons, winning a division championship both years.
The Stars and the ABA went out of business in the mid-1970s, a couple of seasons after Ladell had returned from the pro game to the stability of college life. But what he and the Stars had accomplished did not go unnoticed in New Orleans, where an NBA owner named Sam Battistone was tearing his hair out trying to make a financial go of it with his expansion franchise, the New Orleans Jazz.
Desperate to relocate, Battistone took note of the fact that not only did the Stars win a lot in Salt Lake City, they routinely sold out their arena.
Lured by that history, in the summer of 1979 Battistone brought the Jazz to Utah. The problem was, their financial woes came along with them.
Every season the Jazz lost money. At one point they sold their 1982 No. 3 draft pick, Dominique Wilkins, for $1 million just to stay afloat.
Watching this from NBA headquarters in New York City, the league’s executive vice president, a lawyer named David Stern, thought he might be able to help the Jazz’s woeful management problems by sending out a young and hungry business executive, 28-year-old Dave Checketts, who also happened to be a Utah native.
Battistone agreed and made Checketts his general manager in 1983.
The next year, David Stern became NBA commissioner and continued to do everything he could to help the Jazz, including flying to Salt Lake City to accompany Checketts on a visit to Spence Eccles at First Security Bank to see if the bank would extend a $6.5 million loan for new Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.
When Eccles said yes, the Jazz future in Utah was saved. It was far from the last time David Stern would look out for the franchise in the hinterlands during his 30-year reign (1984-2014). The Jazz had a friend in high places.
Stern died in New York on New Year’s Day, three days after Andersen’s passing in St. George.
Ladell and the commissioner were far different personalities — one a Jewish kid who grew up in New Jersey and worked in his father’s delicatessen in Manhattan, the other a Mormon boy from Malad, Idaho. But from my vantage point as a sportswriter working during their primes, they had a common trait. Each was as down to earth as gravity. They treated everyone as equals.
Just after Stern became NBA commissioner he came to Utah with his wife and their two sons on a skiing vacation and invited me, because I was the Deseret News sports editor and the commissioner was a man who was always looking to network, to join his family for a few runs at Park City. When we stopped for lunch, he pulled me aside and said, “I have given my son (Eric) $20 to pay for lunch (Remember, this was 1984.) Please don’t embarrass him by trying to pay.”
I never found it hard to believe the stories about David Stern getting the upper hand in bargaining negotiations.
On another occasion I was in Sun Valley playing in a charity golf event in a foursome with Ladell Andersen. After missing a putt I gave my putter a fling. As we walked off the green, the coach put his hand on my shoulder, and, in a conspiratorial aside, advised, “Throw the ball; it’s cheaper.” Then he laughed and added, “I know this from experience.”
The other departure from the Utah sports scene came with the announcement that sportswriter Kurt Kragthorpe is retiring after a 42-year career.
Kurt spent the past 30 years at the Salt Lake Tribune, but the Deseret News is the first place that got him after he graduated from Utah State University in 1985. Kurt did such a great job covering the Jazz beat, the Tribune raided the News for him. He was like a five-tool guy in baseball. He could report, opinionize, write well, write fast, and he was fair. It helped that he was a coach’s son — his father, Dave, was head football coach at Oregon State, South Dakota State and Idaho State, besides serving as an assistant on LaVell Edwards’ staff at BYU.
But like David Stern and Ladell Anderson, Kurt did not use his pedigree to make others feel less important. There wasn’t an ounce of big-time in him. Pampered is the one word he didn’t know how to spell. His favorite golf course was the now dearly departed University of Utah nine-holer; a track he played almost daily for decades. As an employee, he was management’s dream. He never met a budget he couldn’t go under. When he was covering the Jazz for the News, he used to plot out where he was going to stay and the cars he was going to rent for the entire upcoming season — in July, when he could make better deals. No place was too cheap. I think he’s in the Motel 6 Hall of Fame.