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THE CHALLENGE BROUGHT HIM; NOW CHECKETTS LOOKS FOR MORE

SHARE THE CHALLENGE BROUGHT HIM; NOW CHECKETTS LOOKS FOR MORE

It was just six years ago. And the Utah Jazz professional basketball franchise, financially speaking, was in roughly the same condition as the Mexican peso.

The Jazz, whose approach to bookkeeping was along the lines of, "We can't be broke, we still have checks," were not only scrambling to pay their players, they were worried about paying for the lights and phone. They'd sold two first-round draft choices, Dominique Wilkins and Danny Schayes, in the past two seasons for $2 million in cash - the basketball equivalent of burning your furniture to keep warm - and still, when payment on the franchise's $6.5 million loan came due on Sept. 1, 1983, they were only about $6.5 million short.That, coincidentally, was the same day Dave Checketts, all of 27 years old and wearing a Boston tailored business suit and a silk tie, joined the team as executive vice president. He had come at the request of then owner Sam Battistone, whose job interview had consisted chiefly of one word, "HELP!"

He had not told Checketts about the loan payment.

First Security Bank took care of that detail - a kind of welcome-to-town-and-to-the-job greeting.

Checketts showed admirable restraint and did not tell them the check was in the mail.

Nor did he offer them the player of their choice.

He asked the bank to wait. PLEASE. He'd think of something.

Six years later, it's obvious that he did. Red Adair specializes in oil fires. Donald Trump likes down-and-out gambling towns. Dave Checketts likes sinking-in-a-sea-of-red-ink sports franchises.

He can afford to admit it now - that the sorry, sad, sordid and scary condition of the Jazz in 1983 was what brought him out of corporate Boston and back to his native Utah in the first place.

Was this a challenge or what? The Jazz were so close to insolvency there were months when Checketts had to sit on his paycheck long enough to make sure Adrian Dantley's cleared first. They were one step ahead of that car stereo place on 45th South that kept going out of business.

Those were the days. Long days. Sharks-at-the-door days. The franchise netted $2.7 million in total gross revenue the year before Checketts came, which was $2 million less than expenses. Battistone went so far as to sell some of the team's home games to Las Vegas, hoping to hit an out-of-town jackpot.

When Checketts walked in and hung his MBA diploma on the wall, Battistone basically said, "Good luck." He'd personally run out of ideas, other than Rio.

So the new guy went to work. He restructured the Jazz TV rights, bringing them in-house. He marketed souvenirs. He hustled season-ticket sales. He created the Jazz 100 Club, a basketball-oriented country club. He cut the team's losses in Las Vegas and got out of there. Heads that had been with the Jazz since Pete Maravich first put them in debt spun. As Hot Rod Hundley, the broadcaster, said, "He's running this place like a business."

When Battistone wanted to sell Karl Malone in 1985 for an on-the-table $6 million offer, Checketts said absolutely not. When the interest rates on the Jazz loan finally drove Battistone to the brink, Checketts hit the streets, hustling new money.

He walked into a car lot in Murray one afternoon and informed the owner he wasn't buying, he was selling. How would a man who sells Toyota for a living like to own a professional basketball team on the side?

Larry Miller agreed to have lunch with Battistone and Checketts later that week.

In a matter of days, Miller bought into half of the team for $8 million, and finally, the original New Orleans debt was retired.

The Jazz were off and running. The next year, Miller bought out Battistone entirely. The franchise that was on the verge of Chapter 11 turned into what NBA Commissioner David Stern now calls a prototype of how an NBA franchise should be run.

Total gross Jazz revenues reached in excess of $20 million each of the past two seasons, ten times the pre-Checketts days. This year, thanks to expansion money, the franchise turned a profit of nearly $4 million. Worth around $8 million on the open market six years ago, the Jazz franchise is now worth an estimated $70 or $80 million.

Checketts' contract never called for a piece of the rock. Partly because of that lack of equity, he decided yesterday to leave the Jazz in pursuit of other business opportunities. But lack of ownership was only a small part of his motivation.

Mainly, he's moving on because of all the prosperity the Jazz are in. The team is competitive, the Salt Palace is full, people are standing in line to buy $100 courtside seats. There isn't a bill collector on the premises. Nobody's holding a 90-day past-due note. Bankers smile when Jazz people come in their lobby.

"I need to be running on eight cylinders," Checketts said yesterday at his resignation press conference. "I don't know that there are eight cylinders worth of work here." He's got no one to blame but himself. He knows that. And so does the Salt Lake community that still has NBA basketball as a result.

*****

(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Checketts' Jazz career

September 1983 - Takes leave of absence from Boston consulting firm to join Jazz as executive vice-president.

October 1984 - Named Jazz president.

August 1986 - Allows Coach Frank Layden to make a deal for Adrian Dantley, who is sent to Detroit for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson.

June 1987 - Named Jazz president-general manager after pulling out of the running for the New York Knicks' general manager vacancy.

October 1987 - Signs Karl Malone to a six-year, $6 million contract.

October 1987 - Trades Dell Curry and Benson for Darryl Dawkins and Mel Turpin in a three-way deal with Cleveland and New Jersey.

June 1988 - Trades Tripucka to Charlotte for Mike Brown.

September 1988 - Signs Jose Ortiz, sending Turpin to Zaragoza, Spain.

November 1988 - Signs Malone to a 10-year, $18 million contract.

December 1989 - Hires Jerry Sloan as head coach and gives Layden his president title.

January 1989 - Signs Thurl Bailey to a six-year, $6 million contract.

February 1989 - Signs John Stockton to an eight-year, $10 million contract.

June 1989 - Resigns as Jazz general manager.