Dave Checketts says he's thoroughly enjoying his first visit to the NBA Finals. The only thing that would have made it better is if the Jazz were there too.
Checketts is the president of the New York Knicks, the NBA's Eastern Conference champion. He used to be president of the Utah Jazz, the team eliminated a week ago in the Western Conference finals by the Houston Rockets.It would have been a really small world if Checketts' old team and his new team had collided in the title series. His fingerprints would have been everywhere. As it is, they're prevalent enough. Nobody's arguing that the Knicks are in large part a Checketts creation. Name a move the past four years. Checketts either made it, okayed it, or encouraged it.
"I was hoping for the Jazz (to join the Knicks) for a lot of reasons," he says. "I just have so much respect for Karl (Malone) and John (Stockton) that I wanted it for them, and I wanted it for Jerry Sloan and Frank and Scott Layden as well, and for the entire franchise really. The Jazz deserve it. Plus I selfishly thought it would be great to spend a few days in Salt Lake."
Checketts still has a lot of family in the Salt Lake area, and he still has a lot of sentiment tied into the Jazz. It was the Jazz that got him started in the business of professional basketball, and it was his successful tenure with the Utah franchise that gave him the confidence to go to New York. He thought if he could make it here he could make it anywhere.
It wasn't boarding the Titanic when Checketts arrived in 1983, but it was close. Dominique Wilkins had only recently been sold to Atlanta to pay the bills. The word around the league was that anybody that thought they were in bad shape should look at the Jazz, and then think again.
Of course, if the Jazz hadn't been in critical condition, Dave Checketts would never have been hired.
He was a businessman in Boston prior to his career in basketball. Working for Bain & Co., a consulting firm, Checketts looked into the NBA for a client interested in buying the Boston Celtics. The client wound up not buying, but the process allowed Checketts to make the acquaintance of one David Stern, at the time the NBA's executive vice president and chief legal counsel.
At a dinner in New York following the Celtics probe, the following exchange took place between Stern, who would later become NBA commissioner, and Checketts, who would later become chief of the Jazz and the Knicks:
Stern: "You don't talk like you were born and raised in Boston. Where are you from?"
Checketts: "Salt Lake City."
Stern: "So what do you think of the Jazz?"
Checketts: "I think they're the worst franchise in any sport."
After that conversation, a light went on in the future commissioner's head and he soon called Sam Battistone, then the owner of the Jazz and, while leaving the part out about the Jazz being the worst franchise in any sport, told him he knew of a sharp young executive who had just had a crash course in NBA business practices.
The next thing Checketts knew, he was in Salt Lake City at a press conference, where Battistone introduced him as the Jazz's new general manager.
"Just last week at the Garden I saw David Stern and asked him, `Do you realize what you've done to my life?' " says Checketts. "It hasn't been the same for the last 11 years."
His first goal was to get the Jazz to the finals. It didn't quite happen, although the team was always close enough during the Checketts years (and has been since) to keep interest high and the seats filled.
"You've got to have a lot of luck," says Checketts, which he believes is what the Knicks have had this year. When they've needed a break, they've gotten it.
"There's some magic going on and it's got us (the Knicks) to the finals for the first time in 21 years," says Checketts. "Now the big challenge is to turn to the adrenalin and win it."
"Every once in a while I pinch myself to make sure this is really happening," he says. "Just yesterday I got a call from Neil Smith, the man who runs the New York Rangers. They're trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years and if that happens, he was wondering if we want them to wait and we'll have a parade together."
And what was the Knicks' president's reply?
"I told him to let New York give them their toast," said Checketts. "If we've got one coming in another week or so, we'll let them toast us too. I've always heard there's nothing like a ticker tape parade down Broadway."