Facebook Twitter

About Utah: 40 years of taking Utahns’ tickets

SHARE About Utah: 40 years of taking Utahns’ tickets

SALT LAKE CITY — If the question is how much has professional basketball meant to Utah over the past four decades, the answer could very well be Fred Johnsen.

Fred hasn't been to every pro game played in the state since the Utah Stars arrived from Anaheim exactly 40 years ago to begin the 1970-71 American Basketball Association season. But he's been to almost all of them, going on at least a thousand by now.

And the crazy part is, he's seen none of them.

Fred isn't blind, nor is he a referee.

He's a ticket-taker.

He started taking tickets at the Salt Palace arena in 1972, when Nixon was in the White House and the Stars were in the middle of their second season.

He's been taking tickets ever since — 38 years and counting.

When the Stars left town in 1975 he stayed at his post, biding his time working rodeos, rock concerts and truck pulls, until the Jazz moved from New Orleans in 1979 and brought the NBA to Utah.

At virtually every game the Jazz have played here ever since, preseason, regular season and postseason, Fred's been at the door. He was at the Salt Palace until 1991, then he moved with the Jazz to the Delta Center/EnergySolutions Arena, where he remains to this day.

I ran into Fred Friday night at ESA when the Jazz hosted the Dallas Mavericks. There he was next to the ticket office, one floor below street level, checking tickets by their bar codes with his handheld scanner.

"We used to tear the tickets," he said, "that's the old-fashioned way now."

I used to see Fred regularly when I was covering sports.

Seeing him again, still smiling, still greeting anyone and everyone with "Enjoy the Game," looking younger if anything, and even friendlier, was somehow reassuring, evidence that maybe the world isn't careening out of control after all.

"Hey Fingers," said Rod Zundel, the KSL sportscaster, as he flashed his media pass at Fred.

"He calls me Fingers because of a little problem I had with a snow-blower," says Fred, displaying a right middle finger with the tip missing.

Sportscasters don't provide the only camaraderie. Every so often the line is held up by one beautiful woman or another giving Fred a big hug.

"I do get quite a few hugs," says Fred. "And a lot of people stop to say, 'Hello Fred.' It makes me feel pretty good."

People who attend pro basketball games in Utah, in Fred's opinion, are about the nicest people on Earth.

"They're just great. They're here to have fun," he says. "And that's what they do."

He's their gatekeeper to the fun. By the time they get to Fred the workday is done, the car is parked, the tickets are paid for. Once they clear him, their stresses disappear, at least for a couple of hours.

The upbeat mood is not lost on Fred.

"I'd be dead if it wasn't for this," he says.

Fred is 89. He's outlived a world war (he served in the navy in World War II and was part of the invasion of Okinawa), two wives — his second wife died 10 years ago — and almost 40 years of type II diabetes. And while the joy derived from his two daughters, nine grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren is the biggest factor in his longevity, he doesn't diminish the importance of his regular five-hour shifts punching tickets for basketball fans.

"This keeps me young," he says.

In 1972, it started out as another income source.

"I was always kind of a sports nut but basketball didn't have anything to do with it in the beginning," he says. "I was just looking at a little extra money."

He was 51 at the time. Six years later, at 57, he retired after 30 years working at the Naval Supply Depot, leaving early with a government pension to help care for his first wife, who had a heart condition.

Taking tickets has been his lone occupation ever since.

Everyone who knows him urges him not to quit his night job — including the thousands who show him their bar codes every time the Jazz play.

"Good to see you Fred" the regulars say as they pass.

And as they hurry into the arena, Fred answers, "Good to see you too."

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.