In 2018 the Utah Jazz worked tirelessly to put together the perfect proposal package in their bid for the 2023 NBA All-Star Game.

The NBA has a very specific and structured format for teams to make such bids and the Jazz followed the process to a T. But they also included some personal flair, including a pitch video narrated by Thurl Bailey, featuring the best of Utah, which included some celebrities that call Utah home.

Throughout the video Bailey spoke from personal experience and touched on what playing basketball in Utah had meant, what had improved and changed in the decades since the first NBA All-Star Game in Utah, and how perfect it would be to host the game on the 30th anniversary of the 1993 All-Star Game.

The video closed with “Modern Family” actor Ty Burrell, sitting on the couch made famous in the ABC sitcom, speaking directly to NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

Ty Burrell at the premiere of the film “Muppets Most Wanted,” in Los Angeles. Burrell, star of “Modern Family,” was part of a pitch video that helped the Jazz land the 2023 NBA All-Star Game. | Chris Pizzello, Associated Press

“Please come,” Burrell said, before noting that he owned some local business that would be grateful for the extra patronage. “Please Come to Utah.”

The Jazz felt like they’d nailed it.

The Jazz execs entered the bidding process from a position of strength, having recently renovated their home arena, adding huge amounts of premium space. Additionally they were able to note that the Salt Lake City airport was finalizing massive renovations, multiple new hotels and hotel renovations were planned for the downtown Salt Lake City area, and they pointed to the proximity of event venues to local transportation, hotels, retail space and other local businesses.

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Committees of community leaders and business owners had been formed to help in the process, the Jazz had their top people leading the way, and everyone involved felt really confident. The only thing left to do was wait.

In early 2019, then president of the Utah Jazz Steve Starks, who is now the CEO of the Larry H. Miller Company, was on his way to watch the Jazz play the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland when his phone rang. 

“It was ‘Mr. Mac,’” Starks said in an interview with the Deseret News last week. “I had known Mac since my college days and he was a great friend and a mentor. He was one of the great people in our community.”

For the uninitiated, Mac “Mr. Mac” Christensen was an entrepreneurial legend in Utah. Christensen was the founder of suit retailer Mr. Mac, which has locations throughout Utah, but his local fame was more than that of a retail owner.

As Deseret News reporter Art Raymond wrote when Christensen died in October 2019, “Christensen dressed more Latter-day Saint missionaries than he, or likely anyone else, will ever account for, and would go on to serve a mission in Washington, D.C., and lead the internationally renowned Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for over a decade during which the group earned two Grammy nominations and the prestigious National Medal of Arts.”

Even those in Utah who have never shopped at Mr. Mac have undoubtedly seen the store’s commercials over the years, often featuring Jazz broadcaster Alema Harrington.

“I picked up the phone and Mac said to me, ‘Hey, Steve, you need to have Gail Miller call Adam Silver and she needs to tell him how meaningful it would be for our community, and to her personally, to host the All-Star Game 30 years after Larry and Gail hosted it with John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) in 1993.’ And I said, ‘OK,’” Starks recalled, intimating that he didn’t understand why Christensen would feel the need for this phone call to take place. “And he said, ‘No, I’m telling you that you need to do this.’ And he had a way about him that was really direct but really kind. So I said, ‘OK, Mac. I will do that,’ and I hung up the phone.”

Mac “Mr. Mac” Christensen | Tom Smart, Deseret News

A couple days later, when Starks spoke with Miller, then-owner of the Jazz, he told her exactly what Christensen had said, though he didn’t say that it was Christensen’s idea. Instead, Starks told Miller that it might be powerful if she were to call Silver and make sure that he knew, beyond what was in the Jazz’s official bid proposal, how much it would mean for the Miller family and Utah to bring back the All-Star Game in 2023.

“And so she did,” Starks said. “She must have been just the best closer because ultimately we got the game. It’s a funny story looking back. Mr. Mac has passed and he wasn’t involved in the process other than as a community member who cared deeply for our state. I’m just glad he made that phone call.”

The NBA publicly announced the Jazz had been awarded the 2023 All-Star Game on Oct. 23, 2019, just 12 days after Christensen died at the age of 85. Though the public announcement came after Christensen’s death, Starks was able to privately tell Christensen that Utah would host All-Star 2023 when the Jazz got the news earlier in the year.

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“There’s hundreds of details that come together in things like this,” Starks said. “And that was just one of the special ones that you look back on now and we’re just very grateful for.”

On a street corner in ‘nowhere Utah’

As Starks said, the details and sequences of events that align and lead to something like a city being awarded an NBA All-Star event are large in number and probably closer to incalculable. 

Don Stirling, who was then the executive vice president of Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment, who was also the chief revenue officer for the Utah Jazz from 2013 to 2018, remembers being in a small town in southern Utah in 2017, watching the Tour of Utah, a multiday road cycling race, with Kari Holt-Larson, the then-newly appointed vice president of community and special events for the Jazz.

“On the corner of the street in the middle of nowhere Utah, Kari looked at us and said, ‘I want to go lead a bid to secure the NBA All-Star Game,” Stirling said. “I looked at Steve and we both said, ‘Uh, that’s a lot of work and there’s a lot that goes into that.’”

Both Stirling and Starks were skeptical. But Holt-Larson was determined and that moment put a series of events in motion.

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Holt-Larson maintained her position with the Jazz after the Miller family sold the team to Ryan and Ashley Smith in 2020 and has been a part of the planning stages from the 2023 All-Star Game’s inception through the execution.

“It’s so fun now to see Kari, in the middle of it all, doing great work for the organization, great work with the NBA, and now bringing this to fruition,” Stirling said. “It’s fantastic.”

There have, of course, been many other conversations and very precisely planned moves that helped bring the All-Star Game back to Utah, 30 years after Utah hosted the event for the first time in 1993, and there’s probably no singular thing that is the reason Silver and the NBA decided to award the 2023 event to Utah.

But, without Holt-Larson’s suggestion that the Jazz go after it, without Bailey and Burrell being a part of the Jazz’s pitch to the NBA, without the countless hours and details that were poured over in the Jazz’s proposal, and without that phone call from Christensen and the ensuing phone call from Miller to Silver, the All-Star Game might not have returned to Utah.

Gail Miller makes a statement after NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the 2023 NBA All-Star game would be held at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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