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Former Utes players have fond memories of opening of Huntsman Center 50 years ago

Mike Newlin, Kenny Gardner were on first Utah basketball team that opened arena in 1969-70

SALT LAKE CITY — If he had had his way, Mike Newlin would have lived in the Special Events Center, the arena now known as the Jon M. Huntsman Center. He would have set up a cot somewhere, taking his pillow from the dorm and spent every spare minute practicing basketball in the place he refers to as the Taj Mahal of basketball arenas.

Newlin was the star for the Utah basketball team when the new arena opened in 1969 and he used to practice probably as much as any basketball player who has ever lived. Not being able to secure a key to the arena, he did the next best thing — he found someone who gave him access to the building.

“There was a guy who let me in — the guy who waxed the floors every night,” Newlin recently said from his home in Houston. “He would secretly meet me and let me practice. He was so loyal, he would meet me by that door every night at 7:30. I’d practice for four hours from 7:30 to 11:30.”

Somehow, he also found time to study. Newlin said when he was in college at the U., he did two things. He practiced basketball and he studied. During his three years (freshmen weren’t eligible back then) Newlin was a three-time Academic All-American as well as a three-time all-Western Athletic Conference player, who averaged 23 points per game for his career, second-best in Utah history.

“I never went to a single party in college,” he says. “I practiced and studied and loved every minute of it.”

Newlin, who went on to play 11 years in the NBA, mostly for the Houston Rockets, is back in town this weekend along with several of his former teammates to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the opening of the building known as the Huntsman Center after Jon M. Huntsman gave a large donation in 1987. The former players will be recognized at halftime of the Utah-Oregon game Saturday afternoon (3 p.m. tip).

Over the years, the Huntsman Center has hosted more NCAA tournament basketball games than all but two other venues, and more than any other over the past 50 years since it opened, including the iconic 1979 NCAA Finals featuring Michigan State and Magic Johnson against Indiana State and Larry Bird.

Magic Johnston of Michigan State, left, and Larry Bird of Indiana State at the University of Utah Special Events Center in the 1979 NCAA Finals in Salt lake City.
Don Grayston, Deseret News

Newlin and Ken Gardner had come to Utah in 1967 as freshmen and after playing together on the freshman team, became starters together for the 1968-69 season, the final Ute season at the old Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, and have been close friends ever since.

Newlin had scored 37 points in the final game, a 98-85 win over BYU at Einar Nielsen, and wanted to get the first basket at the new Special Events Center, which everyone knew, including his buddy Gardner.

“Mike was determined to score the first basket, but somehow the ball came to me. I missed it and he got the rebound and put it in,” said Gardner.

Newlin remembers it similarly:

“Kenny, that dirty dog, knowing I wanted to score the first basket, took the first shot. But he missed and I got the rebound and made the first shot. So I’ve always been proud of that because I got the first rebound and the first basket.”

The Utes were playing Stanford in that opening game and some folks believed at the time that the officials, just like Newlin was determined to get the first basket, were determined to make sure Utah got the first victory in the new arena.

Former University of Utah star Mike Newlin scored the first basket and grabbed the first rebound in the Special Events Center.
Courtesy University of Utah Athletics, Deseret News archives

Utah won the game 96-94, but the real story was that Utah shot 68 free throws, an astounding number, and made 44. Those are records that still stand in the Ute record books and aren’t far off the NCAA marks.

Newlin and Gardner both pooh-pooh any thoughts that the refs helped them win, but Newlin remembers the free throws and how he ended up getting 25 and making 23, two Utah records that still stand.

That victory was the first of 608 by the Utes over the past five decades that coaches Jack Gardner, Bill Foster, Jerry Pimm, Lynn Archibald, Rick Majerus, Ray Giacoletti, Jim Boylen and Larry Krystkowiak have all been a part of.

Among the many standouts who have played over the years in addition to Newlin and Gardner, are Luther “Ticky” Burden, Mike Sojourner, Jeff Jonas, Jeff Judkins, Buster Matheney, Danny Vranes, Tom Chambers, Pace Mannion, Josh Grant, Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Michael Doleac, Andrew Bogut, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. More than 8 million Ute basketball fans have passed through the turnstiles.

Utah Utes guard Delon Wright drives the ball during the game against North Dakota Fighting Sioux at the Huntsman Center Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in Salt Lake City.
Hugh, Carey, Deseret News

Besides Utah basketball, the Huntsman Center has hosted thousands of high school basketball games, and hundreds of gymnastics meets, women’s basketball games, volleyball games and concerts, while public figures such as the Dalai Lama and President Gerald Ford have spoken there. Many U. and high school commencements have also been held there.

Gardner, who was an all-state player for Clearfield High, worked on the construction crew that built the Special Events Center during the summer before it opened.

“So I got to help build it and then got to play in it. I still think it’s one of the best arenas in the country.”

Jon M. Huntsman Center
Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

Gardner said he even carved his initials into the concrete on the outside one day (“I made sure the boss didn’t see me”) and says you can still find his initials on the east side of the building behind some bushes.

Gardner also remembers sneaking into the arena at night with Newlin, but he recalls putting a pencil in a doorway to keep it open so they could gain access.

Newlin is sticking with his story, however, about the mysterious worker who used to wax the floors.

“He made my career. This guy, I owe him. I would give him money right now if I could, the guy who waxed the floors at the University of Utah from 1969 to 1971. The one lament I have is I don’t remember the name of that guy. But I owe him big time.”