Long before the NBA’s Hornets moved from Charlotte to New Orleans, basketball was alive in the Crescent City during the 1970s. However, while some franchises leave because of a lack of fan support, the Jazz’s situation had more to do with ownership and outside factors.
The NBA awarded the city of New Orleans the 18th franchise in 1974, and the nickname Jazz came from the city’s great musical heritage. Even though the Jazz failed to post a winning record in their five seasons in New Orleans, fans came out to see “Pistol” Pete Maravich. The former Louisiana State player was acquired in a trade with Atlanta and led the league with 31.1 points per game in 1977.
While fans came out to support the Jazz, one issue that always hurt New Orleans was the lack of a suitable facility. In their inaugural season in 1974-75, the Jazz played at the 6,500-seat Loyola University Fieldhouse.
One of the unique features of the facility was how high the court was raised. The NBA Players Association was so concerned that they ordered the Jazz to put a net around the court to prevent players from falling off the court and into the stands.
New Orleans eventually moved out of the cramped field house and into the spacious Louisiana Superdome. Even though the Jazz were now playing in a bigger facility, things did not get better.
Owner Sam Battistone claimed that his franchise felt like second-class citizens behind the NFL’s Saints, the minor league baseball team the city was attempting to acquire and even non-sports events held in the Superdome.
In an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Battistone complained about the contractual relationship between the Jazz and their home arena. While the city, state and Superdome made money, it was hard for the Jazz to turn a profit. He stated that the Superdome charged their team $5,000 per home game just to turn on the lights.
Responding to Battistone’s complaints in the newspaper, executive vice-president Barry Mendelson claimed the arrangement was fair and never a problem.
Some of the biggest reasons for the Jazz’s departure, however, were related to factors not associated with basketball or facilities. First, there was the city of New Orleans' 11 percent amusement tax, which was the highest in the nation. This was cited as the biggest problem for the franchise. Ironically, after the Jazz left town, the tax was eventually repealed by the city for venues of more than 1,800 seats.
The high taxes were debilitating, but corporate leaders failed to step forward. Oil and its high profits were big in New Orleans during the 1970s but there were a lack of companies headquartered in the city. This was a contributing factor to the lack of corporate season ticket sales.
It should also be pointed out the Battistone and other front office personnel made some bad decisions. The repercussion of signing Gail Goodrich from the Lakers in 1976 was probably at the top of the list. Goodrich played three seasons in New Orleans, which included averaging 16.1 points per game in the 1977-78 season.
However, Goodrich’s impact went far beyond the court for both the Jazz and Lakers.
When the Jazz signed Goodrich, the Lakers received compensation for losing their veteran free agent. New Orleans agreed to send a their first round picks in 1977 and 1978, their highest pick from the 1979 draft and a second round selection to Los Angeles. While the Jazz posted the worst record in the NBA during the 1978-79 season, the Lakers took the Jazz’s would-be No. 1 pick and selected Magic Johnson.
Johnson was not the only future hall of famer the Jazz could have had. New Orleans originally held the NBA rights to former ABA player Moses Malone. However, the league allowed the Jazz to place Malone in the draft pool in exchange for the return of their first round pick in the 1977 draft. This pick, of course, was part of the Goodrich deal.
In the end, a combination of bad facilities, decisions and economic factors contributed to the Jazz’s demise in New Orleans. Battistone determined the franchise could not survive in the Crescent City and began to look for a place to move. He settled on Salt Lake City, which had been the home of the ABA’s Utah Stars from 1970 to 1976. On June 8, 1979, the NBA board of governors approved the move.
Even though attendance declined slightly in their first season in Utah, and financial problems continued to follow the team for their first few years in their new city. But the Jazz eventually became one of the top teams in the league thanks to two guys named Stockton and Malone.
New Orleans has professional basketball again with the Hornets. One can only imagine, however, how professional basketball would have been different in New Orleans in the 1970s with more corporate support, a suitable arena and better front office decisions.