“It’s not who’s first that’s important, but who’s second.”—David Bowie
It’s a sad situation that occurs over and over: A community builds an alternative, grass-roots scene the locals become passionate about. When it’s hitting its peak, outsiders with big money take notice and exploit the situation for commercial gain, while simultaneously ruining everything that was ever good about it.
A common example of this phenomenon is where an indie-rock scene develops a new sound until the suits hear it, recognize they can use it to sell everything from cars to soft drinks, and move in for the kill. The sports world recently saw its own version of this. A mid-size city creates a summer basketball league from scratch that ends up becoming a smashing success. “The Man” sees he can make money by copying the formula and puts a rival league in that most plastic of places: Las Vegas.
In this case, “The Man” is NBA Commissioner David Stern, and the original league is the defunct (for now) Rocky Mountain Revue, which was created by the Jazz in an old run-down gym at Westminster College some 25 years ago. The Jazz recently announced they won’t be holding the RMR this summer due to a lack of interest from other teams around the NBA. Part of the apathy is caused by teams cutting back on expenses in the current economy, but a bigger problem is the National Basketball Association slapping the Jazz in the face by setting up its very own summer league in a flashier place just down the road.
The RMR started in 1984 with the goal of helping Jazz players keep their game sharp in the summer by matching up against local college players and other pros coming home to Utah for the off-season. What was unique, right from the start, was the number of people actually willing to pay to watch summer roundball. Then again, perhaps it isn’t so surprising, considering this is Utah, where basketball isn’t like a religion; it’s part of the religion that settled the place. Any time an LDS chapel gets built, it’s required to have a basketball court inside. With hoops swirled into the local DNA so deeply, it’s no wonder people were willing to forgo hiking in the mountains so they could spend summer evenings inside a sweaty gym.
The Revue eventually morphed into a league where NBA teams could send rookies and other hopefuls to learn the offense and pick up some experience prior to training camp. At its peak, around the turn of the century, as many as 16 teams a year showed up to be watched by some 5,000 fans a night at what was then called the Delta Center, and later at Salt Lake Community College. The Wasatch Front became the off-season in-spot for hoops insiders.
Success inevitably brings about imitation, so it was no surprise when the Orlando Magic opened an East Coast version of the RMR. Since most NBA draft picks these days are teenagers, being near Disney World was the perfect draw, and Orlando pulled teams away from Salt Lake City. But while the Revue might have been able to stay in business against another franchise operating thousands of miles away, it couldn’t survive the parent company opening a rival store in a neighboring state. To add insult to injury, Stern put an agent—the bottom-feeders of the pro-sports food chain—in charge of the operation.
Give Stern & Co. credit: If you want to set up a summer hangout where your main concern is taking care of coaches, general managers, agents and the various other suits hanging on to the game, why not give them a couple weeks in Vegas? Sure, it’s 115 degrees outside in the summer, but the games are played indoors in air-conditioned comfort, followed by some of the best nightlife available on the planet. Who among us wouldn’t love to hang out in Las Vegas while claiming it’s work-related?
While those who don’t know better may enjoy the artificial construct of the NBA’s Vegas adventure, they will never know the thrill of the original. New wave bands with skinny ties and mohawks playing arenas around 1980 couldn’t begin to approach what it must have felt like to be at New York City’s CBGB in 1975. (When the club closed a couple of years ago, the owner planned on stripping the interior and reassembling it in—you guessed it—Las Vegas.) Watching a basketball game in Vegas in 2009 isn’t going to have the same atmosphere or simple love of the game Salt Lake City hoops fans found in a packed gym in 1984.
As with everything else, the second version may be flashier and more palatable to the masses, but it ultimately ends up being a cheap imitation of the original. Long live the RMR—in spirit, if nothing else.