That one time a Saudi arms dealer connected to Iran-Contra tried to buy the Utah Jazz|
We sometimes forget that sports and other forms of entertainment are not done in a vacuum and that some times the real world comes crashing into our beloved sports. In 2020 the Coronavirus or COVID-19 has put a harsh stop to our games, and this latest real life interference is not the first time or will it be the last time the real world and the sports world collide.
The 1980's where a great time for the NBA. Most see it as the beginning of a golden era for the league and it was the building blocks for the league we see today. It was also a time of cold war politics and tension.
But while the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980's were seeing success, some NBA teams were struggling and on the brink of financial ruin. No team was more close to financial ruin in the early 1980's than the Utah Jazz.
Today we think of the Utah Jazz as one of the most stable franchises in sports, but in June of 1984 that was anything from reality. The Jazz had just relocated to Salt Lake City five years earlier from New Orleans, and actually had finally made the playoffs the season prior for the first time. But the team was in financial disarray and the future looked bleak for their survival in Salt Lake City.
Jazz owner Sam Battistone was losing money fast, not just with the Jazz but with a lot of his businesses. The highly inappropriately named Sambo's restaurant chain was dying and with it his fortune. The NBA too seemed annoyed with the Jazz and there was real talks of moving the franchise to Minneapolis or Las Vegas. The Jazz even played ten home games in Las Vegas the season prior and had more games scheduled in the 1984 season
But a knight in shining armor would come to the Jazz's aid, or so it seemed. Saudi business man Adnan Khashoggi planned to buy part of the Utah Jazz and eventually he hoped to own the franchise outright. Khashoggi hoped, as did the people of Utah, that he could help save the team and help it remain in Utah for the long haul.
Khashoggi and his family had some close connections with the Saudi royal family, his father was a doctor in king Ibn Saud's court, and they also had ties and connections with the beehive state. Khashoggi's company, Triad International, was in the process of building a large international center on the west side of downtown Salt Lake City, just a few hundred yards from the Jazz home stadium the Salt Palace.
Even though they had close ties the Saudi court, the Khashoggi children, including Adnan, were educated in the United States and in some regards considered themselves very much American. The family also had high American political connection, amongst their circle of friends was Vice-President George Bush's son George W. Bush.
The Khashoggi family has been involved with some of the most important people and events of the later part of the 20th century and even into the 21st century. His nephew, Dodi Fayed, was dating Princess Diana when they were both killed in Paris in 1997, and his uncle Jamal Khashoggi was journalist who was brutally killed by the Saudi government that created an international incident in 2019. His daughter Nabila Khashoggi is an actress and businesswoman.
On June 27, 1984, Khashoggi agreed to purchased half-interest in the Utah Jazz for just $8 million dollars. The deal was to pay off all of the Jazz debt and to pay the day-to-day operating costs of the franchise, but Battistone would keep majority interest and run the team. Something that Khashoggi was apparently okay with as he needed more time to expand his business empire.
A week prior to Khashoggi agreeing to purchasing part of the Jazz, the league held it's annual draft. The 1984 draft would change a lot of franchises and the Jazz would be one of those franchises forever changed by the draft. The Jazz used the 16th pick in that draft to draft Gonzaga point guard John Stockton.
The Jazz and Khashoggi needed the NBA's approval before the deal was complete, and they they thought that they would get it during the leagues annual board of governors meeting. Khashoggi's attempted purchase of the Jazz was overshadowed by the league implementing a lottery system starting with the 1985 draft.
Besides the Jazz, Khashoggi invested a lot in the state of Utah. He invested nearly $150 million into the Triad Center, He built a huge business complex west of the Salt Lake International Airport called the International Center, and other economic and tourist opportunities in Utah. He was pursued to invest in Utah by a good friend of his: Howard Hughes.
But not all was rosy and peachy with the Saudi businessman. While he was investing money he was also making money and most of that money came from arms sales. In fact, Khashoggi may have been one of the biggest arms dealers in world history. As the cold war raged on and countries around the globe continued their arms races, Khashoggi got richer and richer and richer and at one point may have been the richest man in the world.
Khashoggi lived a lavish lifestyle that he liked to flaunt, think of him basically like Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie. He owned a magnificent yacht on the east coast and threw parties that every Hollywood celebrity wanted to attend.
But with connections, arms, and money you are going to attract a lot of attention and Khashoggi did just that. The attention he attracted was not from some gangs, or cartels but from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
These connections concerned the NBA. The NBA requires all potential owners to be screened and have their assets checked along with their associates, because the NBA did not want owners who could not financially support their franchises or who had ties to organized crime. This was something Khashoggi did not want to happen and he actively blocked. The NBA wanted to know if any of their owners had ties to the mafia, the Kremlin, other international entities.
When Khashoggi put up too big of a fuss the NBA did an almost unprecedented thing for the league; they passed. The NBA was just starting to see success and the money was not where it is today and many teams, including the Jazz, were teetering on the brink of being disbanded. So to pass on stabilizing money was a shock to not only Khashoggi but to the entire sports world as well.
The main opposition to Khashoggi was Lakers owner Jerry Buss and NBA head legal counsel, and soon to be NBA commissioner, David Stern. Stern and others had concerns over what Khashoggi exactly wanted with the Jazz, he did not want to be part of the day to day operations and appeared to just be paying off debt. There were rumors that he had unsavory connections to Latin America as well and the NBA feared he might be trying to use the team to launder money.
Even though the NBA did not get permission to investigate Khashoggi, they did anyway. What they found was a wild party animal who lived up to his reputation. One acquaintance said "He had a level of debauchery that would cause the Ceasars of Rome to blush".
With Khashoggi out, the Jazz were in desperate need of a financial baker. Salt Lake City car salesman Larry H. Miller hoped to be that backer. With Khashoggi mulling legal options, Miller swooped in with the help of Stern and Zions Bank to buy the portion of the team Khashoggi was going to buy.
In the 1980's the CIA was giving arms to the Iranian government that they bought with drug money from drug money they got from Latin America. The scandal eventually called Iran-Contra was one of the biggest scandals in the 1980's and may have gone all the way up to president Ronald Reagan himself.
Khashoggi was never indicted by the government, but when his name was linked to the scandal things began to unravel. In December 1986 the news broke that Khashoggi was linked to the Iran-Contra scandal and by January 1987 he had closed many of his properties including the Triad Center.
The wheels fell off the Khashoggi empire fast, by the late 1980's he was pretty much broke. His yacht was sold to businessman Donald Trump, and he was millions in debt. The low point came in 1988 when he was arrested in Switzerland on the behest of the US government for hiding money from deposed Philippine dictator Fernand Marcos.
The NBA set up safeguards to prevent more people like Khashoggi from attempting to purchase an NBA team, though a lot of work needs to be done as other shadowy figures have successfully purchased NBA teams, though none are as interesting as Khashoggi
The last time Khashoggi was ever officially in Utah was for the ground breaking for the Triad Center. Like his dream of owning an NBA team, his dream of the Triad Center never came to fruition. Though, in some strange way the two actually ended up combining.
With the Triad Center only partially complete, and Khashoggi broke, a huge tract of the unbuilt portion of the Triad Center was sold to Larry H. Miller in 1989. That portion of land was used by Miller to construct the Delta Center, now Viviant Smart Home Arena, the home of the Utah Jazz. So in some strange way, Khashoggi did save the Jazz in Utah.
Adnan Khashoggi died in London on June 6, 2017, at 81 years old. While he is not long remember, he had an impact on so many important people and events of the 20th century. Unfortunately, for Khashoggi, many of the people and events he was connected to are not looked upon fondly.