Because the boss said he wanted some local color on basketball in Utah, here I am in a snowstorm on top of a mountain at Robert Redford's ski resort. To get here, you take Rte. 89 into Provo Canyon, turn left just past Squaw Peak Steakhouse and drive two miles straight up. I'm told by lots of people that I bear an uncanny resemblance to Redford, so I wore sunglasses rather than cause panic among the ski bunnies.
Well, maybe not a lot of people notice the Redford resemblance.
Late one night in front of the fire, my wife said, "Robert Redford used to have an awful mustache like yours, but he shaved it off."
Anyway, as my Hertz dog mushed up this mountain, I was seized by the question, "If Donny Osmond plays basketball, is he the lead guard or the small forward?"
Just four days in Utah is time enough to learn that everybody under 30 looks like Donny and Marie and everybody over 30 looks like Redford and Fonda. If health were contagious, every germ in Utah would be out of work. I'm 40, often ambulatory and always awake by noon, but out here I feel like Vincent Price looks.
I mean, here I am at Sundance, with the snow floating down from the mountain top and the lodge warm with the fire of youthful vigor. There's a fellow wearing an eye patch, the Hathaway man on skis perhaps.
Outside, I look toward the mountaintop, now lost in clouds, and ask a rainbow polyestered fellow, "Does Donny Osmond play basketball?"
Not really. I asked if the ski lift goes on through that cloud. The fellow is a business executive from Memphis, late 40ish, who doesn't look anything like Redford. "I don't know," Tim Heaton says. "This is my first time at Sundance."
From inside my black cloth coat, I say, "Mine, too. Actually, I'm in Provo for the basketball tournament."
"These Utah folks," Heaton said, "are crazy about their basketball, you know."
Basketball is so big in this beautiful little state of 1.5 million people that the state's four university arenas seat 59,970. There's also the Salt Palace, with 12,000 seats for the Utah Jazz of the NBA. That's one seat for every 21 people in Utah. To equal that per-capita dedication to basketball, our nation's capital would need seven arenas the size of Capital Centre.
In 1979, all four universities made it into the NCAA tournament: Utah State, Weber State, Brigham Young U. and Utah (the '44 NCAA champion, the '47 NIT winner). Utah was host to the NCAA basketball finals in '79, and the West Regional thrice has come to BYU.
Even for a rural state without much to do in the winter, these are sizable accomplishments that trace their roots to January 1897 when women played the first basketball game in Utah. The University of Utah's president, George Thomas, fresh back from Harvard, brought with him this newfangled game, only 5 years old.
Historian Walter A. Kerr said the second Utah game was memorable because "the basketball girls appeared in baggy bloomers, which was quite a shock to many people at that time and the young ladies of the team were often indignant at the rude behavior of some young men who came uninvited to see the game."
Utah's men began varsity competition in 1908, playing the local YMCA as well as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"My philosophy on why basketball is so popular here," said Arnie Ferrin, the Utah athletic director and star of those mid-'40s champions, "is that the LDS has such a large basketball organization. Virtually everyone in Utah has played basketball and knows the game."
Of the Mormons' 2,370 congregations in Utah, where the church has 1 million members, each has at least three basketball teams playing in its attached "cultural hall."
"Over 5,000 teams in organized play," said Don LeFevre of the LDS public communications office.
I asked LeFevre, "This is off the wall, but does Donny Osmond play basketball?" He told me to call the Osmonds' office in Orem, just outside Provo, and ask Donny's p.r. man, Ron Clark.
"Sure, he plays basketball," Clark said. "Our road crew gets up a game of football or basketball with young people from the town. Donny's a good tennis player. He skis. He'll be on the air with a disc jockey and challenge him to handball. He's such a good all-around athlete you wouldn't believe it."
It probably isn't true that Osmond blinds his defenders with a smile first, but Clark insists that the little guy (he's 5-10) "shoots very well, and probably could be a good forward."