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SALT LAKE CITY — Willie Wise didn’t know the impact he’d have on the Utah sports landscape when he walked on to a spot with the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association in 1969.
But the native of San Francisco dubbed “Wondrous Willie” went on to write his name into the annals of Utah sports history.
Just over a year later, the Stars moved to Salt Lake City and a new home in the brand-new Salt Palace. And Wise’s legend began as the first-year relocated franchise won the first professional sports championship in Utah history with a seven-game ABA title over the powerhouse Kentucky Colonels.
“I think there was a mutual adoration,” said Wise, who currently makes his home in Renton, Washington, just outside Seattle. “They adored us, and we adored them.”
At the 45th anniversary of the Stars’ historic title, KSL Sports went on a cross-country trek to find the key players in the team’s magical run. From rookie guards to breakout forwards to front-office personnel, media and fans, thousands remember the Stars’ 1971 ABA championship as the moment Utah entered the national scene in professional athletics.
Our fans embraced them wholeheartedly. It was really a big family.
–Grant Harrison, Utah Stars director of promotions
“The players, as much as the fans, were enjoying it,” Utah Stars director of promotions Grant Harrison said. “And they really, really, really enjoyed it. They felt that they had accomplished something their very first year in a city, and that really set the tone going forward.”
The Stars paved the way for the NBA in Utah, and they were the first team to show that Salt Lake City had a thriving market ready for pro sports.
A California native who starred collegiately at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wise is among a group of basketball players who quickly etched themselves into the Utah sports landscape: one of just two pro sports championships the state has ever celebrated.
But to get to the celebration, you first have to get to the Wasatch Front.
Going to the mountains
Of course the Stars didn’t start in Utah.
Born as the Anaheim Amigos, the 25-53 team rebranded in 1968 and moved to Los Angeles, where the club compiled a 76-86 record in two seasons — including a 4-2 loss to the Indiana Pacers in the 1970 ABA Finals.
Still, the Stars drew sparse crowds at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, including drawing just 8,233 fans for the Finals’ game six against the Pacers on May 25, 1970. Stars owner Bill Daniels announced on June 11, 1970, that his Los Angeles Stars were moving to Salt Lake City, opting for the basketball-obsessed Wasatch Front over Albuquerque, New Mexico. Much of the community of just under 500,000 embraced them.
“Bill Daniels was the greatest owner you could possibly have,” said Bill Marcroft, a veteran sports broadcaster and Voice of the Stars. “He was a fighter pilot during World War II, and he used that kind of mentality: he was just gung-ho and hell-bent for leather, all the time.
“He had great ideas, creative ideas for promotions all the time.”
Daniels got involved in auto racing, as well. He had an IndyCar designed after the team’s logo and colors, and regularly rubbed shoulders with the big names on the circuit like Mario Andretti and Salt Lake’s Dick Simons.
“He came over to me and said, ‘Grant, you’re doing a great job, but I just want you to know one thing: We are not in the basketball, business,’” Harrison said. “‘We’re in the entertainment business.’ He hired dancing girls and made it entertainment.”
The American Basketball Association was the fast-paced, high-scoring brother to what some considered the inferior NBA. Known for its iconic red-and-blue striped ball, the ABA featured explosive offenses and up-and-down styles that appealed across the nation.
But not everybody was on board with the ABA. Basketball was king in Utah, but college basketball had reigned for ages.
“Everybody around here loved basketball,” Jazz broadcaster and former Stars wing Ron Boone said, “but they had not experienced professional basketball.”
Among the opposition were college basketball purists like University of Utah basketball coach Jack Gardner. The 18-year steward of the Utes’ program came out of retirement from Kansas State, and he was vocal in his non-appreciation for pro basketball in the Utah capital. Gardner publicly argued that the college game was inherently better than the pro game, and even took to criticizing the colors of the ABA ball.
“Jack was fighting against it. He made fun of the red, white and blue ball and everything else,” Marcroft said. “Then he ended up working as a scout for professional basketball in the state of Utah.”
Daniels continued the move and hired the right people. He brought in former New York Knick Vince Boryla as the general manager and assembled a roster that was an instant contender.
Assembling the team
The fan-favorite and central pillar of the team was Zelmo Beaty. The 31-year-old Prairie View A&M grad spent seven years in the ABA and averaged 22.9 points, 15.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 38.4 minutes per game at 31 years old during the Stars’ title-winning season.
In his first season in the league, he finished first in field goal percentage and third in rebounding.
“He carried himself with absolute confidence,” said Marcroft, the retired sports broadcaster. “What a tremendous personality the guy had.”
Beneath his rough exterior was the perfect ambassador of a club based in Utah, Stars coach Tom Nissalke said.
“He was very much a gentleman,” said Nissalke, the 1971 ABA coach of the year. “Except he would knock your head off. He was one of the few centers who could go out and hit the outside shot.”
Wise became the franchise’s breakout player, a star in his own right. A two-year starter at Drake who had his number retired with the Bulldogs in 2009, the 6-foot-6 Wise was drafted by his hometown San Francisco Warriors in the fifth round of the 1969 NBA draft. He didn’t make the team, and found his way to L.A. and the ABA for one season, where he made his debut on Oct. 17, 1969, and moved with the team to Salt Lake City.
“Willie Wise was really a surprise to everybody out of Drake,” Marcroft said. “He was the star.
“He was really the guy that you would go to, and everybody knew it.”
“Wondrous Willie” was the only Star known by thousands for his colorful nicknames. The roster included local college players like BYU’s Jeff Congdon and Dick Nemelka — the latter went on to coach the short-lived semi-pro Utah Prospectors in 1978 — as well as Utah’s Merv “the Magician” Jackson.
“Merv Jackson was smooth as silk,” Wise said. “He was a very good defensive player at 6-4.”
Bill Daniels was the greatest owner you could possibly have. He was a fighter pilot during World War II, and he used that kind of mentality: he was just gung-ho and hell-bent for leather, all the time.
–Bill Marcroft, Utah Stars play-by-play broadcaster
Then there was “the Little Chief.” Ron Boone was a 24-year-old guard who would later go on to an NBA career with Kansas City and Los Angeles before returning to the Jazz in 1979, averaged 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game after moving to Salt Lake City from the Dallas Chaparrals in 1970.
“He was athletic to the core, and he was like instant offense,” Wise said. “I had to match his intensity.”
The heart of the team was the Stars’ fighter — a position the team needed in its new home.
“I never saw the Little Chief slack off,” Wise said. “Never; never once.”
Glen Combs came with Boone from the Dallas Chaparrals. The standout sharpshooter arrived in Salt Lake City with an arcing shot, big feet and big hands, leading to the nickname “Jed” among his teammates and “the Kentucky Rifle” around the league.
The 6-foot-2 shooting guard from Virginia Tech shot 46 percent from the field with 31 3-pointers, including 17 points or more in five of the Stars’ seven-game series against Kentucky in the Finals.
“He had big feet, big hands,” Wise said.
Red Robbins — also called “the Walking One-Iron” — came to Utah from the New Orleans Buccaneers and quickly established himself as a hard-working post player who averaged 12.6 points and 11.9 rebounds.
He could score when he needed to,” Wise said of Robbins. “He was 6-8, but he was skinny as a rail. And just a funny guy with a dry wit.”
George Stone was a 3-point shooter who would show off 30-foot jumpers in practice, earning the nickname “Rocky” while scoring 11.7 points with a pair of treys every game — with one glaring weakness.
“He was a tremendous outside shooter,” Marcroft said. “He could hit it from 30. But he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, guard a chair. Anytime Stone came into the game, the other team just gave the ball to Stone’s man and he had a layup. Stone would not play defense.”
But good players only get a team so far. Daniels also hired the right coach: former Boston Celtic great Bill Sharman. The veteran coach was a proven winner whose philosophy was to teach less and substitute more.
“That was his genius,” Marcroft said of Sharman. “He knew when to take a guy out and when to put a guy in. As a result, everything worked for success.”
Sharman brought together a group of players who loved the rest of the roster, a love they also developed for the city in which they played.
The Stars succeeded because they made an instant connection with a city that proved its appetite for professional hoops. The “Green Bay of pro basketball” averaged more than 6,500 fans per game while most teams struggled to pull in fans.
“You could buy a season ticket — the very best in the house — for $180 a year,” Harrison said. “That was about $4-$5 per ticket, right down in front. For that today, you’re out in the parking lot. You can’t pay your cable bill for $4-$5.”
The Stars were as much a part of the community as the downtown businesses and Temple Square — which also helped lead to the immense celebration when they won the 1971 championship.
“Our fans embraced them wholeheartedly,” Harrison said. “It was really a big family.
“We knew the players, talked to the players, shook their hand, went out for a Coke with them, and sometimes went to dinner with them. That doesn’t happen now in the NBA; you aren’t going to have a chance to go to dinner with Steph Curry.”
Mike Sorensen joined the Deseret News as a sportswriter in 1979. But before that, he was a young fan of the Utah Stars — a team that struck a chord with its market.
“I still remember Ron Boone, going down and sitting with him at his apartment downtown,” Sorensen said. “It was kind of funny: that’s how accessible they were. You could just stop by and see Ron Boone and his wife.”
And of course, there was the fast-paced, uptempo variation with the red, white and blue basketball and the 3-point shot.
“The NBA was different than the ABA,” Marcroft said. “The ABA was wide-open, and really fun.
“The players, the big stars, were all there.”
Best of seven
In their first season in the Salt Palace, the Stars endured a grueling schedule: 84 games and more than 100,000 air miles. But they finished the regular season with a record of 57-27 — just one game back of the Indiana Pacers for the best record in the ABA.
“Putting together a team like the Stars had when we arrived here was something special,” Boone said.
For the first time ever, basketball fans in Utah experienced the excitement of professional playoff basketball. Tickets sold out as fans supported the Stars through a championship run.
The Stars rolled in the playoffs, sweeping the Texas Chaparrals in the Western Division semifinals to set up a final with the top-seeded Pacers.
Utah took the series opener, going up three games to one before Indiana rallied off back-to-back wins — including a 127-109 win in game five and a narrow game-six victory that set up a winner-take-all showdown April 28, 1971, at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum in Indianapolis.
“We were 3-2, coming back to Salt Lake, against the Pacers,” Wise said, “we knew that we were in the Palace with our fans, and it was game over. We were going to move on to the championship round.”
But the defending champions — with top players like Roger Brown — broke the Stars’ hearts and pushed them to the brink of elimination with a 105-102 win in game six of a series that was decided by an average of 2.2 points per game. Billy Keller hit seven 3-pointers, and the Pacers stormed out of the Salt Palace with an uncanny win to go back to Indiana.
“No one gave us a chance,” Wise said. “We were so dejected. But we just gathered ourselves and knew that we had let our fans down.
“But that was OK. We’re going to go back to Indiana and show them.”
Wise poured in 31 points in the finale, and Robbins added 25 with six of the eight active Stars scoring in double figures to lead Utah to a 108-101 win and the ABA Finals against the Kentucky Colonels.
“It was a tremendous win, a two-point game for most of it, and I had the privilege of televising the game,” Marcroft said.
Added Wise: “We never doubted ourselves. Yes, we were going into the lion’s den against the great and powerful Indiana Pacers. But we just thought, ‘here we go.’”
Fans lined the Stars’ return route, from Salt Lake International Airport to North Temple and the Salt Palace, with cars and people, honking and waving.
“We felt like our championship series was the Pacers,” Wise said. “It was kind of anticlimactic; now we just had to beat these guys.
“That’s not cockiness. But we had just beat the Indiana Pacers — of course we were going to win. … If you can win game seven in Indiana, who is going to beat you? That was our feeling.”
We felt like our championship series was the Pacers. It was kind of anticlimactic; now we just had to beat these guys. That’s not cockiness. But we had just beat the Indiana Pacers — of course we were going to win. … If you can win game seven in Indiana, who is going to beat you? That was our feeling.
–Willie Wise, Utah Stars star forward
Kentucky was led by Dan “Horse” Issel, who scored a league-high 534 points in the postseason as the Colonels rolled by Virginia and Florida in the first two rounds.
But the Colonels were quickly outmatched, as Beaty went off for 26 points and 16 rebounds to lift the Stars to a 136-117 win in the Salt Palace on May 3, 1971. Beaty added 40 and 15 in a 138-125 victory in game two just two days later.
But a series is never contested until a team loses at home, and the Colonels responded with back-to-back wins at Freedom Hall in Louisville. A balanced attack featured 25 points from Darrel Carrier, 24 points and 17 rebounds from Issel and 23 points and 11 assists from Louie Damier, and the Colonels held Beaty to 13 points in a 116-110 win May 7, 1971.
Dampier’s heroic 33-point effort helped the Colonels cling to a 129-125 victory May 8, 1971, before the two teams returned to the Salt Palace for a 137-127 win for the Stars.
Cincinattus Powell erupted for 31 points, and Dampier added 22 points and 10 assists to lift Kentucky to a series-tying 105-102 win at home May 15, setting up a winner-take-all finale three days later in Salt Lake City.
Beaty and the Stars saved their best for the final game of the season in front of a packed house of 13,260 fans who hoped to witness something they had never seen before — a pro championship for the Beehive State.
Despite Issel’s game-high 41 points, Beaty poured in 36 points on 15-of-24 shooting to go along with 16 rebounds. Wise supplied 22 points and 20 rebounds, and Combs came up with 20 points and 19 from Jackson as the Stars celebrated the ABA championship with a 131-121 win.
As the clock ticked down and Beaty dribbled out the final seconds of the 10-point win, fans readied themselves to storm the court. The Stars gave Utah its first professional sports championship.
“When we won the ballgame, I didn’t know what to do — I was so excited, I ran off the floor,” said Boone, the "Little Chief." “Then I realized, and I had to run back on the floor to get into the celebration.
“The crowd was right there on top of you, and we were out on the court. It was a huge celebration. What a fun time.”
A championship at last
The Stars’ championship at the end of the 1971 season was celebrated wildly in the streets of Salt Lake City. Celebration spilled out of the 10,000-seat Salt Palace and into the streets of the state capital for hours.
“I had a front-row seat, so I was lucky,” Sorensen said. “I went running out on the court, and turned around wondering if I should be doing this. But I was fine, and I took off sprinting into the crowd. We carried Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty on our shoulders.
“It was just a memorable experience. Unforgettable.”
Wise was one of several on a team full of Stars, and his role was undeniable. The 23-year-old forward averaged 13.4 points and 9.8 rebounds in 32.6 minutes per game in 1970-71 en route to the championship.
“I remember,” Wise said, closing his eyes as if envisioning the court-storm. “I remember clearly. I don’t remember who hoisted me up, but it was Zelmo and I.”
Beaty averaged 28.4 points per game during the Finals, including the 36 points and 16 rebounds in the decisive game seven.
The 6-foot-9 Beaty, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 73, was named the ABA Finals Most Valuable Player and posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
“As they carried Zelmo and I off the court on their shoulders, I thought, ‘is this the human zenith?’ It must be. There is nothing like this,” Wise said. “It was a one-ness between sports franchise, player and fans that every sports franchise and fan base is seeking. We experienced it.”
But there was a zen-like calm over Wise that night, one he tried to recapture as he closed his eyes and thought back to one magic moment in the Salt Palace 45 years later.
“We were able to deliver something to a group of people that were very deserving,” Wise said. “This was the way we honestly felt; it was relief. We gave them what they deserved — a championship.”
Legacy of the Stars
No team in Utah history had done what the Stars had done prior to 1971, and no team matched it with a similar feat until Real Salt Lake hoisted the MLS Cup trophy into the Seattle night sky in 2009.
“I think that was the highlight of my career, winning the championship,” Beaty later said. “It took eight years to do it, but I really appreciate the emphasis the guys put forth last year in winning the championship and myself being a part of it.”
But like all memories, the ecstasy and jubilation of the title eventually faded away. Memories were forgotten, and the Stars — who carried the momentum of a championship to a 60-24 record in 1971-72 — lost in the Western Division semifinals the following year.
Still, the Stars continued to make headlines and history; they were the first pro basketball team to sign a player from high school when they inked 18-year-old Moses Malone to a five-year, $1 million contract in 1972.
“He was so good, so quick,” said Nissalke, who took over as head coach of the Stars from 1974-75. “But he was a funny guy, very coachable and very nice and polite. They did not realize what they had as far as a great asset.”
Utah returned to the ABA Finals in 1974, but lost to the New York Nets 4-3 in Beaty’s final season before signing with the L.A. Lakers of the NBA. Just 16 games into the 1975-76 season, the Stars folded under extreme financial pressure with a 4-12 record on Dec. 2, 1975. They were one of four teams to collapse that season. Daniels’ campaign for governor of the state of Colorado had nearly bankrupted him, and the Stars were forced to shut down.
“I’ve never seen a man that was … so completely crushed before,” said Nissalke. “I told the players to do what they wanted, go in the locker room, take whatever they wanted. Moses took a cart with his foot in a cast, and pushed it down the street.”
“It just about killed him,” Harrison added.
Only Boone, the Little Chief, remained from the team that won it all just five years previous. He played out the remainder of the season with the St. Louis Spirit before that team folded as well.
“Professional basketball is something that has been very good for me and very good to me,” Boone said. “My mother would always, before she passed away, call me up and say ‘when are you coming home?’ I’d say, ‘Mother, I am at home.’
“Salt Lake City is my home.”
Because of the dissolution, the Stars — with their one championship, 366-310 all-time record, and six playoff appearances with three trips to the league finals — were not part of the ABA-NBA merger at the end of the 1976 season. Only four teams — the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets and the Pacers — joined the reformed league.
“When they went bankrupt, it was really hard to take,” Marcroft said. “It was part of the heart that was gone.
“They had embraced the community and the community had embraced this team so much.”
In the summer of 1980, Daniels returned to Utah, determined to pay back everyone who was owed money.
“I got a call from him, kidding that I should bring the sheriff,” Nissalke said. “He laughed and said ‘you won’t need to bring the sheriff this time.’”
Daniels contacted every shareholder, season-ticket holder, advertiser and sponsor, and paid them back what they were owed — plus 8 percent for interest.
“I’ve never heard of anyone taking out bankruptcy, then coming back and paying off everybody that they didn’t have to pay,” Marcroft said. “Bill Daniels didn’t have to do that, he did.
“The laundry that he owed for cleaning the clothes he was absolved from paying, he paid it all off. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
The Stars’ legacy was not forgotten, though. Those who saw the team play remember the days from “Big Z” to Moses Malone with fondness.
When pro basketball returned to the area in 1979 with the relocation of the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz, a new chord was struck in the city.
Hoops reigned again on the Wasatch Front. And when the Utah Jazz advanced to back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, the flames of a previous era were reignited.
“I’d like to be able to say, and I think I can with assurity, that had it not been for the Utah Stars, we would not have had the Utah Jazz,” Harrison said.
A fan base was reinvigorated.
“I’d like to say that the ABA Utah Stars had a lot to do with the NBA,” Boone said. “Taking a chance and coming here to play, having a professional basketball team, was big.”
But even with all the success of the Jazz — past, present and future — they won’t be the first title celebrated in the streets of downtown Salt Lake City.
For that, history will always remember the Utah Stars — and so will Willie Wise.
“I’m so glad I got to play in the ABA,” Wise said. “If I could choose now — if I could roll back the clock — I’d choose the ABA again.”