50 years later, former Star remembers Utah’s first professional basketball title

Sports

Memories from the ABA’s Utah Stars as they reside at the Daniels Fund in Denver. (Courtesy of the Daniels Fund)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Tuesday marks 50 years since one of the biggest sporting moments in Utah history.

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However, had it not been for a couple of inquiring sportswriters and fans of basketball from the 1970s, one of the biggest names responsible for the occasion would have completely forgotten about the golden anniversary.

“Another writer who covers the NBA and ABA, he was trying to do a little piece on where are they now. He did something last year and just sent me a text, reminding me also that today was the big day,” former Utah Stars guard Willie Wise tells ABC4 from his home in Washington state.

“I thought, yeah that was May 18, 1971. I do recall that,” he laughs.

That was the night the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association, the upstart basketball league that was trying to compete with the NBA (think Will Ferrell’s comedy, “Semi-Pro”), clinched the league’s championship with a 131-121 victory over the Kentucky Colonels in game seven of the final series.

While the anniversary of the victory may not have been immediately present on Wise’s mind, the memory of the celebration is quite strong to the 74-year-old.

Courtesy of RememberTheABA.com

“The most vivid picture that’s instant to me is when “Slim” and I were hoisted on the shoulders of the fans when they flooded the court,” Wise recalls, referring to his teammate Zelmo Beaty as “Slim.” “And then we were carried off the court.”

Although the team had just a brief run in Utah, playing at the Salt Palace from 1970 to 1975, when the franchise folded due to poor finances, the Stars are well remembered by sports fans in the state. Although the Stars closed up shop unceremoniously, they had high attendance numbers compared to the rest of the fledgling league. The play on the court was quite good as well, as the Stars racked up a 265-171 record, with the best winning percentage of any ABA team that lasted more than one year in operation.

The 1970-71 Stars pose in a team promotional photo. Wise is seated in the center, with his arms folded. Boone is to the left of Wise, with Beaty to the left of Boone.

Despite leaving abruptly, the Stars left a good taste in the mouth of Utahns, thanks to lots of wins and a gigantic act of goodwill by the once-beleaguered ownership. After Bill Daniels, a Denver-based businessman and the owner of the team who was forced to fold it had regained his fortune in the booming cable TV business, he returned to Utah in 1980 to repay those who had lost money on tickets and other expenses with interest, an amazing gesture considering he had no legal obligation to do so.

Many believe the Stars, who moved into the Salt Lake Valley after failures in Anaheim and Los Angeles, laid the foundation for the New Orleans Jazz to relocate to Utah in 1979.

There are still some relics from the Stars’ run to glory in the state. One of the championship team’s important defensive specialists, Ron Boone, is still an active member of the sports community as a broadcaster for the Jazz. Boone also suited up for the Jazz from 1979-81 as part of his record streak of 1,041 consecutive games across the ABA and NBA. Wise, who affectionately refers to Boone by his nickname “Little Chief,” is still in touch with the Jazz commentator and several other former Stars teammates.

Other memories from the Stars have either moved on or are not found in Utah anymore. While there is no banner commemorating the team’s championship in Vivint Arena, the championship trophy currently sits in a place of honor at the office headquarters of the late Daniels’ foundation in Denver. Hanna Skandera, who serves as the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, says the title means a great deal to her employer and its namesake.

(Courtesy of the Daniels Fund)

“Bill Daniels often said that the Utah Stars winning the ABA championship was one of the highlights of his life, and that is significant given all that he achieved during his lifetime,” Skandera says.

Wise’s teammate, “Slim,” who rode off into Utah sports lore on the shoulders of fans, is also no longer around. Beaty, who was named the MVP of the ’71 Playoffs and had a solid NBA career before and after ABA stardom, passed away in 2013 at age 73. He was a posthumous selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. Before his death, he and Wise lived just minutes apart in the Seattle area and would often reminisce about their days playing in Salt Lake City.

Lately, Wise admits he doesn’t watch much basketball these days and continues to admit he is a fan of the Golden State Warriors, as he grew up in San Francisco. Yet, he is hopeful that the Jazz, the NBA’s No. 1 seed in the upcoming postseason, can give Utah another title soon.

“I think that it would be absolutely marvelous if they could pull it off,” Wise says. “I like [Rudy] Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. They play team basketball, which is what we did back in the day.”

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