A Close Relative
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in February 2002.
A Close Relative
by Steve Fall
When you first think of Utah basketball, you probably picture John Stockton and Karl Malone. Most likely, names like Zelmo Beaty and Willie Wise don't pop into your head.
While the Jazz first arrived in Utah over 22 years ago, pro basketball actually began here several years earlier. Unfortunately, the Utah Stars didn't stay around very long.
The Stars played just five full seasons and part of another in the Salt Palace. In that time, they managed to bring a championship to Utah. The Stars finished second in the 1970-71 regular season, a game back of the Indiana Pacers. When they knocked off the Pacers 4-3 in the Western Division Finals, they advanced to face the Kentucky Colonels in the 1971 Championship.
The Colonels provided fierce competition. The teams split the first six games to set up Game 7 in the Salt Palace. When the Stars prevailed 131-121, the fans poured out onto the court.
Although it happened over 30 years ago this May, Jazz Vice President of Game Operations and Promotions Grant Harrison recalls it vividly, with the help of a photo on his office wall.
"The floor was completely covered with people; we weren't prepared for that," says Harrison, who worked for the Stars at the time. " We had never been involved in a championship before at any major level. So we didn't know what to do to keep people off the floor. The whole floor was just a mass of people — not unruly — but very jubilant, that's for sure. Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty were hoisted up on the fans' shoulders and carried off the floor. It was a very fun time for the Stars and the city."
Jazz broadcaster Ron Boone starred for that team, in one of his many outstanding seasons.
"I think it was an excellent basketball team," Boone says. "It was put together with a mixture of players that complemented each other."
Boone joined the Stars during the 1970-71 season. After coming to Utah in January, he played in every Stars game until the franchise folded in December 1975. In fact, he played every game for a very long time. He appeared in 1,041 consecutive games from 1968 through 1981. He held the professional record for successive games until A.C. Green broke it two years ago. Boone's first 662 games came in the ABA, and he then continued his streak for 379 NBA contests.
The 6-2 Boone, who averaged 18.0 points and 6.6 rebounds that season, scored the third-most points in ABA history. He had plenty of help on that 1970-71 team. Teammates Beaty, Red Robbins and Glen Combs all joined him in the ABA All-Star Game. They also had the 6-6 Wise, who eventually became the franchise's all-time leading scorer.
Boone described Red Robbins as a tremendous role player. Beaty, a 6- 9, 235-pound center, provided a rugged presence inside. Though undersized by today's standards, he was a force then, according to Boone.
"He couldn't survive in the NBA right now as a 6-9 center. He didn't jump well because his knees weren't the best. But he was a very smart player and his shot was difficult to defend — he shot with his arms very much extended. In some of the preseason games we had against the NBA teams, he would light the NBA centers up, he was just that good."
After that championship season, the Stars reeled off three straight Western Division titles. With records like 60-24, 55-29 and 51-33, they resembled another Utah team.
The Stars made it back to the championship round in 1974 against Dr. J’s New York Nets. The Nets and the Doctor prevailed in five games.
Though Boone admits he's somewhat prejudiced in favor of the old league, he feels he and his teammates stacked up with any team that championship season.
"We were as good as any team in the NBA, I thought, that particular year. We had most of the guards and forwards in the ABA. The NBA had the centers. We could have held our own."
The ABA produced a long line of guards and forwards that went on to star in the NBA. Julius Erving, George Gervin, David Thompson, Larry Kenon, Maurice Lucas and George McGinnis all got their professional start using the red, white and blue ball.
In the league's three final seasons, they actually held the edge each year over the NBA in exhibition games. When the leagues merged for the 1976-77 campaign, the ABA finally silenced its critics.
"When the merger happened, I think everybody saw how good the players really were," says current Raptors Assistant Coach Stan Albeck, who coached several years in the ABA. "They were kind of looked down on by the NBA, who didn't give the ABA much respect. But once they saw Dr. J, Artis Gilmore and George Gervin when those type players came into the league, they started saying, 'Hey these people are for real."
"I think we did kind of surprise them," said Gervin, known as "The Ice Man". "We really showed them that we had a love and a passion for the game and that we played hard. We enjoyed being stylish, but yet we loved to win. We brought excitement, youth, and a lot of finesse to the league when we merged."
In the first NBA All-Star Game following the merger, 10 of the 24 players had ABA roots. Numerous other ABAers experienced tremendous success for NBA teams. Boone, though not an All-Star that year, averaged 22 points per game in his first NBA season with the Kansas City Kings.
The influx of ABA players, many used to run-and-gun basketball, altered the style of play in the NBA. In the season before the merger, no NBA team averaged 110 points per game. The next year, five teams eclipsed this figure. Two former ABA teams, the Spurs (115.0) and Nuggets (112.6), finished 1-2 scoring.
Two other ABA teams, the Nets and Pacers, also entered the NBA that season. The old league's remaining players were made available to NBA clubs through a dispersal draft. Although the merger eventually showed that they had always played great basketball, many ABA teams encountered serious attendance problems and had trouble competing with the more established league. To draw fans, they used creative and sometimes zany promotions.
The Stars drew well for an ABA team. Nonetheless, they had some interesting promotions of their own.
"We had pie-eating contests at halftime," Harrison says. "We had a cow-milking contest where we physically brought two big cows into the building. People came down at halftime and milked the cows right on the court."
Although the Stars didn't become one of the four ABA teams to join the NBA, they ultimately led to the Jazz coming to town just a few years later. They proved that Salt Lake City could support professional basketball despite its size. Harrison doubts whether the Jazz would have ever come to Utah if not for the Stars.
"That showed the NBA that this small city could support a major league team. It gave the NBA people reason to say, 'Maybe it will work.'"
And it's been working ever since.