Billy Paultz: The Whopper's Big Moment
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in May 1997.
The Whopper's Big Moment
By Nathan Kirkham
One punch. A single shot taken to the head. Considering all the things Billy Paultz achieved during his career, it seems strange that a single misplaced act of violence against him would become his legacy.
And the big 3-2 pitch coming here from Eckersley. Gibson swings. And a fly ball deep to right field. This is going to be a home run!!! Unbelievable!!! A home run for Gibson! And the Dodgers have won the game 5-4, I don't believe what I just saw. —Jack Buck, describing Kurt Gibson in the 1988 World Series
There are instances in any athlete's career that will always stand out in the minds of both the player and the fans. The act may not be so unusual, but the results that follow stand out for years to come. Babe Ruth during the World Series, extending his finger to the outfield wall, calling his shot, and then blasting a home run that has been talked about ever since. Christian Laettner catching, turning and hitting the three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Semifinals.
Former Jazzman Billy Paultz has just such a moment. No buzzer beater, no last-second heroics, no miracle finish. Yet what he did holds a place of highest regards in the minds of Jazz fans everywhere. What Billy did was take a punch.
"If that's what it takes to gain an advantage, I was more than willing to do it," says Paultz happily.
April 28, 1985. The Jazz trail the Houston Rockets late in the fifth and deciding game of the first round of the playoffs. Coach Frank Layden has pulled his starters in hopes that the bench can somehow spark the team, and inch back into the game. Billy Paultz has been given the unenviable task of guarding Hakeem Olajuwon, The next few minutes drag on for Olajuwon, as the aging veteran Paultz continues to frustrate and annoy the Houston center. Every shot is contested. Every foul is a hard one. All rebounds seem to go in the Jazz's direction. Finally, something pushes Hakeem too far and he snaps. With Paultz turned away from him, he lands a wicked right cross to Billy's face. Paultz staggers from the blow but doesn't go down. Olajuwon expects retaliation, but it doesn't come. Instead Paultz quickly shakes his head and jogs down court to set up offensively.
"Hey, if I did to you what I did to him, you'd punch me too," winks Paultz. "I kept distracting him in the most annoying ways. The refs didn't see it, but it sure bugged him!"
Assistant coach Jerry Sloan and teammate Thurl Bailey pleaded Billy's case to the referees, but to Paultz it didn't matter. He had won. Olajuwon's sucker punch ignited the Jazz, and took the heart out of the Rockets and the spirit from their fans. "They deflated like a balloon," laughs Paultz.
Billy himself pulled down five boards to out-rebound the entire Houston team in the fourth quarter. He also added six points and four important fouls — fouls for which the Rockets only converted one free throw. The Jazz were going to the second round.
Game, set, match: Billy Paultz.
Deep to left field. If it stays fair, it could go ... Blue Jays win — The Blue Jays win!! Touch 'em all Joe. You'll never hit a bigger one in your life! —Tom Cheek, calling Joe Carter's three-run home run to win the 1993 World Series
One punch. How strange that the defining moment for Billy Paultz in the minds of Jazz is when he took a shot to the head. Here was a player who only saw action in 64 regular season games with the Jazz. He averaged less than 1.3 ppg and made only 37 percent of his shots. Yet his place in Utah Jazz history is secured.
Jazz fans don't recall his extremely full career that stretches back fifteen seasons. They don't remember his days with the old ABA, including four seasons being named to the All-Star team. No mention of the fact that here was a veteran with championship experience. In 1974, as the starting center, he averaged 16.4 ppg with the New York Nets who, led by Dr. J, won the ABA championship — beating the Utah Stars in the five-game series, 4-1. In six seasons with the ABA, he averaged just under 16 ppg while hitting 50.3 percent of his shots. In 1976, the ABA's last year of existence, Paultz led the league in blocked shots with 253. It was a time that Billy is very proud of, as were his teammates. "We had a great product," says Paultz. "The problem was having to play second fiddle to the NBA in terms of attention. Although the product was great, we couldn't seem to get it on the shelves." Things were not helped by the fact that the Nets' main competition for drawing fans was the New York Knicks. The Knicks were sporting one of their greatest teams of all time. "Luckily for the old Nets, if we didn't have Rick Barry, wehad Dr. J, so we always had a nice drawing card," recalls Paultz.
His final season in the ABA was spent in San Antonio. As the ABA folded, four teams merged with the NBA — one of them the San Antonio Spurs. Billy's heart was with the ABA, but he wasn't about to complain about being able to play in the senior league. "Things change quickly, and you forget old feelings when you move into the big league and start playing under big tent," says Paultz.
Billy continued to have great success in the NBA. During his six seasons in the ABA, his team went to the playoffs every year. Nothing changed for him, as the playoffs became an annual occurrence in the NBA as well. He had three playoff runs with the NBA Spurs, three with the Rockets, one more with the Spurs, and finally one with the Hawks. Coaches continuously look for players with veteran leadership and playoff experience — something Billy Paultz always delivered. In 14 years of playing professional basketball, he had been to the postseason fourteen times. It was a record that even basketball legends Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and Julius Erving couldn't claim.
Although he'd been to the playoffs with Atlanta, his experience with the Hawks was a bitter one. Paultz saw action in only 40 regular season games, partly due to injuries, and partly due to the coach's decision. Time was running down on the Whopper's career, and he knew it. During the offseason, he took a 9-5 job at WTBS in Atlanta working in the production room. Working in television was an enjoyable experience for Paultz, but joining the work force was tough to swallow. "It was rough," Paultz told the Las Vegas Sun at the time. "After a couple days of getting up early and having to fight the traffic to work, I decided I better get in shape real quick." Paultz didn't know at the time he still had one more year to go. One more year before becoming a permanent resident in Utah Jazz history.
Here we go. Here's your ball game folks, as Flutie takes the snap. He drops straight back. He has some time, and now scrambles away from one hit. Looks ... uncorks a deep one to the end zone. Phalan is down there. He got it. Touchdown!! Touchdown!! Touchdown!! Touchdown Boston College! He did it! He did it ! Flutie did it!! He got Phalan in the end zone. Oh my goodness!! What a play. Flutie to Gerard Phalan. 48 yards. No time on the clock. It's all over! —Boston College vs. Miami in The Orange Bowl November 23, 1984
Basketball was still the Whopper's driving force, and he wanted to play one more season. Paultz owes his old college coach at St. John's, Lou Carnesecca, for getting him a shot with the Utah Jazz. Carnesecca and Paultz's agent convinced Jazz head coach Frank Layden that his weight was good and that he wouldn't be a burden. Layden was very familiar with Paultz, as he had recruited him to St. John's back in 1967. Although he had never coached him (Layden took the head coaching job at Niagra the year Paultz came to St. John's), he was well aware of his track record and thought he was worth the risk. The Jazz sent him a ticket, and Paultz made the team in the fall of 1984. Billy couldn't have been happier. "I was elated," exclaims Paultz. "I always had an affection for the old ABA cities. There was a bond, and it was special. I understood from playing in cities like San Antonio that when you're the only game in town, people take the team to heart. So it was special to me — especially going with someone I knew fairly well like Frank Layden."
The Jazz felt they were close to making a run at the playoffs, and Frank Layden knew they would need the veteran savvy of the Whopper. "I also wanted him because of his good luck factor," tells Layden. "He had been to the playoffs every year of his career, and why should I think that was about to change?"
Paultz came into the 1984-85 season as the second oldest player in the league at age 36. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabar was his senior. He saw limited action, as the bulk of the minutes at his position were being taken up by Mark Eaton. Between him, Eaton, and Rich Kelley, playing time came in short doses. "It became more of a self-discipline for me to try to stay in shape and mentally focused, because I knew I was going to get limited minutes," says Paultz.
John Stockton was just a rookie during Paultz' year with the Jazz, but in the record books, their names will always be connected. The all-time NBA assist leader's first assist was to the Whopper. "I just went in for a layup, and the ball was right where it was supposed to be," recalls Paultz. "Now he's done it thousands and thousands of times."
Scoring wasn't a regular occurrence for Billy while with the Jazz. Appearing in only 64 regular season games, he scored a total of 82 points. Such numbers are never remembered by Jazz fans. When the subject of the Whopper comes up, it's all about a single moment in Jazz history. One playoff game and one pop to the face. The memory of Paultz is of him finishing his career in a final moment of victory.
Stockton with the ball front court left. He looks to Karl Malone. He's got him low. The Mailman jumps it. Shot up! It's there! He did it! He did it!! John Stockton to Karl Malone! John Stockton with eleven assists. They're on their feet! A new NBA assists king of the NBA! —Hot Rod Hundley on Stockton's 9,992nd career assist (February 1, 1995)
As with all professional athletes, letting go is difficult. However, it's always easier if one can look back on their accomplishments and smile. The Whopper left grinning. In fifteen seasons of pro ball, he went to the playoffs every year. Add to that his final two years at St. John's, and that's a grand total of 17 straight years of postseason play. He won an ABA title with the Nets in 1974 and had an NBA runner-up finish with the Rockets in 1981. Since 1966, Billy played in 1,336 collegiate and pro basketball games.
Today the Whopper enjoys life in the sun — literally. Florida is now home to Billy, his wife of ten years, Diane, and their two kids, Jordan (8) and Savannah (2). Having given up high-tops for dress shoes, Paultz now works in the printing industry as vice president of marketing and sales for Minuteman Press International. "It's a good life," says Paultz. "The business is demanding and requires a lot of travel. Still, it's worked out very well for me and my family."
With the extensive travel he does, it's not unusual to run into other former players from both leagues he once played in. To this day, there's no question which league still has his heart. "If I see an NBA player, I'll walk up and shake his hand. If I see an old ABA player, I'll hug him."
Oh no! A right hook by Olajuwon! Give me a break! Paultz has been shaken up underneath. Oh my word! Boy did he crack him! Looked like the Haggler-Hearns fight all over again. — CBS's Gary Bender
One punch. A single shot taken to the head. Considering the things the Whopper achieved during his career, it seems strange that a single misplaced act of violence against him would become his legacy. So be it. It's not the fact that Billy Paultz was punched that makes him famous. It's the way he handled it. Like the true veteran he was, there was no retaliation, no pay backs, no collapse. Instead, he inspired and elevated his won play and the play of his teammates to a most improbable vicotry. In one instant, the Whopper reminded us of the champion he was, while etching his name in Utah Jazz folklore forever.