Brad Rock: We could still use lessons from Stars owner

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 18 2011 10:29 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY – Bill Daniels would have been appalled, or at least confused, by the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. He surely would have advised both sides – big businesses as well as protesters – to sit up and fly right.

At the same time, he probably would have offered them all jobs.

Tuesday night at the Alta Club, a few dozen Eccles School of Business instructors, community leaders and former Utah Stars employees met to remember Daniels, who died in 2000. The timing of the tribute wasn't accidental. In part, it was to send a message that business still can be a great thing, if run honestly. That's how Daniels did it. If he sold you something, he made sure you got your money's worth. If he borrowed, he would hunt you down in order to pay it back.

In an era when team owners have been known to skip town on a heartbeat, leaving behind taxpayer and ticket-holder obligations, Daniels would have stood out like a blemish. Not only could sports use him nowadays to teach about business, the nation could, too. Daniels felt obligated to his customers..

"His philosophy was that there's no right way to do a wrong thing," said Peter Droege, spokesman for the Daniels Fund.

To those who were adults when the Utah Stars were playing, this is a familiar story. A Colorado native, Daniels owned the Stars when they won the American Basketball Association championship in 1971. It was a likable bunch. You had your Booner. You had your Big Z. You had your Wondrous Willie Wise. And you had your owner, who would tell acquaintances, "I'm just plain old Bill."

The league was short on cash but long on style, with such talents as Rick Barry, Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, Julius Erving and George Gervin. Yet for all its color, financial woes had overtaken the league by 1975-76. At the same time the ABA was dying, the Stars were doing the same. Daniels gathered his coaches and front office people to the Salt Palace on a December day and said the banks would no longer carry his loans. The Stars were out like last week's casserole.

Daniels agonized over the bankruptcy and told associates as much. There were ticket-holders, vendors and employees to reimburse. There was also rent on the arena. Tom Nissalke, who was coaching the Stars that final season, was owed $200,000.

Several years later, Nissalke got a surprise call from Daniels, who wanted to meet him for lunch at Little America hotel. Nissalke hadn't even wanted to take the call, assuming there wasn't much to discuss. The team had died, end of story.

Well, not entirely.

Daniels apologized for the umpteenth time for folding the team. Then he handed Nissalke a $216,000 check, enough to cover lost salary plus eight percent interest. He later placed ads in the Salt Lake newspapers, asking anyone who had purchased season tickets in the final season to contact him for reimbursement. He made a donation to the city for everyone he couldn't contact.

For a few years after the team's bankruptcy, Daniels fought off personal bankruptcy as well. Yet when he sold some of his pioneering cable TV interests, he took the proceeds to pay his debts in Utah.

"People always said afterward, 'Why would you do that?' " Droege said. "He said he just felt he had to."

The Daniels Fund now awards 20 college scholarships to students from Utah. It also provides grants to the aged, homeless and those overcoming drug addiction. The U.'s business school receives grants to help teach what Droege calls "principle-based ethics."

Eleven years after his death, Daniels' honesty still resonates.

"The idea (Tuesday) was to bring folks from the Utah Stars together and videotape some of the comments," Droege said. "A hundred years from now, people will still need to hear the story."

Email: rock@desnews.com

Twitter:therockmonster

Facebook: rockmonsterunplugged

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