SALT LAKE CITY — In the early 1970s, downtown Salt Lake was a rough place to be — downtown meaning the paint. That’s where Zelmo Beaty set up shop. The former Utah Stars center considered it his property, on both ends of the court.
A good rule of thumb: Crowd him at your own risk.
“If you started to encroach into some of his territory in the paint — which he considered all his territory — you might get an elbow,” former Dallas Chaparrals and Utah Stars coach Tom Nissalke said.
Beaty, who passed away Aug. 27, played until he was 35, averaging 11.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in his final season, despite having had numerous knee surgeries. He worked in four markets, but especially during the four years he was in Utah, everything was Big Z’s space. He not only owned the paint, but the city and state, too. He led the Stars to the 1971 ABA championship. After jumping from the NBA to the league with the colorful basketball, he was an immediate hit. He was intimidating, effective, dedicated and best of all he had an unforgettable name.
His bases were covered from A to Zelmo.
“A perfect guy to have on your team,” said Ladell Andersen, who was the Stars' coach in 1971-72 and 1972-73. “He always gave you his best show when game time came around.”
Despite a reputation for toughness, Beaty was an agreeable man off court.
“Very nice, very quiet, very much a gentleman,” said Nissalke, who took the Dallas job the same year the Stars won the ABA title.
In 1970 Beaty was one of several key players to give the upstart ABA credibility. That season he averaged nearly 23 points and 16 rebounds. He also led the Stars to the 1974 league finals.
“I don’t care who you’re with, those are awesome numbers,” former teammate Ron Boone said.
The 6-foot-9 center never made a big deal about being undersized, he just made up for it in attitude.
“You could always tell when he was upset at someone,” said Boone, now a Jazz commentator, “because all of a sudden you’d look around and blood would be running out of the nose of the opposing center.”
The player had crowded too close and Big Z had retaliated, elbows high. Time for the gauze nasal packing.
Beaty came by his work ethic honestly. He told former Deseret News writer Dan Pattison that he grew up dreaming of being a carpenter.
“I’m not kidding,” he said in an article for remembertheaba.com. “I’ve always loved to work with my hands. You can always look back at the end of a day and look at your fruits of accomplishment. I have always respected people who work in carpentry and use their hands to build things.”
It just so happened he built Salt Lake into a pro basketball city.
“He was a great individual,” Andersen said. “I was proud to be associated with him.”
Steve Aschburner at NBA.com recalled how he wrote Beaty as a teen and twice got return letters, complete with autographs.
“He was much closer to the community than later NBA players were, as a rule,” Nissalke said. “But on the court he was a very tough competitor.”
Nissalke admits that as a young coach in Dallas he was fairly smart-mouthed, and would chirp at Beaty while counting off the ticks for a 3-second call.
“I used to say, ‘Zelmo, that’s eight seconds in the lane!’” Nissalke said.
The two would then exchange backtalk.
At the same time, Nissalke said, “he had dignity, a true gentleman off the court.”
Upset over Beaty’s physical play, Nissalke once told reporters, “If Zelmo did on the street what he does in a basketball game, he’d be arrested.”
But even then it never became personal.
“When I’d see him after that,” Nissalke said, "he’d just kind of laugh.”6 comments on this story
The Stars’ success brought the Intermountain West a pride it had never known. For a city considered fly-over territory, winning an ABA championship was a major civic boost. Beaty, Boone and Willie Wise were small-market darlings in a maverick league.
In a 1996 program commemorating 100 years of sports memories in Utah, Pattison recalled Beaty telling him, “You should remember those days. They were good to us. And they can’t take them away from us.”
They can’t take the Z from Utah, either.
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