It was 20 years ago today
A pro basketball team showed us how to playAlthough they've been gone for quite awhile
They're still guaranteed to raise a smile
So let me introduce to you
The act you've heard for all these years
The Utah Stars ABA championship team
- (With apologies to Lennon and McCartney)
May 18, 1971, is a day that will live forever in the minds of many Utah basketball fans. Long before the Mailman and John Stockton, long before Pistol Pete and A.D., a pro basketball team brought an excitement to the city that hasn't been matched since.
On that warm spring Tuesday evening in '71, the Utah Stars captured the championship of the American Basketball Association and became the first pro franchise to win a major league championship in its first year of operation.
The Stars defeated the Dan Issel-led Kentucky Colonels for the championship of the American Basketball Association, which later merged with the NBA, taking such stars as Julius Erving, George Gervin and Moses Malone.
In that championship game, Zelmo Beaty scored 36 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. Willie Wise, playing all but one minute, had 22 points and 20 rebounds. Glen Combs bombed away for 20 points, Merv Jackson scored 19 on a bad knee and Red Robbins, the walking one-iron, grabbed 15 boards. The Stars won 131-121 and the Salt Palace, which saw its last basketball game earlier this week, nearly had its lid blown off in the post-game celebration.
Fans stormed the court and hoisted Beaty and Wise and others on their shoulders in a memorable post-game celebration.
For many sports fans, the Stars championship is still the greatest sporting achievement ever in the state of Utah. A downtown street was even named Stars Avenue. The governor proclaimed it "Utah Stars month."
However, the euphoria soon wore off and four years later, the Stars were gone, practically overnight. A couple of years later, even Stars Avenue was changed back to 1st South.
But the Stars were never forgotten, especially, that magical team and magical night 20 years ago. lation, the Stars made it official on June 10, 1970, when Stars president Vince Boryla signed a contract to move the Stars from Los Angeles. Bill Daniels, who had bought the team three months earlier, was somewhat prophetic when he announced, "We want to make Salt Lake City the Green Bay of pro basketball."
Although the Stars had advanced to the ABA finals from a fourth-place regular-season finish the year before, the team was revamped almost completely for the initial year in Salt Lake.
By the end of the season, the only holdovers from the previous year, besides Coach Bill Sharman, were Wise, George Stone and Jackson, the former University of Utah star. Beaty, a 7-year NBA veteran, was signed before the season after sitting out his option with Atlanta the previous year. Robbins and Mike Butler came over in a trade from Memphis a month before the season started.
Combs and Ron Boone came in a trade from the Texas Chapparals in January for popular players Donnie Freeman and Wayne Hightower. Rod McDonald and local favorite Dick Nemelka of BYU made the team in summer camp, but were seldom-used rookies. Another ex-BYU player, Jeff Congdon, was traded in midseason to New York.
Half of the players were guards. Half of them were exactly 24 years old. Beaty, a former NBA star, was the big name. Wise was an up-and-coming star and Robbins was a 6-9, 200-pound "power" forward. Combs, Boone and Jackson formed a formidable trio at the guardline. Stone was a three-point threat off the bench.
The Stars were a success right from the start. They finished their initial season with a 57-27 record, one game behind the Indiana Pacers in the ABA's Western Division. Utah breezed through the first round of the playoffs, beating the Texas Chapparals in four straight games.
Then they faced their chief rivals, the Pacers, who had defeated the Stars in the finals a year earlier when the Stars were based in Los Angeles. The Stars won the opening game on the road and after winning a pair at home took a 3-1 lead. But the Pacers won Game 6 105-102 at the Salt Palace to even the series at 3-3.
However, with all the odds against them, the Stars went back to Market Square Arena in Indianapolis and took a 108-101 victory.
For some of the players, the Indiana series was much more memorable than the Kentucky series. "That stands out most to me - the series against Indiana," said Robbins. Just a couple of weeks ago, Wise said he sat down with a group of kids in Bellevue, Wash., and went through every game of that Indiana series.
"The Kentucky series was almost anticlimatic," said Wise, who claims he can't even recall some of the Kentucky games. "Indiana was our big rival then. We never felt threatened by Kentucky."
The Colonels had finished with a mediocre 44-40 regular-season record, 11 games behind the Virginia Squires. But they upset the Squires in the Eastern Division finals in six games.
A lot of Stars' fans and even some of the players figured Utah would have no problem with the Colonels and would breeze through after the tough 7-gamer with the Pacers.
They were wrong.
A rookie center named Dan Issel made things difficult for the Stars by averaging 29 points and 11 rebounds throughout the series. Guards Louie Dampier and Darel Carrier bombed away from the outside, while Cincy Powell, who would join the Stars in a trade a year later, played havoc inside.
With Stone and Boone getting 26 and 24, respectively, off the bench, the Stars easily won Game 1 by 19. In Game 2 the Stars won by 13 as Beaty went wild, scoring 46 points, while Wise had a monster game with 26 points and 24 rebounds.
Back in Louisville, the Stars lost a pair of close games, the latter by six in overtime after Robbins missed a shot that could have won it in regulation.
Game 5 in Salt Lake was another fairly comfortable win for Utah as four Stars scored more than 20 with Beaty leading the way with 32 points and 22 rebounds.
Powell led Kentucky to a come-from-behind win in Game 6 as the game went to the wire again, 105-102. In that game, down 105-101 in the final seconds, with Robbins at the foul line for two shots, Sharman told Robbins to make the first and miss the second. He also inserted little-used Dick Nemelka to shoot a 3-pointer. Most everything went according to plan, Robbins missed the free throw on purpose and the ball went out to Nemelka . . . but his shot bounced away. The Stars came back to Salt Lake and within two hours after tickets went on sale, the game was sold out. Somehow 13,260 fans, which is 600 more than the capacity in recent years, squeezed into the Salt Palace that night.
"I remember most of the players arrived earlier than usual that night," recalls Beaty. "The adrenalin was there. It was the first time (in a championship game) for most of us. I don't think any of us had any doubt we were going to win that game."
Jackson, who had battled a knee injury all season, was hurting, so Sharman started Boone in his place. But Boone,who was having a great series, averaging 19 points a game, had his poorest game of the playoffs. He fouled out with just 5 points. Jackson had an injection of xylocaine in his knee so he could play. Ater all it was the last game of the season.
The Colonels led 32-28 after the first quarter, but the Stars came on strong in the second period to take a 61-54 halftime lead. Utah could never shake the Colonels and after three periods, it was 98-90. Carrier, who had 31 points on the night, kept throwing in 3-pointers, sinking 5 of 10 on the night.
In the final period, the Stars kept a steady 10-point lead, but couldn't shake the Colonels.
Boone played just 17 minutes before fouling out. Combs, who scored most of his 20 points in the first half, also fouled out.
That left the Stars with Jackson, who was playing with no feeling in his knee, and the little-used Butler to finish at the guardline. Jackson, who had to play 35 minutes, scored 19 points, while Butler came in for the final four minutes and scored seven points, including a banked three-pointer. He also drove the Colonels crazy dribbling around in circles, using up the 30-second clock.
"The noise psyched me up," said Butler. "I said to myself, `This is it baby.' The more I dribbled the happier I got."
Long before the final buzzer, the crowd was on its feet cheering and there was electricity in the Salt Palace air that was rarely matched throughout all the years of the Jazz. When the final buzzer went off, there was a delay of a couple of seconds before the fans rushed out onto the floor.
"It was unbelievable," recalls Beaty. "The guards didn't even try to stop them, but I didn't mind because I knew they weren't going to harm us in any way. I still hold a picture of that night when the fans came out and hoisted me above the floor."
Robbins, for one, missed the post-game celebration on the floor. "A friend hugged me and I immediately headed for the locker room. It seemed like hardly anybody was in there for the longest time. I just went straight for the champagne."
While Robbins waited in the locker room, the rest of the Stars players reveled in their glory.
"It was a big party right there in the middle of the Salt Palace floor," said Boone. "I was buried in it. It really caught me by surprise. It never crossed my mind that the fans would mob the court like that. It was like you were in a dream." The Stars gang didn't stay together too much longer after the championship season. Sharman bolted for the L.A. Lakers coaching job during the summer. Nemelka didn't return and Stone was traded early the next season. Robbins and Butler went to San Diego in the expansion draft a year later. Although the Stars improved to 60-24 in 1971-72, they were beaten by Indiana for the Western Division championship in a turnaround from the previous year as the Pacers won the 7th game in Salt Lake. The Stars never won another championship.
Although the Stars players have scattered to all parts of the country, they still maintain ties with each other. Beaty and Wise live five minutes apart from each other in Bellevue, Wash. Just last month they got together and reminisced about their days with the Stars.
Combs travels around the country on business and every time he goes to New Orleans, he stops in and sees Robbins. When he is in the Bay area, he sees McDonald in San Jose. Merv Jackson lives in Denver, but he keeps in touch with Ron Boone in Salt Lake and has done some color commentary on Ute basketball broadcasts as Boone does with the Jazz.
"I have a warm feeling when I think about all my teammates with the Stars," said Wise. "I don't think I've ever been associated with a group of men as quality as those. It was a very happy time of my life."
Wise, as do most of the players, remembers the fans also, especially on that championship night.
"I've always maintained that those fans were the best," said Wise. "To see the excitement and the glee of the fans made for a very memorable night."
It was a very memorable night for many Utahns when the Stars came out and won the championship . . . just 20 years ago today.