BELLEVUE, Wash. It was a work in progress a red-white-and-blue basketball covered with autographs resting on a shelf in Zelmo Beaty's trophy room. Scrawled across the leather were the signatures of almost every player on the Utah Stars' 1971 American Basketball Association championship team.
Red Robbins, Ron Boone, Merv Jackson, George Stone, Rod McDonald and Glen Combs had signed it. So, too, had Dick Nemelka, Mike Butler, Sam Smith and Beaty himself.
But for reasons unknown, one autograph was missing. It belonged to Willie Wise, who along with Beaty was carried off the Salt Palace floor by enthusiastic fans following Utah's 131-121 victory over Kentucky in Game 7 of the ABA finals on the night of May 18, 1971.
The brightest Stars of Utah's championship team, Beaty and Wise have remained close friends ever since. They live just a few minutes apart in this wooded suburb of Seattle and regularly get together to reminisce. Beaty wound up in the Northwest, deciding it was a better place than Los Angeles to raise his children. Wise ended up here after being traded to the Seattle SuperSonics by the Denver Nuggets in 1977.
Despite their close proximity and prolonged friendship, it took a while for Wise to finally add his signature to the ball that Beaty so cherishes.
Neither player knows why it took so long. And in the end, both figure, it really doesn't matter.
The keepsake became complete a few weeks before the 30th anniversary of Utah's one and only professional basketball championship.
"It really doesn't seem like that long ago," says Beaty. "I don't really think of it in terms of years until someone mentions it. I think the memories are just about as fresh in our minds today as when it actually happened."
The images remain vivid for both players as clear as the post-game celebration photograph hanging on a wall in Beaty's home.
"You say 30 years and it's kind of mind-boggling," admits Wise. "Looking at this picture now, I can relive almost every moment. It was quite something. But it just doesn't seem like it was that long ago."
Time, however, has passed. The ABA, the Stars and even the Salt Palace arena are long gone. So, too, is Stars Avenue and that catchy "Here Come the Stars" theme song.
About all that's left are the memories from fans, players and coaches. In catching up with the championship team, the Deseret News discovered they were spread across the country.
Some have maintained a Utah presence Utah Jazz broadcaster Ron Boone is probably the most high-profile ex-Star in the state, while Dick Nemelka is a local attorney. One teammate George Stone died eight years ago of a heart attack. But the 1994 death of Rod McDonald, as reported in the latest edition of "The Official NBA Encyclopedia," is greatly exaggerated he was quite alive when the Deseret News contacted his home in San Jose, Calif., earlier this month.
And then there is Beaty and Wise, the stars of the Stars who no longer follow pro basketball on a regular basis. It's different, they say, and in a bad way. Fundamentals are lacking, and boys are playing what should be a man's game.
Beaty, 61, is semi-retired from the insurance and investment fields and currently dedicates times as a part-time substitute teacher. Wise, 54, drives a cement mixer, a career he's thoroughly enjoyed since his playing days.
Though their paths haven't crossed professionally since a short stint together with the ABA's Virginia Squires in 1976, a lifetime bond was developed and cemented by their time together in Utah.
The pair first met when the Stars franchise was located in Los Angeles. Wise was a key component on a team that reached the ABA finals in 1970. Beaty watched from the sidelines, forced by contractual reasons to sit out a year after jumping to the ABA from the NBA's St. Louis Hawks. The 1970-71 campaign would be their first together on the floor. What they didn't know was that they'd be teammates in Salt Lake City instead of L.A.
After averaging just 1,461 fans in California, the Stars opted for greener pastures, announcing on June 11, 1970, that they were moving to Utah and the Salt Palace.
"Needless to say, it was a shock," says Wise, who grew up in San Francisco. "I'd never been to Utah. I wasn't prepared for that. Everything was different for me. People were very conservative, but very receptive to the Utah Stars. The adjustment was made much easier because of the people in Utah, specifically Salt Lake City."
The team was an immediate hit with the fans. Attendance more than quadrupled. And when the Stars embarked on their first road trip, a telegram with more than 2,000 well-wishes was sent.
Even so, it took the players time to adjust.
The opportunity to live in Los Angeles was part of the reason Beaty chose to jump leagues. Initially, he, too, was less than thrilled about the transfer to Salt Lake City. After consulting with his wife, however, they agreed to make the move. Less than a year later, Beaty and Wise were carried off the Salt Palace floor as champions each with a reciprocal appreciation for the fans in Utah.
"I don't think I've ever seen any sporting event where players were hoisted on fans' shoulders like that," says Beaty. "I don't think we expected it to happen that night. It was something the fans reacted to. They did it very well. It was no problem."
The only fear, Beaty joked, was being dropped. Fortunately, it didn't happen.
"It was so clean compared to sports today. Whether the violence is going on inside or outside the arena, something nasty is happening," says Beaty. "There was not one incident that was ever reported in Salt Lake City after that championship inside the arena or outside the arena. So, I think it was one of the cleanest championships I've ever seen, especially being part of it.
"That's what I'm especially proud of," he continued. "From the players, the fans, the coaching staff to the owners, it was just a clean situation."
No one epitomized that more than Wise. After reaching the locker room following the postgame celebration, Wise jumped into the showers with his uniform on. He told whoever was within earshot that winning the title produced a happy feeling he'd like to keep forever.
Thirty years later, it still stirs emotion.
"For sure. It's something you can hang your hat on because you can always reflect back to that," says Wise. "We were the best that year and I would like to say in all of professional basketball, including the NBA. Whether that's true or not is a point you could argue."
And the argument comes from those pointing to the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, led by a young center named Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Wise notes that the Stars shined not only after a preseason relocation but following a mid-year roster shuffling as well.
"When you consider all the components, it was quite a feat for someone like Bill Sharman to put them together and make them a cohesive unit to win a championship regardless of whether it was in the NBA or the ABA," says Wise. "I think that's something that should go down at least in the history of Utah as the greatest sporting event or greatest sporting team.
"Not taking anything away from (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone, of course, but still the fact remains that they haven't won anything and we did. And we did it with a team that was put together in just one short year."
The midseason trade that sent star shooting guard Donnie Freeman and veteran pivotman Wayne Hightower to Dallas for guards Ron Boone and Glen Combs initially surprised Beaty and Wise. Players on the team were puzzled because they considered Freeman one of the top guards in professional basketball, not knowing that Boone and Combs would quickly develop into valuable additions. "We had some of the best offensive players out there that had ever been assembled together," says Beaty. "Any night, any of these guys could pick it up. We were a threat. You're talking about four of five guys that could score you 20 points. And when you've got guys like that on the floor, the other team has got problems night after night."
Especially with someone like Sharman calling the shots. Credited as the coach who developed the shoot-around session that NBA teams use today on game days, Sharman followed the 1971 ABA title by leading the Lakers to the NBA crown a year later.
"Bill Sharman was tops," says Wise. With the Stars roster and coaching staff set, the pieces of the puzzle started to come together particularly leading up to the 1971 ABA playoffs.
"We thought as soon as we got Zelmo we could be a formidable team," says Wise. "But we didn't know how good we could be. We felt like we could at least ride his coattails into the playoffs. But as the second half of the season began, we thought 'Boy, we're not too bad' and we could probably do some real damage here."
After sweeping through Texas 4-0 in the first round, the Stars were headed to Indiana, with the Pacers (58-26) having finished ahead of Utah (57-27) in the Western Division and holding homecourt advantage. The winner of the best of seven series would face Kentucky in the ABA finals.
"We knew our team was as good as Indiana's. That was one thing we had going for us," says Beaty. "We knew that the two teams were so close that either team could win even on the other's home floor."
The series proved it. The Stars won the opener at Indianapolis and eventually built a 3-1 advantage before the Pacers showed their mettle by winning the next two including one in Salt Lake City. That forced a decisive Game 7 in Indiana.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from the championship, but that game created more excitement among the players," Beaty says of Utah's 108-101 victory that was dubbed "The Miracle on 34th Street" by the Deseret News. "Our backs were against the wall. We had to prove something."
Thousands of fans were at the airport when the Stars returned to Utah. Though the championship series with Kentucky also went seven games, for all intents and purposes, Utah's first and only title was won that night in Indiana. However, when it became official with a 10-point victory over the Colonels in Game 7 of the ABA finals, a storybook celebration took place in the Salt Palace.
"It happened so fast that we couldn't get off the floor," says Beaty. "It was just wonderful."
Unfortunately, the storybook ending ended up being "once upon a time" and the Stars didn't necessarily "live happily ever after."
For Wise, a jolt of reality struck when his championship ring was stolen from his home in Bountiful. It has never been recovered.
Other tough times followed, with an increasingly talented Utah team unable to match the title season. The last hurrah was a trip to the 1974 ABA finals, as the injury-riddled Stars fell victim to Julius Erving and the New York Nets. Beaty and Wise left shortly thereafter, following disputes with management and different opportunities. The franchise folded less than two years later.
"The thing that disappointed us is we should have won four championships (from 1971-74)," says Beaty. "After that first team we won it with, we just got better and better." Both Beaty and Wise have spoken or met with several former teammates over the years, including an appearance with Boone and Jimmy Jones (a Stars teammate from subsequent seasons) at an ABA 30th anniversary celebration in Indianapolis a few years back. All four were voted to the all-time ABA team.Besides a few tangible reminders such as ABA basketballs, awards, old uniforms, programs and black-and-white photographs, Beaty and Wise have the memories and the friendships of a team that came together in a storied title run. " We were genuinely close as a team," says Wise. "The feeling among us, for each other, I've never had that duplicated."
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