Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished visitors, Bob Costas, other out-of-town guests, the Next Generation -- we bid you welcome to Salt Lake City and to Saturday's opening of the new State of Utah Basketball Hall of Fame at the DoubleTree Hotel. The ceremony will proceed as outlined in your program, but first, a word of explanation before we begin.
Among the first two college players to be inducted into the hall, you will note a name that some of you have never heard of; a name that is, at least in local lore, surrounded by wonder, magic and tragedy; a name that never appeared on an NBA roster or a national basketball Hall of Fame ballot -- but might have.Wayne Estes is a state legend who left a trail of records, memories, broken hearts and an aura of mystery surrounding his last night. He might be the greatest college basketball player ever to play in Utah (our apologies to Danny Ainge, Keith Van Horn and Billy McGill).
He scored 2,001 points in just 75 games for Utah State, from 1962 to 1965. If freshmen had been eligible at the time and if he hadn't been snatched from life during his senior year, he would have scored another 700 points. He was averaging 33.7 points per game during his senior season -- 26.7 for his career -- when he stumbled upon that car wreck minutes after his last game. He was a posthumous first-team All-American, and the Lakers wanted him.
Estes was a self-made player from tiny Anaconda, Mont. When he came to USU, he was a chubby 254-pounder, nicknamed Baby Huey, which is why no other school offered him a scholarship. He looked like a state champion shot putter and discus thrower and three-time all-state football player, all of which he was. But by his senior year at USU, Estes was 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, and he had honed his body and his game with hours and hours of solitary practice. He once made 230 consecutive free throws in practice. Once he was asked to demonstrate his broad repertoire of shots for an instructional film. During the half-hour shoot, the cameraman didn't have to retake a single shot. Estes never missed.
Since Estes left us, a book and videotape have been produced about his life, and two separate movies have been proposed. "Wink Martindale wrote to us about making a movie," says Joe Estes, Wayne's father. "But after a while he wrote back saying there weren't enough sex scenes in his life to make a movie."
Apparently, it isn't enough that Estes was the clean-cut, crew-cut, All-American kid who was a Pied Piper with kids. "The kids just mobbed him around here," says Joe. "We had a disabled boy up here. Wayne used to carry him on his shoulders. The parents said that did the kid more good than any doctor. The kids loved him. Everybody liked him. He was just a happy, outgoing kid."
He was never known to pass up an autograph request, and he answered every one of the hundreds of fan letters he received. If Estes were alive today, Joe believes he would be a coach, "because he loved kids."
Nearly 35 years after his death, Estes is still remembered by many.
The Aggies have a large trophy case in the Spectrum that contains Estes' white, high-top Converse sneakers with "2001" written on them, along with his portrait, warm-up jacket and All-America certificates. Joe has filled a suitcase with all the letters he received from people around the country about his son. There are annual high school basketball tournaments and track meets named in his honor, and a small scholarship fund as well, which Joe himself has helped perpetuate by donating $1,200 of his own money. All that notwithstanding, there is a new generation that has never heard of Wayne Estes.
It is one of life's ironies that death seals legend like nothing else could. On Feb. 8, 1965, all of Logan was swept up by Estes' pursuit of the 2,000-point mark. The Aggies were playing Denver that night, and he needed 47 points to reach the milestone. He scored 48. A half-hour later he was dead.
It was only then that people began to piece together the events of the night and the preceding weeks that have forever shrouded the tragedy in a cloak of mysticism. Teammates noted that he was uncharacteristically anxious and downcast before the game, as he had been for days. In pre-game warmups, he was lethargic. He failed to score a point in the first few minutes of the game, and his first five shots didn't even touch the rim. During a timeout, Estes told his coach, LaDell Andersen, "I just don't seem to have it tonight." And then he did. Suddenly, every shot he took was true, and by halftime he had 24 points.
Estes sat in the locker room, frowning and dazed. He complained about a numbness in his hands and arms. But nobody would have suspected as much when play resumed. In the second half, he continued to make shot after shot, and the crowd counted down the points until he sank the final shot of his life with about five minutes left in the game.
In retrospect, people would recall his comments during a post-game radio interview and consider them eerie -- "I was just throwing the ball up there," he said. "Somebody else was putting them in the basket for me." They also would consider it strangely coincidental that he would score just enough points to crack the 2,000-point mark, as if there were no tomorrow to take care of such business. Only once has any person in the history of Utah State exceeded 48 points -- Estes himself, one year earlier.
After the game, Estes continued to complain about a numbness in his hands and arms. According to one magazine report, a trainer pricked one of Estes' fingers with a pin and said he failed to show the normal reaction.
Estes called his parents at home in Anaconda, Mont., as he always did after a game. "He was happy," recalls Joe. "He told us about breaking the record. I talked to him for a while, and then I had to go to work. I was working the night shift. A half-hour later, my brother-in-law came and got me at work and told me Wayne was killed."
After the game Estes and a few of his friends went out for something to eat. They came upon an accident in which an automobile had smashed into a utility pole. As they approached the car, teammate Delano Lyons passed under an unseen, dangling power line, but Estes, 3 inches taller, wasn't so fortunate. The power line struck him in the forehead.
"Wayne's hands started to smoke, and he fell to the ground," said one witness. For a half hour, a doctor, policeman and ambulance attendants tried to revive him. An hour after Estes had been given a standing ovation and carried off the floor by spectators and teammates, he was pronounced dead.
Later, as if to add to the growing mystery of the night, it was learned that two months earlier Estes had purchased, against his father's advice, a $10,000 life insurance policy with a triple indemnity clause if he died within the next three months.
"I told him, 'Why don't you wait until you get out of school (to buy the policy),' " recalls Joe. "It cost a lot of money, and we had a policy on him, too. He said this (insurance) guy kept after him and kept after him, so he borrowed the money and bought a policy."
As the years pass, the temptation is to make someone larger in death than he was in life, but Andersen has always answered that. "He was," Andersen has said over the years, "everything they say he was."
A few postscripts: Joe, 83, a retired laborer in the local copper smelting plant, still resides in Anaconda. He was invited to represent his son at Saturday's ceremonies, but he passed the duty to Andersen because of health concerns. His wife, Helen, died a few years ago. For years after Wayne's passing, she made the daily 10-mile trip to sit by the grave of her son. She would sit out there for hours, alone with her grief, although sometimes the cemetery caretaker would sit with her. She used to drive out there at night, while Joe was at work, and sit in the dark until Joe asked her not to. "No use in that," he said. Sometimes the two of them would drive out in the dead of winter and scrape the snow away from the grave.
"She still missed him even up until she died a few years ago," says Joe. "It was a terrible thing. We couldn't hardly believe it. I didn't know what to do. It was hard. It's still hard. I think about it. Why was it him? I used to say, if we'd gone to watch him play, he wouldn't have been killed because he would have been with us -- we had been down to previous games. But you can't say that, you know."
When Helen passed, Joe had already purchased four plots at the cemetery -- for him, Helen and their children, Wayne and Ron. Friends told Joe he should reserve the plot next to Wayne for himself, but he gave it to Helen.
"I don't know, I just felt she should be," says Joe.
Since Wayne's death, Joe has worried whenever Ron or his grandsons travel that something would happen to them, just as it did to Wayne. Recently, when his grandsons volunteered to fly to Salt Lake City in his place for the hall of fame ceremony, he resisted it because of the old anxiety.
"Every night I'd say a prayer for Wayne that nothing would happen to him," says Joe, "but you see he was killed anyway. I guess it was his time to go."