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MIKE SORENSEN: Remembering that night in the Salt Palace

It was my senior year of high school and it must have been a slow day in my health class. Because for some reason the teacher, who also happened to be the baseball coach, was showing a black-and-white film about the Utah Stars winning the ABA championship the previous spring.

All of a sudden, there I was, front and center, the moment the Stars won the title with their 131-121 victory over the Kentucky Colonels at the Salt Palace. I’m the kid in the plain white T-Shirt and Levi’s, running out onto the floor and briefly turning back toward the camera before disappearing into the mob. The class got quite a kick out of it, running the projector forward and backwards several times as they roared with laughter.

While I might have been a little embarrassed at the time, I was proud of the fact that I had been there the previous spring, witnessing the title game from the front row behind the south basket when the Stars won a championship for Utah that all these years later still tops the list of accomplishments from a local sports team.  

Decades later I had the opportunity to re-live that magical night when KSL Sports anchor Jeremiah Jensen put together a half-hour special about the Stars’ championship season. I was one of several people he interviewed and he replayed that clip, a colorized version, with the 17-year-old me running out onto the floor when the game ended.

For those who don’t remember or perhaps who weren’t born yet, the 1970-71 season was the first year for the Utah Stars, who had relocated from Los Angeles in the summer of 1970. The team was owned by Bill Daniels, the general manager was Vince Boryla and the coach was Bill Sharman, a Hall-of-Fame player for the Celtics who would go on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title.

I remember going to several games with my buddies and sitting in the upper part of the old Salt Palace for just $1.50 a ticket. We parked for free across South Temple at the old Greyhound Bus Depot. We were into the Stars right from the start and were quite upset when the Stars traded two of our favorite players, Donnie Freeman and Wayne Hightower, to the Texas Chaparrals for Ron Boone and Glen Combs in mid-season. It seemed like a poor trade as Freeman would go on to be named all-ABA the next two seasons, but Combs, known for his 3-point shooting, and Boone, for his all-around play, became an integral part of the Stars’ championship team.

My favorite player was Merv Jackson, who had starred for the University of Utah a few years earlier. Jackson was slowed by a knee injury much of the season, but came on strong with some big games down the stretch, including 19 points in the finale. The Jazz also had a couple of BYU players, Jeff Congdon and DIck Nemelka, although Congdon was traded midseason and Nemelka was one of the end-of-bench guys.

The Stars’ stars were Big Z, Zelmo Beaty, a seven-year veteran of the NBA, and Willie Wise, a rising second-year forward out of Drake. Austin (Red) Robbins, a lanky red-headed forward, was the other frontcourt starter, while Combs and Boone manned the guardline. 

The Stars finished the regular-season in second place, a game behind the Indiana Pacers in the Western Conference and the two faced off in a memorable seven-game series in the conference finals. The Stars stole one in Indianapolis and had a chance to clinch the series in Game Six in Salt Lake. However, the Pacers won, sending the series back to Indiana where the Stars took an improbable 108-101 victory.

The Stars were favored to beat the Kentucky Colonels, who were just 44-40 in the regular season, but had upset the Virginia Squires in the Eastern Conference finals. The Colonels were led by rookie Dan Issel, and each team held serve on their home courts, setting up the pivotal Game 7. 

One of my dad’s good friends was a local car dealer, who had a bunch of seats on the front row behind the basket, near the Stars’ bench. Somehow my father talked him into letting my mother, younger brother, and I join his family with his 10 front-row tickets. Only problem was, we had 11 in the group. I can still picture my dad’s friend shoving us all through the gate as the befuddled ticket-taker had no clue we had more people in our group than tickets. The official attendance that night was 13,260, but it was actually 13,261.

It was a tense game throughout, but the Stars finally pulled away late in the fourth quarter with Jackson and Mike Butler playing for the fouled-out Boone and Combs. As the final seconds ticked down, you could feel the electricity in the arena when the crowd knew the championship was Utah’s.

I remember how Beaty and Wise were carried off on the shoulders of the fans. Boone, for some reason, made a beeline for the locker room and had to come back to join the celebration. Later a parade was held in downtown Salt Lake for the victorious Stars.

It’s amazing to me it’s been 50 years since May 18, 1971 when the Stars made history. Some local basketball fans are expecting another championship this year from the Utah Jazz, who finished with the best record in the NBA this year. Who knows if they’ll win it this year or in the near future.

Regardless, we’ll always have those magical memories of the 1971 champion Utah Stars.

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