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‘Something special’: Wise, Boone reflect on 50th anniversary of Utah’s ABA championship

SALT LAKE CITY — Looking back, Willie Wise acknowledged that it’s kind of a blur. On May 18, 1971, he and teammate Zelmo Beaty were carried off the floor by fans in a jubilant postgame celebration at the Salt Palace. The Utah Stars had just won the American Basketball Association championship with a 131-121 victory over the Kentucky Colonels.

The seven-game series ended on May 18, 1971, meaning 50 years have passed since the franchise won the community’s only professional basketball crown.

“It’s surreal,” said Wise, who lives near Seattle and is now 74 years old. He describes himself as “pretty spry” despite knee and back problems associated with his playing days. 

Stars Search - Remembering the 1971 Utah Stars

St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks (1962-1969) . . . Utah Stars (1970-74) . . . MVP of 1971 ABA Championship Series . . . Los Angeles Lakers (1974-1975) . . . coached ABA’s Virginia Squires (1975-76) . . . inducted into College Basketball Hall of Fame 2014 . . . inducted into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2016 
Dallas/Texas Chaparrals (1968-71) . . . Utah Stars (1971-75) . . . Spirits of St. Louis (1975-76) . . . Kansas City Kings (1976-78) . . . Los Angeles Lakers (1978-79) . . . Utah Jazz (1979-81) . . . Streak of 1,041 Consecutive Games played  . . . Utah Jazz Broadcaster (1988-present) 
New Orleans Buccaneers (1968-70) . . . Utah Stars (1970-72) . . . Worked in Transportation and Distribution Industry in Tennessee after retirement  
Dallas/Texas Chaparrals (1968-71) . . . Utah Stars (1971-74) . . . Memphis Tams (1974) . . .Virginia Squires (1974-75) . . . Led ABA in 3-point baskets made with 103 (1971-72) . . . Elected to Virginia Tech Hall of Fame 1987 
University of Utah (1965-68) . . . Los Angeles/Utah Stars (1968-72) . . . Memphis Tams (1972-73) . . . Inducted into Greater Savanna, Georgia Athletic Hall of Fame 1979  
Utah Stars (1970-73) . . . The Rocket was a popular player despite only playing in 87 games over three seasons 
West High School . . . BYU (1963-66), earning All-American Honors . . . Utah Stars (1970-71) . . . Attorney after retirement 
New Orleans Buccaneers (1967-70) . . . Utah Stars (1970-72) . . . San Diego Conquistadors (1972-73) . . . Kentucky Colonels (1973-74) . . . Virginia Squires (1974-75) . . . Finished playing career in Italy  
Minnesota Muskies (1967-68) . . . Kentucky Colonels (1968-70) . . . Utah Stars (1971) 
Los Angeles/Utah Stars (1968-71) . . . Carolina Cougars (1971-72)  
Los Angeles/Utah Stars (1969-74) . . . Virginia Squires (1974-76) . . . Denver Nuggets (1976-77) . . . Seattle SuperSonics (1977) . . . Led Drake to 1969 Final Four . . . Number 42 retired by Drake in 2009  
Played in eight All-Star games for Boston Celtics . . . NBA MVP in 1955 . . . Coached Los Angeles/Utah Stars (1968-71) . . . Coached Los Angeles Lakers (1971-76) winning the NBA title in 1972 . . . Enshrined in Basketball Hall of Hall as a player in 1976 and as a coach in 2004 

“Once the clock hit zero and the fans rushed the floor I didn’t realize they were going to do it and I don’t think Slim (Beaty) realized it either. And when they hoisted us, we were basking in the moment,” Wise said. “It was like ‘Is there anything more at that time?’”

The title, he noted, was a human pinnacle.

Wise added that you always want to be recognized as the best team. The Stars, he said, should have won at least two titles but Beaty was injured when the team made the 1974 ABA Finals and lost to Julius Erving and the New York Nets in five games. Between opportunities,— in 1972 and 1973 — Utah fell to the rival Indiana Pacers in the Western Division finals.

‘The best decision I made in my life’

The Stars were perennial contenders. As such, Wise opted to stay with the franchise when his roommate on the road, Beaty, suggested he do so after they won the 1971 title. Wise had an opportunity to leave for the NBA’s New York Knicks and a lot more money at the time. 

While contemplating the offer, Wise sought advice from Beaty. Recalling the conversation, Wise admitted, still brings tears to his eyes. After making it clear he would never stand in the way of someone making more money, Beaty noted he wanted to win one more championship before retirement.

“He said: ‘I know I can’t do that without you,’” Wise quickly replied that he was staying. He has no regrets about his decision to play with guys like Zelmo Beaty, James Jones, Gerald Govan and Ron Boone. “Absolutely that was the best decision I made in my life.”

Wise explained that he couldn’t leave guys that were like brothers to him. They were the most unselfish teammates he ever had. It centered around Beaty, who was a close friend with Wise until his passing in 2013.

“He was quite something,” Wise said. 

So, too, was Stars coach Bill Sharman. Wise considers him the greatest he ever played for, crediting the eventual Hall of Famer with knowing the intricacies of the game and helping players improve.

“He knew how to substitute and motivate you,” said Wise, who added that Sharman was an “elite coach.”.

Sharman coached the Stars in Los Angeles for one season before Bill Daniels purchased the team and moved the franchise to Salt Lake City. He left for the NBA’s Lakers following the title run in Utah.

That championship season, though, proved historic. It remains Utah’s only professional basketball crown — five decades later. 

Wise has fond memories of that night in the Salt Palace. Following the celebration with the fans, he headed straight for the showers and said he never wanted to take his uniform off.

“I remember that,” Wise said with a laugh.

And that wasn’t all. The celebration that followed the series-clinching win was filled with plenty of smiles and good times.

‘You just can’t replace that’

The fact that 50 years have passed, reminisced Boone, is proof that time has gone by so fast since the days of the ABA and the success of the Utah Stars.

“The friendships and everything that you developed in the ABA and the friendships we continue to have with some of those Utah Stars players that won a championship in 1971, I don’t know, you just can’t replace that,” said Boone, who also played for the Utah Jazz and is now a broadcaster for the team.

Boone added that there was no doubt the Stars had the pieces in place to win back-to-back championships.

“The other two teams that were considered to be the best in the ABA — the Kentucky Colonels and the Indiana Pacers — we had great success against them,” Boone said. “Especially Indiana. We had learned how to play them very, very well.”

Boone recalled a game against Indiana when he suggested to Sharman that the Stars get the ball to Wise and make Pacers star Roger Brown work hard on defense.

It paid off for Utah.

After relocating from Los Angeles following the purchase of the team by Bill Daniels, the Stars went 57-27 in their first season in Salt Lake City. Their playoff run included a 4-0 sweep of the Texas Chaparrals and then a hard-fought 4-3 series decision over the Pacers. The latter avenged a six-game setback in the 1970 ABA finals when the L.A. Stars lost to Indiana.

Utah had a 3-1 lead in the series before it wound up being tied. The Stars prevailed 108-101 in a hotly contested Game 7 in Indianapolis.

Wise remembers it well. After a postgame radio interview, an irate Pacers fan approached Wise, called him a jerk and then threw a cup of beer on him.

Prevailing in Indy, Wise acknowledged, was really for the championship. That was the mindset, despite a remaining series with Kentucky for the crown.

‘Jubilation, celebration, ecstasy’

Home-court was protected by each team through six games, setting up a winner-take-all contest in the Salt Palace. Wise noted that the Colonels were scrappy, but the Stars were confident. They were going to wrap it up.

Beaty had 36 points and 16 rebounds in the finale. Wise added 22 points and 20 boards. Combs, Jackson and Robbins also had strong outings.

“There was never any sense of urgency or panic among us,” Wise said.

The Stars were determined to finish things off. When it was over, fans stormed the court and lifted Beaty and Wise above the crowd.

“I just remember jubilation, celebration, ecstasy. You know, release that we finally did it,” Wise said. “And the thought was we did it — not only for ourselves — but just as much for the fans there in Salt Lake City.”

Like Wise, Boone noted that the Stars felt that they had as good of or better team in that series.

“Zelmo really made a big difference in the middle there, the way he played,” Boone said. “It was one of those ball games where you were just glad it was here in the Salt Palace where our fans could see us win it.”

The Stars, he continued, handled the pressure well and thank goodness they had Zelmo.

A lasting bond

Of the 11 players that saw action for Utah in the 1971 championship series only four are still living — Wise, Boone, Glen Combs and Sam Smith. Wise speaks with Boone about once or twice a year, but has fallen out of contact with the other two players.

Passings over the years include George Stone (1993), Red Robbins (2009), Merv Jackson (2012), Beaty (2013), Rod McDonald (2015), Mike Butler (2018) and Dick Nemelka (2020). Sharman died in 2013.

Wise and Beaty developed a strong bond that season as roommates on the road. Beaty would often speak to Wise about players like Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Lou Hudson and Jimmy Walker. They both wound up residing in the Pacific Northwest and would visit periodically throughout retirement from basketball.

Beaty, who spent much of his career in the NBA before becoming MVP in the ABA championship series, wound up being inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2016.

“It was well deserved,” Wise said. “I’m glad that the recognition finally came to him even though he was not here to enjoy it.”

Wise still keeps in regular contact with former Stars guard James Jones. They speak on the telephone regularly. The 1971 championship was one reason Jones opted to play in Utah the following season. The second was his friendship with Wise.

Life in Salt Lake City, though, was a culture shock for many of the players. Beaty (Prairie View) and Jones (Grambling) were from historically black colleges and universities, while Wise was from San Francisco and hadn’t ventured out of that area much until playing his college ball in Iowa at Drake.

“It was a very good experience, actually,” said Wise, who acknowledged the players had heard a lot of things about Salt Lake City at the time. “And we did experience some things that were a little bit of a challenge, but overall our experience of being accepted by the majority of the ones that we had contact with really received us.”

Fans invited players to their homes for meals.

“We just embraced the embracing. We embraced. We appreciated the embracing,” Wise said. “So our experience there — even though it was difficult, it was a culture shock — the fans there received us”

Wise added that he wouldn’t trade it for anything and will never forget. The fan base, he continued, made it easier.

Life in the ABA was hectic enough. A grueling schedule, Wise remembered, included a Thursday game in Salt Lake City and a Friday contest in Virginia, Then a Saturday visit to New York and a Sunday matinee in Kentucky. That was followed by a Monday home date against Carolina.   

Utah won three of those games despite the weariness.

Going on to win the championship, however, provided an understandable rush of adrenalin later when the season ended.

Boone, who is now 74-years-old, had a memorable moment when the series ended. What he remembers most is running straight to the locker room when the final buzzer sounded and the crowd stormed the floor. He then realized what he was doing and returned to the court for the celebration. 

The championship, Boone points out, was Utah’s introduction to pro basketball. The finale drew an ABA-record crowd of 13,260. He thinks the success proved that an NBA team could survive in Salt Lake City.

Boone is the player bridge, of sorts, between the Stars and Jazz. It’s a title and residency he carries with pride.

“It’s something special,” Boone said.

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