The American Basketball Association was a competitor with the NBA from 1967 to 1976.
As the value of sports franchises climbed with TV contracts in the late ’60s, anyone wanting to be an owner of a professional sports team would have to wait years for expansion to be decided upon by a league, and then would face very high fees to join as well.
Perhaps inspired by the NFL’s rival league — the AFL that was close to merging — ABA investors opted to organize a new basketball league, sign top college players, steal veterans, get national TV exposure and wait it out. The value of any franchise would rise exponentially once it was brought into the NBA.
Of course, it was not that simple. Years passed. A lawsuit by the players union delayed the merger significantly. There were huge financial losses during the wait for a merger, teams and players moved about constantly, but eventually, nine years later four of the ABA teams were accepted into the NBA in 1976.
The Utah Stars did not get in, but the fervent support of the team over the years of its existence certainly was a deciding factor with getting the Utah Jazz later.
Birth of the Stars
This story begins in Anaheim, California, as one of the 11 original teams of the upstart league in 1967.
The Anaheim Amigos were in the Western Division with Dallas, Denver, Houston, New Orleans, and Oakland. The Eastern Division featured Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh.
Despite playing across the street from Disneyland, the Amigos had a very hard time selling tickets — averaging only 1,293 fans in an arena built for 7,500. The team lost over half a million dollars as they tumbled to a 25-53 record.
The Anaheim owners sold the franchise to Los Angeles construction magnate James Kirst, who moved the team to the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, the Lakers’ old venue. Renaming them the Los Angeles Stars, the prior coach was released and most of the Amigos players were sent packing as well.
The team signed renowned NBA coach Bill Sharman to lead eight rookies and a few veterans in the 1968-1969 season, and while their record improved to 35-43, they missed the playoffs again — attracting less than 4.000 average attendance in a venue that held over 14,000.
Meanwhile, the other team in Los Angeles — the NBA’s Lakers — were selling out their new 12,500 seat arena with standouts Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain.
Undaunted, the owner of the Los Angeles Stars stuck it out for another year, but in March of 1970, they were in the last place in the Western Division again and still facing low ticket sales. Having lost over $1 million in two years of ownership, James Kirst sold the team to cable TV pioneer Bill Daniels before the end of the season.
Under new ownership, the Stars ended the season on a 12-6 tear to secure a playoff spot for the first time. The hot streak continued as the team went 8-3 and won two playoff series against teams with better records. They amazingly found themselves playing for the ABA championship.
The Los Angeles Stars took the eventual champion Indiana Pacers to six games before losing the series. It ended a remarkable Cinderella run from the last place to near champions. The team had quickly become a contender under Sharman.
Two weeks later, Daniels announced the team would move again. This time to Salt Lake City. There was a lot to be excited about including the addition of established NBA starting center Zelmo Beaty would join the team. He “jumped leagues” and signed with the Stars the previous October. A mandatory one-year hiatus ended with the move to Utah.
“We’ll win it all with Zelmo,” Sharman announced.
Salt Lake City was in for a real treat.
At a noon luncheon at the Salt Palace on June 10, 1970, the team was officially announced as the Utah Stars. They had signed a rental agreement for the 12,500 seat arena the prior week, and with league commissioner Jack Dolph at the podium, Daniels exclaimed to the press: “We want to make Salt Lake City the Green Bay of pro basketball.”
Unlike earlier incarnations, the Utah Stars had great attendance and fan support. The team set a new league record for ticket sales the first year in Utah, attracting 262,342 fans for 42 home dates.
In their Salt Palace opener, the Stars soundly defeated the Denver Nuggets, 134-99, before 9,185 fans. They started the season 8-0. Beaty wound up leading the team with 22.9 points and 15.7 rebounds per game. Utah went 57-27 before winning playoff series against Texas, Indiana, and Kentucky to claim the ABA crown.