The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and Zelmo Beaty, 1971

[The ABA is remembered today for raiding NBA veterans. Less well-remembered is the raids came in waves. The first wave famously beached Rick Barry of the NBA San Francisco Warriors. The ABA needed Barry’s star power to lend instant credibility to a not-so-credible league. But Barry was a test case to determine whether the ABA could legally get away with raiding NBA veterans. 

Once the courts ruled in the Barry case that the option clause in all NBA player contracts was valid for one extra season, not an entire playing career, the ABA eventually commenced a second wave of NBA thefts. This wave was more brazen, and the contracts tendered were enormous. It was in this second wave that the ill-fated Los Angeles Stars hauled in veteran Zelmo Beaty of the Atlanta Hawks. Beaty, his knees shot and pondering retirement, agreed after signing with the ABA to sit out his NBA option year, if the Stars got him a job with a Southern California bank, where he could learn the world of finance and prepare for life after basketball. 

The Stars’ management acquiesced—and then succumbed to that very world of finance. Jim Kirst, the team’s majority owner who built California freeways for a living, handed off his way-underwater franchise to the league. Lucky for all involved, the ABA had a buyer on the hook to relocate the franchise to Albuquerque. 

That might have been the end of the story, except the ABA also was in merger negotiations with the NBA at that very moment. Word leaked that the influential Ned Irish, president of the New York Knicks, hated Albuquerque and would make a big fuss if the relocation went through. The ABA backed off of Albuquerque, though it didn’t help the merger talks. The merger fell through, and the Stars soon relocated to Salt Lake City under the ownership of Bill Daniels, a Colorado cable-television millionaire and war hero.

By the early 1970s, the cable industry was in a bad way, and so was Daniels financially. In 1974, he ran for governor of Colorado, but got trounced in the primaries. His wife divorced him, his kids wouldn’t speak to him, and Daniels was dead broke. All he had left was his basketball team in Utah. And so, Daniels moved into a Howard Johnson’s in downtown Salt Lake, offering the hotel staff tickets to games to let him stay there. 

I mention all of the above not to besmirch Daniels’ memory. By all accounts, Daniels was one of the good guys in 1970s sports, and he would eventually get back on his feet and regain his fortune. But it was during Daniels’ Howard Johnson years that Beaty’s mega contract became an albatross around his neck. The Stars, especially their tough-guy general manager Vince Boryla, would arbitrarily slash the final year of Beaty’s contract to reduce costs and keep the franchise going. Beaty threatened to sue, and the rest went very badly for all. 

But until Daniels went broke, the Stars were beloved in the Wasatch Valley, and so was Beaty, truly a class act. This article, from Complete Sports’ 1971 Pro Basketball edition, captures some of Beaty’s good times with the Utah Stars. The byline belongs to Steve Rudman, formerly a sportswriter with the Salt Lake Tribune, who incidentally told me several years ago much of what I wrote above about Daniels.]

When that flag-waving, super-patriotic owner at the Utah Stars, Bill Daniels of Denver, decided to move the Los Angeles Stars to Utah, little did anyone realize the implication in Daniels’ remark that he intended to make the capital of the Mormon empire “the Green Bay of professional basketball.” 

Daniels made that now prophetic statement on a balmy June afternoon in 1970, and as the sport raised all manner of vociferous objections  and conjured up dreadful images of such forgettable franchises as the Houston Mavericks, Chicago Zephyrs, and New Jersey Americans, no less an authority than ex-St. Louis and Atlanta star Zelmo Beaty came rushing to his defense.

“I believe,” Beaty said to a skeptical audience in a resolute voice, “that Mr. Daniels is right. This is going to be a great city for pro basketball.”

The prevailing opinion, however, was that both Daniels and Beaty had lost their minds. Daniels, who had become rich through his investments in cable television, and Beaty, who had just sat out a full season after jumping from the NBA to the ABA, had clearly been derailed in their thinking. Salt Lake City—the Green Bay of professional basketball? Hardly. Pro basketball was for places like New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Baltimore; even such metropolitan areas as Cincinnati, San Diego, and San Francisco were experiencing difficulty supporting the sport. So, where did Daniels and Beaty get off making such ludicrous remarks?

The cynics sat back and purred. The only other place with less of a chance to support big-time basketball was Spearfish, South Dakota, they thought. 

One and a half years later, Bill Daniels and Zelmo Beaty, among others, can testify the cynics, indeed, thought erroneously. Not only has the sport flourished in Utah, thanks to Daniels, his tough-minded president and general manager, Vince Boryla (formerly a player and front office official with the New York Knicks), and the superb play of Beaty and such a rising young talent as Willie Wise, Glen Combs, Ron Boone, Merv Jackson, and Red Robbins. But it has become one of the state’s most prosperous and powerful industries as well, and is even approaching institutional proportions. 

So successful was the franchise in its initial year of operation that it attracted a record attendance of 262,342 during the regular season and 100,895 more in the nine playoff games; and had legitimate sellouts (13,260 in the glittering new Salt Palace) in a population area of only 450,000 and 1 million total in a state that also boasts collegiate facilities of considerable magnitude: to wit, a 15,500-seat arena at the University of Utah just 10 miles from the Salt Palace; a 23,000-seat facility at Brigham Young University in Provo, 40 miles south of the capital; a 10,000-seat arena at Weber State College, 35 miles north; and a 12,000-seat facility at Utah State University, 90 miles north. And these facilities are filled regularly by enthusiastic patrons. 

“To get support in a city this size and with so much other basketball going on is remarkable,” Beaty commented last season after the Stars had captured the ABA championship. “We have had a truly enthusiastic reception, and I think I can honestly say we’ll be in Utah for a long time to come.”

Beaty is not the only man who has played in the NBA who shares his opinion. Following an exhibition game this season with the New York Knicks, superstars Walt Frazier and Willis Reed and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley offered their opinions. 

“The Green Bay of pro basketball?” Frazier asked. “Well, if it’s anywhere it’s here, I would bet on that. This is a fine place for basketball; in fact, I would say it’s one of the best. This is definitely a first-class, major-league city.”

Reed was equally impressed. “It’s sure one of the best places I’ve played in. The enthusiasm is tremendous,” he said after the Knicks had edged the Stars, 96-89, and Reed had been booed violently by the charged-up crowd of 12,201.

Bradley then entered the conversation with some erudite remarks. “This arena is architecturally and acoustically one of the best places I’ve ever played in; and that crowd was something else.”

Beaty’s reception and, indeed, the Stars’ reception in Utah, the state known mostly to the outside world for a religion called “Mormonism,” the Bonneville Salt Flats, and a few national parks, has been quite a phenomenon. 

The team has become a collective hero of sorts, and so has Beaty in particular. His picture is plastered on billboards in 29 counties; he has been seen on several local television shows; he has hobnobbed with Utah governor Calvin L. Rampton on various social occasions (something Zelmo would have considered quite absurd when he was playing with Atlanta and Lester Maddox was running Georgia); he has become recently chairman of the state’s drive to combat tuberculosis; and he is probably the state’s highest-paid employee with a salary nearing $200,000 a season. 

Utah’s No. 1 adopted citizen, Beaty is destined for further fame and fortune. Soon to be are Zelmo Beaty ashtrays, Zelmo Beaty wrist watches, and a variety of other artifacts with that intense Beaty countenance emblazoned on them in glorious living color. In addition, Beaty will soon slap down his hands in a giant block of cement on “Stars Avenue” across from the Salt Palace, thus indelibly making his mark on the spot Brigham Young designated in 1847 as “The Place.” 

Beaty, who is considering a permanent move to Utah from his first love, Los Angeles, gets a bit breathless from all the demands on his time, but he is wryly amused and even secretly pleased with his “newfound” stardom. 

If he was even or at all skeptical about his reception in Utah and move to the ABA, it has certainly been altered. Beaty admits now, “I have enjoyed myself tremendously.”

If he seems to be enjoying himself more these days, too, the credit must go to him alone. After sitting out the 1969-70 season so he could make a legal transition from the NBA to the 5-year-old ABA, Beaty, despite his ever-present tender knees, had his finest statistical season last year with a 23.2 scoring average during the regular season and a career-best rebounding mark of 14.6 a game. 

In a league just on the horizon of prominence (fat television contracts are in the negotiating stages), Beaty was the league’s No. 1 drawing card last year, overshadowing such registered luminaries as Rick Barry of the New York Nets, Charlie Scott of the Virginia Squires, Joe Caldwell of the Carolina Cougars, and rookie Dan Issel of the Kentucky Colonels. 

Despite the fact the rest of the names in the league aren’t as well known, Beaty is the first to emphasize the amount of talent dispersed among the ABA’s 11 teams. “We have just as many good players in the ABA as they do in the NBA. There just aren’t as many of them. But look who came in this year. Artis Gilmore is with Kentucky; Virginia’s got Julius Erving; and Darnell Hillman and George McGinnis went with Indiana; and Jim McDaniels is with Carolina. There’s several more, too, and it will continue to get better. 

“Sometimes I think it’s rougher in the ABA because the game is more wide-open. I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve had just as many bumps in the ABA as I got in the NBA.”

Beaty earned his paycheck in the NBA because he was able to shoot from the outside. While he still doesn’t hesitate to fire it up from 15 feet (he even made a couple of three-pointers last year), Beaty has had to work more inside in the ABA, which has not only helped him offensively, but has added to his defensive abilities (against Reed, he scored 25 points and collected 23 rebounds and limited the NBA’s Most Valuable Player about two years ago to 16 points and twelve rebounds).

Now approaching 31, Beaty is a distinguished-looking man, maturing as gracefully as he performs on the basketball floor. His 6-foot-9, 235-pound frame is as lean and durable as it has always been, despite the battering and punishment that has been inflicted upon it in eight pro seasons. 

His short-cropped black hair is thinning at the crown, but just barely; his face is lined in the right places, and he has a pair of alert and amiable dark eyes that reveal a manner of unpretentious urbanity in a cool, casual way that puts others at ease. The expression he wears, once as sad and haunting as a matador’s, is a little more in repose these days, although a measure of tension has returned since the season got underway. 

Described by those who know him best as “intelligent” and “independent.” (as evidenced by the fact he resigned as president of the ABA Players Association this year so he could voice his personal disapproval of the NBA-ABA merger), Beaty possesses a keen sense of leadership and responsibility. 

If ever a man, especially a professional athlete, seemingly has it made, then that man is Zelmo Beaty. His successes in his personal and private life have been almost as countless as the number of rebounds he has pulled down, and at this point it appears the sun will never set on the volcano of energy who plays center for the Utah Stars. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: