Wonderous Willie Wise, 1974

[Yesterday, the blog ran a story about Hall-of-Famer Zelmo Beaty during his days with the ABA’s Utah Stars. Today, we look in on Beaty’s Utah teammate Willie Wise, considered one of the ABA’s top forwards. These days, however, you rarely hear Wise’s name mentioned in the same breath as Julius Erving, George McGinnis, George Gervin, and the other ABA greats. That’s a shame. In his heyday, the 6-foot-5 “Wonderous Willie,” as they called him, could go head-to-head with the game’s very best at both ends of the floor. 

“Willie Wise was one of the toughest competitors I ever played against,” recalled Erving. “He came to play every night. I really respected him. Willie was one of those players that the NBA fans never had a chance to see the best he had. That’s because Willie was injured a lot when he played in the NBA. That was a shame. Willie Wise had game. A great game.”

This Basketball Weekly article, from the March 6, 1974 (Wise’s final season in Utah), goes a long way toward explaining why Wonderous Willie has become Willie Who for basketball nuts under age 60. Wise was as low-key as they come and preferred to receive his praise from fellow players, not the media. He was the big buzz that never was. But Wise did interviews from time to time during his career, and here the Indianapolis-based journalist Dick Denny, who covered the ABA for many years, catches Wise at an introspective moment.]

It was a time to be glad, to be young, to be a San Franciscan in the city by the sea. Maybe. Willie Wise shuffled his career, his future, and his life through all the mental processes in the summer of ‘69 and tried to be cool. 

He had no doubts about his ability to play professional basketball, it was revealed in the security of five years later. But the phone . . . why didn’t the phone ring? And why didn’t the Golden State Warriors care? Why was Willie Wise being treated with all the courtesy of an inductee in the days before the Army wanted to join you?

“It was my fault mostly,” he said just before suiting up for his third American Basketball Association All-Star appearance here [Norfolk, Va.] last month. “I mean my senior year at Drake, I made some statements that I might not play pro basketball. I didn’t know if I wanted all the travel and being away, I just didn’t know.”

Willie Wise, after playing on the Drake team which nearly upset Lew Alcindor and UCLA in the 1969 NCAA championships, was selected far down the draft list by Golden State, nee San Francisco. He was going home. Playing in front of his family and his friends was a dream and also cancelled any notion of not wanting to play, or of becoming a truck driver. So what if no one in the ABA selected his name. 

The Warriors, by this time, had accumulated a large collection of players with no-cut contracts. They also had some doubts since it was Willie McCarter, not Willie Wise, who starred for Drake. He was in the “if he comes to camp okay, but if he doesn’t okay” class. 

“They never made any monetary offers,” Wise said. “They just said come to camp and try out. I could see all those no-cuts. What chance did I have?”

Wise’s coach Murray John, now at Iowa State, got into the letter-writing business. He got Wise a tryout with the Los Angeles Stars or the Kentucky Colonels, whichever he desired. Wise took the Stars, since that was closer to home. Bill Sharman didn’t have to look long to discover the new recruit was, indeed, a player. 

Since then the life of Willie Wise, though still basic and uncluttered, has been a happy success story. The Stars left Los Angeles for Salt Lake City, and Wise has moved into the ranks of the game’s very best forwards. 

His points per game average has ranged between 15 and 23. He is annually among the top rebounding forwards. “He,” said Kentucky coach Babe McCarthy in a discussion about the best of the many excellent ABA forwards, “might put it in the hole better than all of ‘em.”

Why then have so few heard the name “Willie Wise” and “excellent player” mentioned in the same sentence? Why is it only the game’s devotees, and not the general sporting public, who know of this sleepy-eyed man and his achievements? These and other questions were broached in a wide-ranging discussion.

The American Basketball Association does not, of course, get much national television exposure. It does not get, in proportion, the kind of radio and press exposure as does the NBA. Salt Lake City, unless you happen to be a ski buff, isn’t really on the way to anywhere. 

But the real reason for Willie Wiese’s anonymity is a self-imposed modesty and belief that he plays the game to impress his peers, not the press or the fans. He feels he’s received just recognition. Why?

“Because Dave DeBusschere said I can play,” he said. “Because Bill Sharman thinks I can play. Because Wilt Chamberlain said I can play. This is my recognition. 

“I don’t have any flashy moves, any crowd-pleasing shots,” he said. “Writers can attach superlatives and adjectives to guys like Dr. J. (Julius Erving) and it makes good reading. I’m more like a machine. 

“And I wouldn’t be flashy if I could because, if I did that, I wouldn’t be Willie” he said. “I’m not Dr. Willie or the new ‘Baby Bull.’ Like I really enjoy watching Dr. J. play, except when he’s coming at me, but that’s not my way. I do things the simplest, the easiest way possible.”

Indeed, one ABA rival coach is convinced, Wise is the greatest ever at being able to produce maximum results with minimum effort. But that really isn’t true either, because along with the good times has been the pain of a constantly aching knee and the necessity of too much playing time, especially this year. 

“I haven’t had any choice,” said Stars coach Joe Mullaney. “We haven’t been getting any consistency from the other forward spot and when I move Go (Gerald Govan) into the center for Z (Zelmo Beaty), I have to keep Willie in there. He’s been playing 46-47 minutes a game. 

“He’s been playing tired, but he’s been playing well,” Mullaney said. “Willie is just Willie.”

That last theme was played often throughout this investigation. This man, seemingly, has no enemies and legions of admirers from the inside circle of basketball, including players, coaches, management, and, yes, even the writers. They admire the man as much as the player. 

Willie Wise is a simple man, shy, sensitive to people and their feelings. He wants to keep life that way and, in part, this accounts for his resistance to attentive media types. He asked not to appear on a national television interview regarding the All-Star game. He talks willingly, however, to writers. He’s into people too much to be rude and, yeh, writers are still people.

“Willie Wise,” says Willie Wise, “is a guy who’s concerned about a lot of things. I’d say he’s easy-going. He’s a player who’s aware of a lot of things people don’t give him credit for. They think he goes through life with his eyes closed, laughing. 

“He loves kids. He loves to play basketball. He has the utmost respect for the guys he plays with.

“He’s a guy who wants to sit back and look at some things some more,” he said. “And see how those things can be changed. His goal in life is to leave a bigger mark than just a basketball player. There is no hate. I look at me as simply Willie.”

Unlike others who spin an exceptional yarn while in the writer’s presence then, once out of the temple, don’t quite live up to the temperate life, Willie Wise makes it. 

This season, as mentioned, has been again kind to him and he to it. The Stars are well in front of the Western Division, and they may once again challenge for the crown which they wore so regally in 1971. Willie Wise is there, doing his part. At the moment, his sore knee is finally getting some rest for the upcoming playoffs. 

He wants to keep his role the same. He says there won’t be any more interviews (which no one really believes). Publicity, he says, is of considerable concern. 

“It doesn’t frighten me,” he said. “But I know it would affect me. It has to affect you. Everyone has an ego. I’m just trying to keep my ego down, and one sure way not too is to have a lot of publicity. I don’t want to do anything to affect my lifestyle, my game, or my team. I don’t really play for publicity. My stick is pure respect. They think I can play, and that’s what matters. “

Don’t mention where you heard it, but there are a lot of people who think this guy can play. And there are a lot of people who think this is a pretty decent sort of man. That, hopefully, will matter, too.

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