[Willie Wise was an undisputed ABA great. But in 1969, his jump from Drake University to the pros was a little bumpy. He persevered, and, by 1971, he had arrived as one of the top forwards in pro basketball. To capture this critical period in Wise’s career, here are four newspaper articles from 1971, organized seasonally and starting with the Spring and this nice piece from Robert Spiegel, editor of the Mason City (Iowa) Globe-Gazette. It ran on May 21, 1971.]
I am a Willie Wise fan, so I have been smiling a lot lately. This is because I have been enjoying the Willie Wise Show on national television, otherwise billed as the championship playoffs of the American Basketball Association (ABA).
Willie Wise is a member and a very valuable one of the Utah Stars that beat the Kentucky Colonels in seven games to win the NBA title. This doesn’t surprise anyone who saw him play two years for Drake University.
Willie is a winner. He is a total player, the kind who doesn’t dominate the statistics but dominates the opponent. Maurice John, who coached him at Drake, called Wise “a player.” It was the highest praise John could offer.
The pro scouts didn’t listen, even after Willie Wise held UCLA’s Lew Alcindor even off the boards in the 1969 NCAA championship round. They liked Drake’s Willie McCarter, a big scorer, and the Los Angeles Lakers paid $250,000 for McCarter’s services.
Wise was overlooked. He wanted to play for the San Francisco team in the NBA, but it drafted him fifth and didn’t offer a bonus. So, Willie finally won a place on the ABA’s Los Angeles Stars (since moved to Salt Lake City) by outplaying everyone in preseason trials. And he became the No. 2 rookie of the ABA a year ago, beaten out by the heralded Spencer Haywood. What’s more, the lowly Stars where the runners-up to the ABA championship.
Willie played with two bum ankles last year and had surgery on them. He reinjured them in the exhibition season this year and missed much early action, then came on tremendously strong the last half of the season when he averaged 23 points and 15 rebounds a game.
So, things have not come easy to Willie, and that is why I called the old boy to congratulate him on being a big winner.
“Hey, I’ve been wanting to hear from someone in Iowa,” said Willie. “I’m having a great time, you know, and I wanted to talk to someone at home (his Iowa home) about it.”
Willie had played on the No. 3 team in the in NCAA meet two years ago, the No. 2 team in the ABA last year, and now the No. 1 team in the ABA. How about that?
“I’m floating, man,” said Willie. “It is so great. This is the best yet. “
This is a young man who never hides his feelings. If his team loses, Willie feels awful. He blames himself for things he never did. But mostly, he is happy. He shrugs off the disappointment and makes it on his own. This is what made this latest triumph so sweet.
“It was hard at first in the pros,” said Willie. “You know about that. Willie McCarter got it all, and you know that didn’t bother me because Willie earned it. But I knew I could play, and it hurt when San Francisco (his hometown) didn’t give me a chance. Hey, those guys need a good forward, don’t they?”
Yes, sir, Willie, they do.
“Hey, Mister Spiegel (a salutation that makes me feel too old), did you see where I was picked on the ABA All-Stars to play Oscar in the NBA All-Stars? That’s going to be fun.
That particular version of the Willie Wise Show will be on national TV on Friday, May 28.
“Willie,” I said, “you got in a rut on the two televised games. Only 34 points in each one. How come?”
Willie Wise laughed about that and thought it was a pretty good rut. “It felt so good to play well after having those bad ankles early,” said Willie. “I was awful when I got back. No timing. Nothing.”
But he was something against Kentucky in the final seven games, averaging 25 points and 16 rebounds a game. Willie says much of it comes from playing alongside Zelmo Beaty, the 6-foot-9 center who was an NBA all-star before jumping leagues.
Willie says “Z” is “the greatest.” “He always wants to give me the ball,” said Willie. “He tells me not to bother about feeding him but just go one-on-one, and that’s why I’m scoring. The other team thinks first about “Z” and then about me. That helps.”
Willie likes to go one-on-one better than about anything else, except rebounding. “You know, it is so good just to sort of float in there, backing in, backing in, moving, then putting it up.”
I could almost see Willie at the other end of the phone, backing in, bouncing an imaginary ball.
Will he be back with Utah next year?
Willie got serious. “It has been fun but, believe it or not, I am the second lowest-paid player on this team, and I don’t think that’s right.”
He has a point. Beaty is the only other Utah player on the ABA All-Star squad. What’s more, he has some experts in his corner these days. Bones McKinney, the longtime college and pro coach, is a pure Willie Wise fan. Bones called Willie “the man with a thousand moves who beats you all kinds of ways” in his television commentary.
And Frank Ramsey, the Kentucky coach, said ahead of the final series that Willie Wise was the man who could make the difference. “He plays rings around the all-stars,” said Ramsey. “He has to be the most-underrated player in the league.”
Wise has played out his two-year contract with Utah. He is a free agent and can sign with any pro team. “I’m talking with the Stars first, then I’m going to sit back and wait,” said Willie, laughing. “Maybe I can get a little bit of what Willie (McCarter) got. That’ll be cool.”
[This summer article is from Frank Blackman of the San Francisco Examiner. It ran on June 6, 1971]
Salt Lake City. The name conjures up images of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tyrone Power as Brigham Young, beautiful country, and the American Basketball Association’s new champs. One of the players on the ABA-champion Utah Stars team is a young man named Willie Wise. He’s from San Francisco.
Wise is very big in Salt Lake City. The 24-year-old forward is also a favorite of fans in Memphis, Indianapolis, Norfolk, and other cities around the ABA. Wise is happy to be known there, but what Willie always wanted—really wanted—was to be very big right here in his hometown.
“All I ever wanted to do,” said Willie, who’s back in The City looking for an apartment for the summer, “was to be a San Francisco Warrior. It was my dream. Wow, what could be better than to play here before my family and friends!”
Yet, despite making some overtures to an uninterested Warriors’ management, it is probable that he will play out his career as a very valuable property of the Stars. How valuable? Plying one’s trade in the hinterlands of America isn’t the best way to gain recognition. The word, though, is out on Wise.
Peter Carry of Sports Illustrated wrote, “Another thing the ABA has is six or seven extraordinary players who are virtually unknown to NBA fans. Utah has the finest of these hidden talents in 6-6 forward Willie Wise, who joined the Stars as a free agent two years ago after graduating from Drake. Wise may be the best all-round young forward in the pros.”
However, the best young forward in the pros can wander the streets of San Francisco in virtual anonymity. While lesser-talents on the Warriors are accosted by fawning autograph seekers, Wise remains just another big Black man.
Willie has always been overlooked by the local basketball seers. His talent, subtle and controlled, eluded the understanding of fans who were enamored with quicksilver point scorers. When he played at Balboa High here, Wise drew very little attention. Name the last all-pro who couldn’t make an all-city high school team?
Wise played junior college basketball at City College of San Francisco. In a city intoxicated with the derring-do of Rick Barry, a little-known junior college ballplayer couldn’t expect attention. So, he didn’t get it.
In his senior year at Drake University, his team met UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the NCAA semifinals. Drake lost, then most of the attention went to Willie McCarter, a guard who loved to shoot. Wise unobtrusively battled for the rebounds, shot five for seven and played tight defense.
When Wise was drafted by the Warriors in 1969 after his senior year, he was ecstatic. Although only a fifth choice, he reasoned that his being a local product would force San Francisco into giving him a shot. Granted the opportunity, he knew he could prove how good he really was. He never got that chance.
Ironically, San Francisco had chosen another local player, Bob Portman, who had graduated from St. Ignatius High School and became a prolific scorer at Creighton University. Portman seemed a better prospect, hence, the Warriors only made a half-hearted attempt to sign Willie.
So, Wise, who had not been drafted by the ABA at all, finally made a deal with the then Los Angeles Stars. If he did well, then he would get a contract. The rest, as the man says, is history.
“The reason why I was overlooked was because of my style of play. I’ve never been point hungry. People look for the guy who puts points through the hoop.
“Let’s say Rick Barry scores 50 points one night. The fans go crazy. They have to see him. Okay, so the next night I’m guarding him and, even though he takes a lot of shots, he only gets 20. What did the fans say? Gee, Barry had a bad night, he was really off. They don’t say, ‘Wow, that Willie Wise really held Rick Barry.’”
Willie is a proud man, but years of being disregarded took their toll. He approached the recent NBA-ABA All-Star game with trepidation. “I was awed at first to be playing against the biggest names in the game. Would I be outclassed and laughed at? I was really tense, but it wore off.”
Wise wound up the game as the ABA’s second-high scorer but is characteristically prouder of the job he did on defense. “Everybody will remember that I was second high, but very few noticed that I did a good job holding my man and getting rebounds.”
The majority of the populace may collectively yawn, but to a small coterie of family and friends, Willie’s success has been manna from heaven. “My father has been unknown all his life. Now he gets attention. People come up to my mother and say that they saw me on TV. My parents are on Cloud 536.”
Wise keeps the resentment he feels toward the Warriors just below the surface. He struggles hard to play down the rejection that gnaws at him.
“I’m not holding any grudges. Hurt, I’m just hurt. I tried to get in touch, but they just weren’t interested, I guess. Hell, I’ve got my pride. I’m not going to run after them.”
It’s hard to feel sympathetic towards anyone who is paid a great deal of money to play a game. If he has to travel to another city, so what? Yet, Wise’s sincerity is compelling. This city has been a cold, unfeeling mistress to him. It’s a frigid bitch that promised much, but produced little. Willie is tired of unrequited love. He’s found a new lover that appreciates him.
“It’s all behind me now,” said Wise. “The fans and management in Utah are really good to me. No, you can definitely say I’ll never play in San Francisco.”
[This a longer profile of Wise, still with the Utah Stars. It ran on November 21, 1971 in the Des Moines Register. Tagging along with Wise is the now-late reporter Ron Maly.]
Anitra Wise’s father was having only moderate success at coaxing things from people. Anitra , nearly three and a student at a Montessori School, was stumbling a bit in her attempts to recite the numbers one through five in Spanish. John Brockington was stumbling even more in his attempts to run through mud on the Monday Night Football game on television.
“Now come on Squirrely,” Wise said. “You know those words. You just learned them in school.”
Squirrely—that’s Wise’s nickname for his daughter—suddenly got into gear. The Spanish words began flowing from her lips. And at about the same time, Brockington began doing what Wise wanted him to do.
“Brockington! Brockington!” Wise shouted as the Green Bay Packer rookie sloshed for a sizable gain. “Look at that Brockington go.”
Brockington gained 111 yards for the Packers that night, Anitra Wise demonstrated that the $50 a month her parents shell out for school is a worthwhile investment, and the man of the house was busy with TV football while the pork, sweet potatoes, peas, rice and bread waited upstairs.
“When we were first married,” Joyce Wise said while keeping the food warm, “he was pretty choosey about what he ate. But now, he’ll eat about anything, providing it isn’t greasy.”
And providing, apparently, it isn’t offered while Otis Taylor of the Kansas City Chiefs is catching a touchdown pass or John Brockington is playing in the mud.
Wise is not unlike millions of other American men. He is a professional football nut of the living-room variety. Taylor is his hero; the Chiefs are his team.
But Wise is unlike millions of American men in one special way. He probably does the best all-around job of playing forward in the American Basketball Association. You remember him. Willie Wise, the old Drake star. Willie Wise, the guy who could leap a mile high. Willie Wise, the guy who would play the tough defense on you all night. Willie Wise, who would slap your hands and hug you.
Willie Wise, the guy who left his heart in San Francisco, but brought his many talents—yes, all of them—to Salt Lake City. Wise is a Utah Star—and you can spell that word “Star” with either an upper case or a lower case “s.”
“Wise and Zelmo Beaty (the Utah center) could be elected mayor of the city,” said Larry Creger, a former Iowan who is the Stars’ assistant coach and director of player personnel.
Well, that’s quite a switch. It wasn’t long ago that Willie came virtually begging for work. He wasn’t chosen in the ABA draft when he finished his career at Drake in 1969. The Stars (they were then in Los Angeles) didn’t want him. The Carolina Cougars didn’t want him. The Kentucky Colonels didn’t want him. The Dallas Chaparrals and the Denver Rockets, who always seem to be needing help, didn’t even want him.
“I was drafted fifth by the San Francisco Warriors of the National Basketball Association,” Wise recalls, “but even that wasn’t favorable. The general manager told me the club had eight or nine guys with no-cut contracts and said there would be no rookie camp.”
So, seemingly unwanted by both leagues, Wise went to work. “Letters were sent on my behalf to every team in the ABA, but we got no response,” said Wise. “Finally, a man I had working for me got responses from Los Angeles and Kentucky.
“I’m a Californian, so the Los Angeles thing sounded good. But then Jim Hardy, the Stars’ general manager, turned me down for the rookie camp because he said the team had enough players.
“A couple of days later, though, I talked with Coach Bill Sharman, I went to the rookie camp, did all right—and here I am.”
Wise was paid $15,000 for that rookie season. He got a raise last year—all the way up to $16,000. Officials of the Stars admit he worked for “peanuts.” All Willie did a year ago was help lead Utah to the ABA championship. It was Wise and Beaty who were carried off the floor by Stars fans after a 131-121 victory last May 18 over Kentucky in the final playoff game.
Wise, who wasn’t even a starter early in the season, averaged 21.1 points and 12.9 rebounds in the 18 playoff games, after 15.8 and 9.8 figures during the regular season.
The Stars say Wise stands 6-foot-6, although he doesn’t seem any taller now than when he helped Drake to a third-place finish in the 1969 National Collegiate tournament. His hair is a bit longer, his mustache a bit thicker. But he is the same old Willie. He still gives you all he’s got.
“I can honestly say,” Wise commented as he relaxed in the family room of the $40,000 house he rents in an otherwise all-white neighborhood here, “that it’s impossible for any human to put out 100 percent every night in pro basketball.
“The schedule is a killer. We had six games in seven nights this year, and I lost 10 pounds. But I try. I play as hard as I can. If I’m demanding a salary—and I’m well satisfied with what I make now—I feel I have to give in return what the money is worth. I don’t want to take money under false pretenses.”
Wise’s salary this year is “well over” $35,000. He pays $260 monthly for the house he rents from Creger, he drives a 1969 Buick Riviera he bought in Des Moines, and he has a 1966 Chevrolet “on loan.”
The mostly-brick split-level house has four bedrooms, three baths, two fireplaces (one stone, the other brick) and is carpeted upstairs and downstairs. Creger says he could get more than $300 rent for it, but doesn’t ask that much from Wise.
There is a pool table in the recreation room. On one wall near it are more than 50 photographs of Wise in action with the Stars. On another wall is that photo of himself and Beaty being carried off the floor at the Salt Palace, the gleaming, $19 million downtown arena where the Stars play.
On still another wall is a large picture of Bill Russell, the former NBA player and coach.
For a long time, of course, the NBA was all there was to pro basketball. Then along came this thing called the ABA with its funny-looking red, white, and blue ball; its funny-looking three-point play; and its funny-looking empty arenas.
The Anaheim Amigos were so funny in 1967-68 that they moved to Los Angeles and became the Stars in 1968-69. Playing in relative privacy in the shadow of the Lakers, the Stars went to Salt Lake City for the 1970-71 season.
All of a sudden, things aren’t so funny in the ABA. A merger with the NBA is close, the teams are becoming better in the newer league all the time, and Wise would have no trouble playing in the NBA. “You bet he’d play,” says Beaty, a 6-foot-9 postman who moved to the ABA after seven years with the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks.
“Willie does everything well. He plays both ends of the floor. To average 10 or 12 rebounds a game is very good for a man his size. His defense? Well, he’s always assigned to the other team’s strongest forward whenever we play. That’s how good he is.”
The Stars played exhibition games this year with the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks. They lost both, but not by big margins. “The big difference,” said Beaty, “is that the NBA has the experienced players, and this league has the young guys. The gap is closing.”
Wise says “a player is a player, and the game is the same regardless of the league.”
That doesn’t mean Wise doesn’t have thoughts at times about what might have been. “Every time I go home to San Francisco,” he admitted, “I wish I was playing for the Warriors. They could use a cat like me. I think of it when I see my friends, when I go to the places I used to go when I was younger.
“But then I get back here, and I remember that the ABA has been good to me, and I remember that I’ve put a lot of work into it. Then I forget about wanting to play for the Warriors.”
And what about Salt Lake City?
“A city is a city is a city,” answered Wise. “It’s where my financial life is right now, but I prefer other cities. The Black players don’t particularly dig it, because of the feeling against them.”
The “feeling” Willie was talking about concerns the Mormon Church doctrine, which doesn’t allow Blacks into the priesthood. “At first, I didn’t think the church accepted us when the club came to this city,” Wise said. “But now the Mormons seem to be behind us.
“None of the Black players (there are eight on the 12-man roster) stayed here during the offseason, though. Most of us come from Black environments, and we wanted to go there—back in places like San Francisco, Louisiana, and Savannah, Georgia—to help out.”
Although Wise is extremely popular here, he doubts that would be the case if he wasn’t a basketball player. “They’d probably resent me for living in this neighborhood,” he explained.
On his way home from practice the other day (the workout was held, by the way, in a Mormon Church gymnasium because the Salt Palace was being used for ice skating), Wise was jay-walking while running an errand.
“Willie Wise! Willie Wise!” a group of young persons shouted from a car that passed by.
“Sure, they know me,” Wise said. “A lot of people know me. But would it be the same if I wasn’t a Star?”
Wise gave up apartment living to move into his house, which is 11 miles from the Salt Palace. The house is less than two miles from the beautiful Wasatch mountains. His telephone number is unlisted.
He says he has had no problems in the neighborhood, but adds that he has little to do with the people there. “It’s not because of any Black-white thing,” he said. “It’s because I get bugged to death. Kids are always ringing my doorbell in search of autographs. I stay inside so I can be with my family. I’m gone so much that it’s got to be that way.”
On game days, Willie wants as little conversation as possible. That means he doesn’t even want to talk with his wife. “I have to get myself ready to play,” he explained, “and she can’t bother me. That’s just another day in her life that’s gone.”
“I go to bed at 1:30 in the afternoon and sleep for two hours. After that, I go downstairs and listen to music . . . any kind of music . . . anything to get me fired up for the game.
“I think about my job down there. I concentrate on who I’ll be guarding. Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Roger Brown . . . I’ve got to figure out a way to stop them. I can’t concentrate on that if Joyce is talking. She’s good about it. She just leaves the house.”
Willie and Joyce resume communications after the game “when I’m starting to come down emotionally.”
On game days, Wise’s eating habits are haphazard. He might have his pregame meal at 1 p.m., he might have it at 4 p.m. He might eat after the game, he might not eat at all.
During his senior year at Drake, Wise said pro basketball was not in his plans because he was deeply interested in religion. He intended, he said, to become a minister. “I’m still very interested in the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Willie said, “and I do want to become a minister someday. I’m not a Witness yet, but I’m trying to become one.
“My Witness training had a lot to do with why I try to put everything I have into each game. I know it’s not always possible, but I try.
Wise reported to camp at 231 pounds last year and wasn’t a starter for a while. “All I did was eat,” he explained. “That, plus the fact I’ve got the bad joints—a bad knee and ankle—and they hurt me tremendously.”
Once Willie did start, there was no stopping him. Beaty helped his shooting, and Sharman did the rest. “Zelmo gave me confidence in my shooting,” Wise explained. “When I was at Drake, we had guys who could score. I didn’t have to bother with it.
“But ‘Z’ kept telling me to shoot. He said to look for my shot first. If I didn’t have a shot, then I should look for him.”
Wise labels Sharman, who moved from the Stars to the Los Angeles Lakers after the 1970-71 success story, “a beautiful coach.”
“I hated to see him go,” said Willie. “He worked as hard—even harder than Coach John worked us at Drake—and we could appreciate it down the stretch. When other guys were getting tired, we were just starting to roll.”
The Stars’ new coach is LaDell Andersen, who had been at Utah State. “It’s a challenge moving from a college into a pro job after a championship year,” Andersen said. “I’m still getting acquainted with the team. Right now, I feel like I am 42,000 years old. Actually, I’m 42.”
The Stars have been inconsistent while Andersen gets his feet on the ground in the ABA. “He looks like he’ll work out all right,” said Wise.
The Stars have no training rules, but Wise doesn’t need any. He doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t smoke. “Some of the other players tried to force me to drink champagne after we won the title,” Willie said, “but I wouldn’t do it. They did pour some over my head, but that’s the closest it came to my mouth.
“I’ll stick to 7-Up and colas. The other guys respect me for it.”
Joyce Wise, who grew up in Tallulah, La., says she is willing to put up with pro basketball as long as Willie wants to stay in it. “I have a good relationship with the other players’ wives,” said Joyce, who has been Willie’s wife for five years. “We go to lunch and dinner together.
“The nights are lonely when he’s gone, but if basketball is what Willie wants, so do I. After all, I like nice things. And we have nice things now that Willie is a pro player.”
How about the lack of conversation on game days?
“Oh well,” Joyce said. “Willie doesn’t talk that much around here anyway.”
Joyce had just finished making seven popcorn balls. They were for Anitra and her babysitter the next night. “We don’t take Anitra to many games,” Joyce said. “She’d run around too much.”
And then, there’s Anitra’s homework. She’s got to work on her Spanish sometime.
[Finally, a brief column from the great Steve Rudman, then with the Salt Lake Tribune. It ran on December 28, 1971 and describes well just how high Wise had risen as a pro.]
Most guys learn to play basketball in New York ghettos or in the woods of Kentucky or in small towns in Indiana. Willie Wise learned to play on the playgrounds of San Francisco. There are so many other things to do in “The City” than dribble basketballs that a lot of people didn’t take Willie seriously, among them the San Francisco Warriors and a couple of ABA teams.
Now, after playing a half a season last year, 18 playoff games in the spring, a couple of All-Star classics, and 35 games this year, everybody is taking Utah’s Willie Wise quite seriously.
A number of things have become apparent about affable Willie. He not only fakes out individuals when he moves toward the basket, he fakes out entire teams. One night, he had half the Denver Rockets sitting in Row K of the Utah State University Spectrum after he put his moves on them.
Trying to score off Willie is like trying to climb the Matterhorn on every shot. For instance, one night, Willie had Rick Barry so buffaloed that after the game the New Yorker said, “I would have done better, but I got double-teamed. They put Willie Wise on me.”
Willie Wise is such an incredibly good basketball player at 24 years old that by the time he retires, medical science will be bidding for his pituitary gland.
He went from a benchwarmer (last year) to a superstar so fast that people began to wonder what the Stars were feeding him. One writer called Willie “a hidden talent.” Obviously, the writer had never spoken to the Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, Virginia Squires, and seven other teams in the ABA. Unfortunately for those clubs, Willie has never been in hiding.
One night in Indiana, he scored 35 points and had 19 rebounds and made every one of Utah’s points in overtime, as the Stars won, 108-107, in a game teammate James Jones describes as “the one that got us rolling this year.”
He scrambled Cincy Powell one night in Louisville so badly that by the end of the game Willie’s statistics read: 38 points, 13 rebounds, and his fingerprints were all over the corpse.
And anybody who is suspect of the defense [in the ABA] should keep in mind that he rang up 18 points in the NBA-ABA All-Star game in Houston last year; drilled 33 points on the Milwaukee Bucks; and rattled New York’s Knicks for 20 more.
His blitzing of other teams has become so consistent that most players are beginning to think of him as just another hit-and-run driver.
A basketball player is judged in four ways: how he scores, how he rebounds, how well he plays defense, and how well he gets the ball to somebody else. Willie Wise is doing it all this year for the Western Division-leading Stars, and statistics need not even be mentioned.
The game was invented precisely for people like Willie Wise. Too frail for football, too nervous for baseball, too restless for anything else, and two coordinated to sit still. In the little world of basketball, there is only one “Kareem,” one “Zelmo,” one “Oscar,” one “Artis.” There are a lot of “Willies.” He may have been a bench-sitter last year at this time, but now when you say “Willie” everyone knows whom you mean.
And what you mean is the best forward in the game today.