44 Years Ago Today: Utah Stars Win 1971 ABA Championship


“Big Z” Zelmo Beaty, Red Robbins, Willie Wise, Mervin Jackson, the “Chief,” a.k.a. Ron Boone and Glen Combs—some of these names may not be familiar to you, but they should be. Together they comprised the core of the 1970-71 Utah Stars.

Before the Utah Jazz or even the New Orleans Jazz had even been conceived of, the Stars were one of the premiere franchises of the American Basketball Association (ABA).

Today marks the 44th anniversary of the team’s Game 7 victory over the Kentucky Colonels to secure the 1971 ABA Championship, the first (and, for a long time, only) major league sporting title for the state of Utah.

After a season in Anaheim as the Amigos and two more in Los Angeles where they became the Stars, the club made its way to Salt Lake City courtesy of owner Bill Daniels, who sought to make Salt Lake City the “Green Bay of professional basketball.”

The club had tasted success in Hollywood, reaching the ABA Finals just prior to the move, but ultimately fell short in their championship bid against the Indiana Pacers.

Following a series of key acquisitions (Robbins, Combs and Boone chief among them) and fueled by a level of fan support previously unseen in the history of the franchise, the Stars were able to win 57 of 84 games during the 1970-71 season.

In a feature by Garrett Faylor for The Spectrum & Daily News, Wise—the man once labeled by Sports Illustrated as the best two-way player in pro hoops—credited Boone’s arrival as a major factor in the team’s success

"“We were really a cohesive group with Zelmo Beaty being the centerpiece and the glue that held us together. Then we had Ron Boone—realizing that even though his talent was starting talent, Bill Sharman talked to him about coming off the bench as a sixth man, and he accepted that role, and we were really successful.”"

The Stars were led that year by head coach Bill Sharman, a four-time champion and eight-time All-Star as a player with the Boston Celtics. For the record, Sharman is also the inventor of the morning shootaround that has become standard procedure in the NBA.

He also wrote the book that taught yours truly how to shoot a basketball–

Sharman on Basketball Shooting, the book that taught me how to drop buckets.

The season marked the debut of the team’s cornerstone in Beaty. Big Z had signed with the L.A. Stars the previous year, but was barred from playing as the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks owned an option on the big man’s contract.

With all of the pieces in place, Utah easily bested the Texas Chaparrals in the opening round of the 1971 ABA Playoffs. In the Western Division Finals, the Stars narrowly edged out the Pacers in a seven-game series. Finally, the team went head to head with future Hall of Famer Dan Issel and the Colonels for the title.

The Stars took Game 1 at the Salt Palace on the back of 76 combined points from Beaty, Boone and George Stone. In the second game, Issel and Beaty each dropped 40, but it was Beaty’s Stars that took the two-nil series lead.

Kentucky won the next two contests to level the score at two wins a piece. In Game 5, Utah beat the Colonels 137-127 to set up an elimination bout for Game 6. However, Cincinnatus Powell‘s 31 point, 17 rebound effort helped Kentucky force a seventh game at the Salt Palace.

The rest, as they say, is history. Despite 41 points from Issel and 20 rebounds from Powell, the Stars finished off the Colonels at home. As time expired, the fans in attendance rushed the court in what was one of the greatest scenes in Utah sports history.

The Utah Stars were the 1971 ABA Champions and professional basketball had officially arrived in Salt Lake City.

The team continued to have success, winning their division, making multiple playoff appearances, hosting an All-Star game and launching the professional career of then 18-year-old Moses Malone. Alas, the Stars franchise ultimately folded shortly before the ABA closed its doors.

Still, without the Stars laying the groundwork for professional basketball in Utah, we may never have had an NBA franchise or a Utah Jazz. So today, on the 44th anniversary of their championship win, I salute the 1971 Utah Stars.  Thank you for truly making Salt Lake City the Green Bay of pro hoops.

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