It was obviously just a matter of time before Bill Daniels bought into the American Basketball Association, which is often called the Red, White and Blue League because of its multicolored ball. Daniels, a much-decorated Navy fighter pilot in World War II and Korea and onetime flight commander of the stunt-flying team, the Blue Angels, may be the red, white and blue-est man alive.
A few years ago Daniels, who practically invented cable television in 1952 and has since collected a pile of green to go along with his other favorite colors, set up an amateur boxing team in his home town, Denver. His fighters were so heavily decked out in flag patches and patriotic piping that, by comparison, heavyweight gold medal winner George Foreman's little flag-waving act at the Mexico City Olympics looked like a preliminary event. Last year Daniels decided to sponsor a car in the Indianapolis 500, and it turned out to be the world's first 150-mph flag. The Coble-vision Special had a paint job by Betsy Ross and the driver was Lloyd Ruby, a look-alike for California Senator George Murphy, who has danced a few waltzes with the flag himself. The press immediately renamed the car "The Silent Majority Special."
In March, Daniels paid a pittance for the falling Stars, the ABA's Los Angeles franchise. The team's colors already matched the league's ball (Daniels would have changed them if they had not), so all he had to do was dress up the uniforms with a couple of flags and move the Stars to an arena in Utah that had a red, white and blue color scheme. At the same time Daniels' basketball experts. General Manager Vince Boryla and Coach Bill Sharman, began redecorating the Stars' roster. When Daniels first saw his new team last spring it was in last place and playing before 790 fans in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. By last week the Utah Stars, with only five players left from last year's squad, were averaging 7,000 a game at Salt Lake City's Salt Palace and leading the West with a 13-3 record, best in the ABA.
The immediate success of the new team has quickly quieted criticism that the move to Utah was the most questionable among all the changes made by the ABA's itinerant franchises. Salt Lake City, with a metropolitan population of less than 700,000, was considered too small to support a pro team, and the dissatisfaction of black athletes with some of the doctrines of the Mormon Church led to speculation over how the Stars' blacks would react when they were told their next stop was Utah.
A $100,000 promotion campaign that has plastered Salt Lake with red, white and blue billboards, posters and bumper stickers announcing the Stars' arrival and the perennial basketball fever of Utah's citizens have helped overcome the disadvantage of the area's small population. One of the main tenets of the Mormon Church, called The Word of Wisdom, is basically a list of rules for good health, some of which prohibit smoking and drinking alcohol, tea or coffee. Another portion of The Word exhorts church members to exercise, and for Mormons that has long meant playing basketball. The church runs the largest amateur basketball program in the world, in gyms annexed to virtually every ward house in the state, the nation and many foreign countries. "So many players participate in the program that everyone in Utah is aware of the game," Boryla said. "We're actually better off than teams in many larger cities because we have more fans to draw from."
The Stars have failed to make rooters of at least two Utahans, however. One is a little old lady from the DAR, of all things, who criticized Daniels, of all people, for disrespect toward the flag because he has it sewed on the legs of the Stars' shorts. "I couldn't believe it," says Daniels, whose mother is, of course, a member of the DAR, too. The flags remain, and the lady's protests have been drowned out by the Stars' other loud critic, University of Utah Coach Jack Gardner. After 17 years at Utah, Gardner had put together a coach's dream. He was the dean of basketball in Salt Lake City and he had a brand-new 15,000-seat arena (page 38) located up the hill from the 12,600-seat Salt Palace. The unexpected arrival of the Stars awakened Gardner's competitive instincts.
"If you've seen one pro game you've seen them all," says Gardner. "In the college game we don't have to have any gimmicks. We don't play with a beach ball.... They're in direct competition with me. We're not that big a community, and someone's got to get hurt. So far the impression is that we'll survive together. I've got doubts it will last. The Stars are a novelty now, but that will start falling off."
Most of the credit for the Stars' success belongs to the black players who were thought to be reluctant to move to Salt Lake. Although numerous blacks have had successful athletic careers in recent years at all the state's major colleges except Brigham Young, Negroes remain skeptical, because Mormon doctrine does not allow black men to fill priestly offices in the church. Daniels first became aware of the racial ramifications of the move when he heard that Zelmo Beaty, the 6'9" former NBA All-Star center who sat out last season in order to jump to the Stars, would not report if the team went to Salt Lake. One of Beaty's reasons for shifting leagues was the opportunity to live in Los Angeles. Daniels made a three-day visit to Salt Lake and interviewed church officials, newsmen, real-estate people and members of the city's small (.8 of 1%) black community. He also consulted Merv Jackson, a black guard with the Stars, who had been an All-America at Utah. They all assured him that his players would be well treated.
Beaty and his wife Ann conducted their own survey of the city and found they could obtain the type of housing they wanted. They decided to stay. The rest of the Stars' black players followed Beaty's lead, although, like him, none intends to live in Salt Lake during the off season.
Even casual Bill Sharman was mildly concerned about the coaching problems the relocation might cause, but the willingness of his players to adapt to the community have erased them. In the past year Sharman has had three different sets of Stars to coach, and each has been an improvement over its predecessor. At the beginning of last season Los Angeles was "the whipping boy of the league," according to high-scoring Guard Don Freeman. By the time Daniels bought the Stars, Sharman had developed a new starting lineup of young players who proceeded to win 17 of their last 21 games and a playoff spot. They defeated Texas and Denver before finally losing in six games to Indiana in the championship series.
Still, none of the starters from that team is a regular for the Stars this year. Beaty has taken over at center, and Wayne Hightower, who missed most of last season with a back injury, is fully recovered. The former starting center, Craig Raymond, was traded—even though he is a BYU alumnus—for Red Robbins, one of the best rebounders in the ABA. Boryla then gave up Mack Calvin, the explosive little guard, to obtain his starting backcourt of Freeman and playmaker Jeff Congdon, only Mormon among the regulars.
The Stars now have genuine frontline depth to match that of Indiana, which dominated the ABA last year. Freeman gives them the type of player, like the Pacers' Roger Brown, who can control the offense and score in the closing moments of tight games. In the Stars' overtime 125-122 loss to the Pacers last week—Utah's only defeat in four meetings with Indiana—Freeman scored 15 points in the fourth period and six in overtime.
Bill Daniels flew in from Denver to see 9,367 fans fill the red, white and blue seats for that game. The ushers all wore starred ties in the same colors, and the usherettes wore red blouses with white stars and blue slacks. Though the Stars lost, they still led the division by 2½ games and things could hardly have been red, white and blue-er.