And now, fans, the starting lineup for the Utah Stars: At center, nearing the world's record for knee operations, with six, and fresh from filing a $1.2 million lawsuit against his own team, No. 31, 6'9" Zelmo Beaty!
At one forward, equipped with a knee brace and the only eyeglasses in the pros, the man with the heretofore notorious Roto-Rooter one-hander who recently has become the toughest shooter since Willie Tell, No. 25, 6'10" Gerald Govan!
At the other forward, wearing no knee brace and with almost no right knee, the only man on either team who looks as if he climbed straight out of bed to be here tonight, No. 42, 6'5" Willie Wise!
At one guard, distinguishable among the 73 other players in the ABA with the same last name by the scar from his recent ankle operation, No. 15, 6'4" James Jones!
And at the other guard, the iron man of the Stars who hasn't missed a game since the fourth grade and invariably plays with his tongue firmly planted in his right cheek, No. 24, 6'2" Ron Boone!
In the interest of brevity, the introductions have omitted some basic biographical data about the players, such as their alma maters, including those centers of higher learning and basketball tradition Grambling, Idaho State, Prairie View and St. Mary's of the Plains. None of the missing details, however, would change the Stars' image as a team of limping litigants who, except for ex-NBA All-Star Beaty, appear to deserve their anonymity. Quite the contrary is true. Utah, with typical lack of hullabaloo, has been tearing its league apart this season.
With consecutive home wins last week over Indiana (114-91), Kentucky (121-117) and New York (116-105)—three teams which should be among the Stars' toughest rivals in the playoffs—Utah ran its record to 43-19, the ABA's best. And as the season has progressed, the Stars have been getting brighter. After an early 10-12 record, Utah has won 33 of 40 games, and last week's victories increased its latest streak to 13 straight, longest in the team's history and no small feat since the Stars have won more often than any other ABA club over the last 3½ seasons.
Despite suits and countersuits between Beaty and his bosses—just the sort of thing that could disrupt a less cohesive squad—these Stars are the first ABA team to show the maturity of style, the poise and patience previously associated only with the most disciplined NBA clubs. Beaty alone can be considered old; his arthritic knees, which have prevented him from practicing and severely hampered his overall game the last two years, are a decade or so senior to the rest of his 32-year-old body. But the other starters, each of whom has had four to six seasons of pro experience, are just old enough—and wise enough.
Coach Joe Mullaney, the silver-haired ex-FBI man and renowned aficionado of the ponies, who came to Utah this year after back-to-back tours with winners in Los Angeles and Kentucky, last week looked at a photograph of himself taken as he paced the sideline—elbows held high, hands grabbing at the hair on the back of his neck, suit coat open wide, lips pursed in rage and eyes thrown up to heaven. "That's a picture of a man who's just lost a photo at Santa Anita," he said. He could afford to be good-humored because his team is putting him through so few trials these days.
Mullaney freely admits he has done little coaching of the Stars' offense and hardly much more in his favorite area, defense. "Ours is a very strange team," he says. "Our offense is basically three guys—Jones, Wise and Boone—going one-on-one and that's something you don't normally want. You don't get any overall movement that way and the one-on-one guys will usually end up taking all the shots. But it works for us because they're so good at it. They're almost always successful at disrupting the defense and all three of them are willing to give up the ball to the open man once the defense begins adjusting to stop them. I've never seen a team so honestly unconcerned about who scores the points.
"And they're different because they always try to do what you ask. Any coach will tell you that during a time-out he'll say to a guy something like, 'Let's start playing your man on his right hand.' Then the player will go out and play the guy on his left. Here I mention something like that and immediately I see it being tried on the floor. The only trouble I sometimes have comes in close games when I'll yell at Jones to run a 41, which is a play for him to shoot on. He's so uninterested in scoring that he'll bring the ball up and give it to Ron to run a 41 for himself."
The Stars are unusual in another way. Despite the team's long list of injuries, and even though "playing hurt" is not exactly all the rage among the pros these days, the starters rarely miss a game. "We're paid to play if we possibly can, so we play," says Wise matter-of-factly. "It may sound like an old line, but it's the truth."
Stars' starters have missed only two games because of injuries this year, exactly two more than Boone has missed in his entire 537 games as a professional. He has enjoyed few as much as last week's win over Kentucky. His tongue pushing against the inside of his cheek—a nervous habit that makes him look like a tobacco-chewing third-base coach as he dribbles upcourt—he scored a career-high 38 points, most of them simply by using his exceptional spring to launch jumpers high over the heads of the Colonels' short guards.
In his more than six seasons Govan has been a forgettable, even regrettable, shooter. His 40% career average and his technique of releasing the ball with a sideways rotation reduced people to talking about his good rebounding and defense. Then, inspired by an edict from Mullaney to shoot if he was open regardless of the consequences, Govan began peering through his black horn-rims and spinning long set shots into the hoop. Since mid-December his average has been better than 50%. In last week's win over Indiana, which put the Stars 11 games ahead in the Western Division, Govan suffered a relapse, hitting only three of nine shots. "I wasn't a shootin' fool, I was a fool to shoot," he said afterward. Against the Colonels the only one looking foolish was Kentucky's Dan Issel, who could be seen shaking his head in disbelief as Govan made eight of 14 shots and scored 17 points to go along with his 17 rebounds.
Despite the performances of Boone and Govan, Utah's most important players remain those two masters of the subtle move, Jones and Wise. Jones is the ABA's best guard and the only one in the league who plays with the fluid power of the NBA's "big" backcourt men, Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier. Like them, Jones rarely takes a shot longer than 15 feet; he doesn't have to since he always seems able to insinuate himself into an open position close to the basket. Once there Jones rarely misses. His 53% average makes him the only guard among the ABA's 10 best shooters.
To his own dismay, Wise has had to become quite a shooter, too, in the past two seasons as Beaty's scoring has declined. "My overall game has suffered," he says, even though his 22.5-point average puts him fifth in the league. "In an unspoken way, the burden of the offense has been laid on me. That part of the game takes most of my energy now." Wise would prefer to be the 15-point scorer he was as a young pro and go back to concentrating on defense, trying to play it the way Gus Johnson and Dave DeBusschere did when he watched them so avidly before joining the Stars.
Still, that is only a minor frustration compared to the bone spurs in his ankle and a bone spike in his knee, which have required surgery. His right knee is now usually swollen with fluids that collect about the kneecap. "I look at Dr. J and George McGinnis and Billy Cunningham and how they can jump over their men and drive recklessly," says Wise, "and I wonder how they'd be if they were anticipating pain whenever they moved. I wonder how good I'd be if I could just go out on the floor and do it without thinking."
Alongside him, Beaty and his sore knees must give Wise painful premonitions of his own future. In the past two seasons Zelmo's scoring has slipped 10 points per game and his rebounding has dropped by nearly a third. Always one of the wiliest centers, he appears to be surviving on smarts alone in what will probably be the last year of an excellent career. Off the court Beaty and the Stars' front office have been battling since last summer. Because of the acrimony Zelmo sat out training camp and the first five games of the season, prompting the team to sue him for breach of contract. The action was subsequently dropped, although a $7,000 fine for the time missed was not. Two weeks ago Beaty filed a $1.2 million damage suit against the Stars, claiming the fine was excessive and that the team failed to fulfill some aspects of his contract. The suit may be in the courts for years, but last week Beaty was clearly anticipating an unhappy departure from Salt Lake City.
"Basketball is a rotten business," he said, though his play and relations with the rest of the team seemingly have been unaffected by the legal wrangling. "They figure once they've drained all that you're worth, then they just dump you. Certainly here they've figured they've gotten all that's left out of No. 31. I didn't expect anything more than that—I've seen too many guys get washed out at the end—and I'm glad I didn't because I would've been setting myself up for a big disappointment."
Beaty has been paid handsomely for his years in Utah—he has a four-year contract calling for $200,000 annually—but it still is unfortunate that his days with the Stars may not end amicably. Though Utah President Vince Boryla argues to the contrary, almost everyone else in the ABA gives Beaty a substantial amount of credit for the success of a predominantly black sport in Salt Lake City. The Stars arrived there in 1970, at a time when tensions between the Mormon church and black athletes were at their peak and Zelmo was the team's lone established player. Beaty quickly gained acceptance from the Utah fans, not only by leading the Stars to a championship in their first season, but by remaining quietly congenial and displaying his considerable innate dignity. He remains the only black player who owns a house in Salt Lake. And, according to other players, Beaty passed the word around the ABA that Utah was an all-right place to play. Currently the Stars are not only a successful draw and the league's best team, but they are the only club that does not include at least one white man in its starting lineup.