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Sportsview: Sharman death brings back memories of a different time

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He was a Celtic through and through; a winner in the likes of Bill Russell, Larry Bird and John Havlicek.

He coached the Los Angeles Lakers into winning their first ever NBA title, one of many.

And he led the only Utah major league professional team that ever won a championship. It was a long time ago to some; Tyrone Corbin was nine years old at the time, Jerry Sloan (who almost did the same thing with the Jazz twice) was still playing a nasty game of defense for the Chicago Bulls and not one player on the Jazz Roster would be born for more than another decade.

When I saw that Bill Sharman had died last week at the age of 87 it made me think back to 1971 and the excitement of that year when it came to basketball in this state.

So while this column is about Sharman to a certain extent, I didn't know the man and never met him. What it is about, is Utah basketball fever and a lesson for those that think nothing came before the Rick Majerus, Dave Rose or Jerry Sloan eras.

I was just finishing my freshman year at the University of Utah. It had been a tough year to be a first year college student and be a basketball fan because I don't think there had ever been such excitement in Utah about the roundball sport in all quarters. It made it hard to study.

It was the year that Utah's Mike Newlin and Willie Sojourner (Weber State) hosted the Russian National Basketball team in the Special Events Center (now the Huntsman Center) along with many other stars from colleges around the state. The Russian team at the time was largely made up of the same group that beat the United States the next year at the Olympics in Munich (the first and only time) in a very controversial game. The Russian tour that spring had been to a dozen colleges playing all-star teams from all over the country. The Utah All-Stars ended up being the only team to defeat them. I was at that game; it was wild. Newlin played his hard nosed basketball like he would for the next decade and a half in the NBA. Some say the Russians just ran out of gas at the end of the game because they had been on a long tour. That may be true, but still they were professional players, much like NBA players and should have been used to the grind. Of course the national press played it down, as they always did when it came to Utah teams of any kind.

The colleges that year had some great teams. Utah had a good year, BYU won the Western Athletic Conference, Utah State went to the NCAA and so did Weber State. In the NCAA playoff first round the Cougars actually played the Aggies and beat them.

In high school ball it was the beginning of a new era. Before 1943 everyone in the state had played, regardless of size of school, for a single championship. In 1944 the state created A and B schools with schools over 600 students being in the A category. For the 1970-71 season the state put together three categories with AA, A and B schools. AA was reserved for the largest of the schools. It was the beginning of multiple classifications which today number five after years of more changes. In 1971 East High won the first AA championship over Kearns High behind the play of Joe Manning and Mark Warner. Dixie took the A championship while South Sevier took the B category.

But the crowning jewel of the year, after a season of big games and big wins (and some big losses) across the state, was the Stars. The team had played well past the time most basketball fans in the state of Utah were used to. That's because they were playing in the first set of ABA playoffs that ever took place in the state of Utah.

The team had its origins in 1967 as the Anaheim Amigos and then within two years had moved to Los Angeles and became known as the LA Stars. But the Lakers and a strong UCLA Bruins program (John Wooden was the coach then and he had a player named Bill Walton) dominated the market and the Stars could not compete for fans very well. In June 1970 the California owner sold the team to Colorado cable TV entrepreneur Bill Daniels, who moved the Stars to Salt Lake City.

Zelmo Beaty, who had played in the NBA for a decade had been convinced to play in the ABA. The well know center was paired with a lot of unknown players that were supposedly not good enough to play in either the NBA or ABA. The two that would become the most notable were Willie Wise, a skinny kid who no one thought could score and Ron Boone who later broke and held the record for the most games ever played consecutively in a pro career. Other players included Merv Jackson (a former all-American at Utah, who helped the team to the final four in 1966) Dick Nemelka (a former all-American at BYU), Red Robbins, Glen Combs, Donnie Freeman, and others. They ended the year second in the Western Division with their a record of 57 wins and 27 losses. In the first round of the playoffs the Stars defeated the Texas Chaparrals four games to none. They then beat the Mel Daniels/Roger Brown led Indiana Pacers four games to three in a rivalry series which was almost as hot for Salt Lake and Indianapolis as was the one between New York and Boston.

In subsequent years it would get even hotter.

Finally they edged out the Kentucky Colonels, who had Dan Issel and Louie Dampier four games to three for the ABA championship. I was lucky enough to have a buddy who had four tickets to that game and he invited me. It was amazing and the Salt Palace went nuts. The state was on top of a major league sports world for the first time.

Sharman was one of the keys to the big season. He was not a yelling or cussing coach like Sloan later was, but he was more in the Wooden style. However his players always said they knew when he was mad and they towed the line. The next year, because of his success, he got the head coaching job with the Lakers and then led them to the NBA crown with players like Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich.

For those too young to remember, they often write these "early days" off. The Utes 1998 final four appearance or Jimmermania at BYU is what they see as the best times. In 1998 the Jazz also had the NBA title in their hands until Michael Jordan pulled the rope out of their hands. Those were great times too, but none of those teams won a professional championship or beat a hated international opponent like those 1971 teams and players did.

Now many of those players and coaches are gone. Sharman just passed away and Zelmo Beaty died of Cancer in September. Robbins died of the same disease in 2009. Jackson apparently died of Parkinson's Disease in 2012. Hightower passed away in 2002. Sometimes I think about it and realize that with all the players and coaches I idolized at the time, I was a mere 19 years old in 1971. Virtually all of them were older, many much older than I was. Mortality hits home.

But in my mind, and for others who shared the enthusiasm at that time, those players and coaches are still out there on the court leading and playing their hearts out for their school, their team and for fans like me.

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October 29, 2013
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