The Original Big Z: Zelmo Beaty

Editor’s Note: this article first appeared June 12, 2011 at Nepean Funk

Zelmo Beaty (1963 – 1975)
Regular Season: 889 games, 17.1 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.8 BPG, 0.7 SPG, 49.4% FG, 77.1% FT
Playoffs: 115 games, 17.9 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.9 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 49.6% FG, 77% FT
Accolades: 1971 ABA Championship,  2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1971-72), NBA All-Rookie 1st Team 1963), 5x All-Star – NBA (1966, ’68), ABA (1971-73)

Move over Zydrunas, it’s time the world rediscovered the O.Z. (original Z), Zelmo Beaty. Not only did he have one of the NBA’s all-time greatest names, Beaty was a stalwart center for the NBA’s St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks before being one of the few stars (Rick Barry being another) to jump ship to the upstart ABA in the early 1970s.

Born in 1939 in eastern Texas, Beaty undoubtedly is the best player to come from the following places: the Piney Woods of East Texas, the unincorporated settlement of Hillister, Woodville High School, and Prairie View A&M. As if that litany of achievements weren’t enough, Beaty found himself drafted 3rd overall in the 1962 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks. The Hawks, although featuring future Hall of Famers Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Lenny Wilkens were coming off an abysmal 29-51 season. Well, they sold (literally, you could that back then) effective but aging center Clyde Lovellette to the Boston Celtics to make room for Zelmo and presto! Beaty would appear on the inaugural All-Rookie Team and the Hawks rebounded to the Western Conference Finals losing to the Lakers in 7 games. They would end the next season in the same situation except at the hands of the San Francisco Warriors. Slowly, the Hawks phased out Pettit and Hagan in favor of Zelmo, Wilkens and the newly-acquired Bill Bridges and Lou Hudson.

Hawks Zelmo

With Pettit’s retirement in 1965, Beaty fully took over as the team’s go-to scorer. His 1st three season (all with Pettit on the team), Beaty averaged 13.4 points. Over the next four he would average 20.4 while grabbing 12 rebounds. His marvelous play resulted in two selections to the All-Star game (1966 and 1968) and the Hawks reaching the Western Finals 3 times. However, they lost each time. The Lakers delivered the honors in 1966 and 1969, while the Warriors did so in 1967. In my opinion, these Hawks teams of the late 60s could have been one of the great “forgotten” teams of all-time like the 80s Bucks. Especially when considering an aging L.A. Lakers team, they could have snuck into a final or two in the early 70s, although they would have had to contend with the rising Bucks with Kareem, Oscar and Bobby Dandridge. Instead, they’re just plain forgotten because they traded a great PG in Lenny Wilkens for a decent PG, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, and Zelmo Beaty, the team’s inside presence and co-leading scorer with Lou Hudson decided to jump ship to the ABA.

The reason was quite simple for Beaty’s move. The ABA’s Utah Stars offered him a whole lot more money than Atlanta Hawks were willing to pay. Although Big Z had to sit out a season, he ended up making a breathtaking $400,000 during his tenure with the Stars. His salary may have been exuberant for the times, but Zelmo earned every penny. In his first year, he led the ABA in FG% (55.5%) and averaged 23 points & 15.7 rebounds leading the Stars to a 57-27 regular season record. After outlasting the Indiana Pacers in 7 games, Zelmo finally made it to a championship game. In the ABA Finals, he and the Stars squared off with the Kentucky Colonels and their Rookie of the Year center Dan Issel (30ppg, 13rpg). In a 7-game barnburner (avg. final score 127 to 118), the home team won every game of the series, which was great for Zelmo and Utah since they had the better record. Big Z had himself a championship ring.

The Stars and Beaty would continue their rivalry with the Pacers meeting in the conference finals each year for the next three seasons with Indiana winning in 1972 and 1973 and Utah getting back to the ABA Finals in 1974 where they lost to the New York Nets (led by Julius Erving, Billy Pautz, John Williamson and Larry Kenon) in 5 games. By this point, the 34 year old Beaty had slowed, which was demonstrated by his failure to make the ABA All-Star Game for the first time. However, with just four seasons in Utah Beaty had achieved a championship ring, 2 All-ABA 2nd Team Selections, 3 ABA ASGs while averaging 19ppg, 11.6rpg and making at least the conference finals every season.

Moving back to the NBA, Beaty had one more forgettable season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Thereafter he called it quits. Through his career Big Z had the demeanor of a haughty butler (as SI put it), but he was one smart cookie on the court and was a tireless hustler whose team’s never missed the playoffs until he was old and washed up on an old and washed up 1974 Lakers team. But not only did they make the playoffs every year, Zelmo’s teams played in the Conference Finals 9 times out of 12 chances. That’s pretty impressive. In addition he was an important figure NBA/ABA relations by virtue of being one of the few established stars to shirk the NBA for the ABA and also later being President of the ABA Players Association. Hope you enjoyed learning a little more about Zelmo “Big Z” Beaty.

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