Following Game 6 of the 1970 ABA Finals, the Los Angeles Stars were a forlorn dejected bunch. The California squad had just lost the series, 4-games-to-2, to the Indiana Pacers. Coach Bill Sharman rallied his men by telling them that if put in the same spot again, they’d win. Sharman could speak such confident words because he knew the Stars the very next season would be getting Zelmo Beaty.
Beaty by 1970 was a veteran of seven NBA seasons all spent with the Hawks franchise (6 years in St. Louis, 1 in Atlanta). He was drafted in 1962 as the replacement for center Clyde Lovellette immediately and for power forward Bob Pettit in the long term. The hopes of Zelmo becoming a dominating inside presence were realized in the 1964-65 season after two years of tutelage. Beaty averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds from 1965 through 1969 as the Hawks’ muscle man down low.
The points were good and dependable from Beaty, but his best quality was defense. He was a rough and physical man who’d absorbed all the lessons Pettit and other Hawks veterans had passed on. Twice he was an NBA All-Star and three times the Hawks reached the Western Division Finals with Zelmo.
But the times were a-changin’ in 1969. It was the Hawks’ first year in Atlanta and the last of Beaty’s contract with them. Following that season he signed a lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Stars, but the dreaded reserve clause forced Beaty to sit out one full year before he could jump to the ABA.
With Beaty’s track record, no wonder Sharman was so confident after his Finals loss that the Stars with Beaty could, and would, win the title in 1971. And it was indeed the case.
With a year to rest an aging and banged up body, the court-ordered sabbatical probably wound up lengthening Beaty’s career. Now 31 years old, Beaty had the best season of his long career during his inaugural campaign with the Stars who had moved to Utah from LA. Big Z averaged 22.9 points, 15.7 rebounds, and 55.5% shooting from the field that year.
With Willie Wise and Ron Boone, Beaty and the Stars won 57 regular season games. In the playoffs they exacted revenge on the Pacers, who switched to the Stars’ division, in a hard-fought seven-game series. In the Finals, the Stars tangled with the Kentucky Colonels. This series also went to the full seven games.
In Game 2, Beaty bludgeoned the Colonels for 40 points and 15 rebounds in a victory. For the final contest, the Stars were placed in the position they had gotten Beaty for. The title was on the line in Game 7 and Coach Sharman looked to Big Z for a big game. Beaty delivered with 36 points and Utah took home the title.
Beaty would continue to have fine seasons for the Stars. He’d continue clutching, bumping, and thumping opponents on the block with heavy-handed defense and sweet hook shots. Utah would battle the Indiana Pacers in three more epic playoff series and would make it back to the ABA Finals in 1974 losing to the New York Nets.
But by that point the Stars were fading in no small part to Beaty’s age. The All-Star center was now nearing 35 years of age and was released by Utah following the ’74 season. He’d play a final year with Los Angeles Lakers in 1975 back in the NBA, but then it was retirement for Beaty.
Big Z receives little due for the impact he had on basketball, despite the fact that in a 13-year career he ended half of those seasons at least in a divisional finals. Nate Thurmond, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Mel Daniels, and Artis Gilmore are centers of his era that have garnered more praise and Naismith Hall of Fame status. Rest assured that Beaty is indeed deserving of inclusion in their company.
Besides, if he was good enough for Bill Sharman, he’s good enough for anybody.
Years Played: 1962 – 1975
2x All-Star (1966, 1968)
Playoff MVP (1971)
2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1971-’72)
3x All-Star (1971-’73)
NBA – 570 Games
16.0 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 46.9% FG, 75.0% FT
ABA – 319 Games
19.1 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 53.6% FG, 80.7% FT