One of the great players in basketball history departed Saturday as Zelmo Beaty passed away at age 73.
The 6’9″ center played from 1962 to 1975 in the NBA and ABA with the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks, the Utah Stars, and the Los Angeles Lakers. I’ve written many words on Zelmo’s fantastic career and I encourage you to read them:
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) ABA -
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
“My first and only goal coming into the ABA was to be a great defensive player,” explained Wise. “I loved playing defense. It was always a challenge to see if I could stop guys like Rick Barry, John Brisker, and Roger Brown. But I didn’t like to think of myself as the best defensive player in the league. That’s because when I started to think about that I might have let down.”
Like the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Willie Wise was never quite satisfied with himself. No matter how well he played, how well he shot, how well he shut down opponents, he was never ever satisfied with himself. For Wise basketball was a game meant for passion and zeal. To believe perfection had been attained was to acquiesce with complacency.
Wise had no time and no place for resting on laurels.
He was a man dedicated to improving every facet of his game. Working with Utah Stars coach Bill Sharman, himself a great shooting guard, Wise drastically improved his offensive game and by 1972 was averaging 23 points a game while shooting a touch over 50% from the field. His defense was stifling and suffocating. At 6’5″ he was also a superb rebounder.
“Beaty did a great job,” Sharman said following the game. “But Wise was outstanding.” The Utah coach described Wise’s 26 points and 24 rebounds as “just too much to expect.”
Wise and Beaty had huge games at the right moment. It was Game 2 of the 1971 Finals and they edged out Kentucky 131 to 121. They eventually won the title in seven games. The Stars behind Wise, Beaty, and Ron Boone were a constant power in the ABA from 1970 to 1974 making at least the Conference Finals every season.
Wise may have hated to praise himself, but this team success left him gushing all over. And as this successful team filled with teammates and friends aged it was dismantled. Wise, a man who played for passion, lost much of his drive and zeal as he saw management discard his brothers in basketball arms.
After the 1974 season ended with a Finals defeat against the New York Nets, the Stars tossed aside Beaty and super scorer Jimmy Jones while Wise went into hiding refusing to play. After months of stalemate, the Stars sold Wise to the Virginia Squires.
Willie played just 16 games that season but looked every bit of his usual All-Star self. The next season (1975-76) Wise began suffering from a balky knee. The knee quickly proved extremely troublesome a nd his career was totally over by 1977. Wise, true to his name, wasn’t one to beleaguer the point. He didn’t try and hang on for years making comebacks. One moment revealed to him it was all over:
I remember they put me on the Iceman. That’s George Gervin. And I don’t mean this in a vain, proud way, but I used to be able to stay with the Iceman as long as he was out on the court. If he took me down on the block, he could elevate over me because he was 6’7″, almost 6’8″, andhe could leap. But if he tried to beat me out on the floor, he couldn’t. And boy, he blew by me. I thought, Whoa. And that’s when it really hit me that I just couldn’t move laterally anymore. That was the time on the court that I thought, You know what? I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.
But when Willie could do it, he was one of the best.
Years Played: 1969 – 1977
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1973-’74)
2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1972, 1974)
3x All-Star (1972-’74)
All-Rookie Team (1970)
ABA - 552 Games
19.2 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, 47.7% FG, 73.0% FT NBA – 77 Games
8.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 45.9% FG, 64.4% FT
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.