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Why does Utah's only professional basketball championship trophy reside in Denver?

DENVER — It’s been quite a drought for professional basketball fans in Salt Lake City and Milwaukee.

More than 48 years have passed since either community celebrated a championship. The Bucks claimed their only NBA title in April 1971. They lost a seven-game finale to the Boston Celtics three years later.

Milwaukee is currently in a battle for another opportunity to seek the NBA’s top prize but trails Toronto 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Utah had chances to win NBA championships in 1997 and 1998, but wound up falling to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the finals — losing in six games both times.

On May 18, 1971, though, a team calling Salt Lake City home won a title. The Utah Stars claimed the American Basketball Association crown with a 131-121 victory over the Kentucky Colonels before a capacity crowd of 13,260 in the Salt Palace.

Future Hall of Famer Zelmo Beaty and teammate Willie Wise were carried off the floor as fans stormed the court that night.

Although a banner once recognized the accomplishment, Jazz ownership has since opted not to hang it anymore.

As for that ABA championship trophy, it’s no longer around town either. The hardware is in good hands, though, residing in a secure office building in Denver — home of the Daniels Fund, a private charitable foundation established by the late Bill Daniels, who owned the Stars and brought the franchise to Utah.

The $1.1 billion perpetuity, established just before Daniels passed away in 2000, pays for grants, scholarships and an ethics program. Since its creation, about $800 million have been put into the community (approximately $36.8 million in Utah alone). Nearly 4,000 students are four-year Daniels scholars.

Bruce Wilmsen, vice president of media and community relations at the Daniels Fund, says the ABA championship was one of Bill’s proudest moments.

Fans lift Zelmo Beaty on their shoulders and carry him off the court after the Utah Stars won the 1971 ABA championship in the Salt Palace.
Fans lift Zelmo Beaty on their shoulders and carry him off the court after the Utah Stars won the 1971 ABA championship in the Salt Palace.
Matthew Glade, KSL-TV

“It was just really important to Bill. He loved sports. He loved the things that sports teaches people in terms of discipline and teamwork and leadership,” Wilmsen said. “He was always such a sports fan and was particularly proud of the Utah Stars.”

Wilmsen added that Daniels was heartbroken when he had to declare bankruptcy and the team folded in December 1975 after a couple of failed sales. The cable television pioneer eventually bounced back and became a billionaire. He wound up repaying Stars season-ticket holders and creditors with interest — doing so despite technically being discharged from the debt.

Daniels, Wilmsen explained, said it bugged his conscience and he wanted to be able to look himself in the mirror. He felt he owed them the money and was determined to return it, adding 8 percent interest.

“For him, it was just another reenforcement of how long-term business ethics pays off,” Wilmsen said.

Linda Childears, president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, noted the importance of it all.

The Utah Stars' 1971 ABA Championship trophy at the Alta Club in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 18, 2013.
The Utah Stars' 1971 ABA Championship trophy at the Alta Club in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 18, 2013.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“Just as Bill Daniels did during his lifetime, the Daniels Fund takes great pride in the Utah Stars trophy. Winning the ABA championship was truly one of the highlights of Bill’s life,” she said. “It took on even more meaning when he demonstrated his commitment to ethics by returning to Salt Lake to repay everyone who lost money in the team’s bankruptcy, with interest, even though he had no legal obligation to do so.”

As such, there may not be a better place for Utah’s only professional basketball championship trophy to reside. The Daniels Fund has placards recognizing the achievement in its lobby and has also released a video about it (https://www.danielsfund.org/about-daniels-fund/videos).

“It’s such a special story and I think people in Utah remember that and we like to highlight that,” said Wilmsen, who assures folks that the trophy is being well-preserved. “We’re taking good care of it and it’s in good hands with us, and I think Bill would be proud to have it displayed.”