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Former BYU All-American Dick Nemelka avoids COVID-19, faces challenges of stage 4 cancer

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Dick Nemelka during his days playing for the Utah Stars.

Courtesy BYU photo

SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this year, Dick Nemelka was enjoying life, relaxing, playing golf three or four times a week, taking regular walks at his home in St. George,

The former BYU basketball star and member of the Utah Stars’ ABA Championship team in 1971, who turns 77 in a couple of months, did his best to avoid catching the COVID-19 virus that descended on the world last winter.

Now he has to be “extra careful” after being felled by an insidious disease that has been around for centuries.

“I’m doing the triple type of therapy — chemo, infusions and all types of stuff to stem the tide. It’s a day-to-day, week-to-week struggle.” — Dick Nemelka

Nemelka thought he was doing fine after having a melanoma removed from his back about 18 months ago. However, earlier this spring, it was discovered that the cancer had spread to other parts of his body, including his liver and spine. 

So he has moved up to Salt Lake City and these days he makes regular trips to Huntsman Cancer Institute, where he receives treatments for his stage 4 cancer along with taking medicine every day.

“I’m doing the triple type of therapy — chemo, infusions and all types of stuff to stem the tide,” he said in a raspy voice. “It’s a day-to-day, week-to-week struggle.”

Nemelka made his mark as a basketball player, excelling at every level he played at, from high school to college to the professional ranks.

He was an all-state player for West High School, leading the Panthers to an undefeated regular season, all the way to the state championship game in 1962.

He went to BYU where he was a three-year starter and All-WAC performer for the Cougars under coach Stan Watts, eventually becoming a first-team All-American following his senior season when he averaged 24 points a game and helped lead his team to the NIT championship in 1966. 


A grinning Dick Nemelka, left, Jeff Congdon and Steve Kramer receive the NIT championship trophy from Kenneth Norton of the selection committee during after-game ceremonies in New York on March 21, 1966.

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He ranks 25th on the all-time BYU scoring list, but is 10th in scoring average at 16.7 points per game as he played for just three years in the days before freshmen were eligible.

After the season, he was invited to two all-star games, the East-West and the North-South games, and played against a lot of future NBA players.

A few years later, he got a chance to play professional basketball for the hometown Utah Stars and was a part of their memorable 1970-71 championship team.

Ask Nemelka about the highlights of his athletic career and he doesn’t talk about any individual achievement of which he had many.

“One was winning the NIT tournament at Madison Square Garden back in 1966 when it was on par with the NCAA tournament,” he said. “The second was being with the Utah Stars when we won the ABA championship. Those were the highlights of my career.”

Of the BYU team he said, “We had a very good team. Four guys off our starting five went on to play professional basketball. We were together for three years, took a trip down to South America before our senior year, which was a lot of fun, and played 18 to 20 games. We had a real close-knit basketball team. Had our 50-year reunion of winning the NIT a few years ago.”

That BYU team included Steve Kramer, Bill Ruffner, Neil Roberts, Jeff Congdon and Jim Jimas, who passed away last year. 

“We’ve all kept in touch, the friendships have lasted over 50 years,” Nemelka said.


Dick Nemelka and Jeff Congdon pose for a photo.

Courtesy BYU Photo

Unlike athletes who go on church missions at the start of their college careers, Nemelka served his mission to New Zealand after his collegiate career was over. Although he said “it was a good experience and I made a lot of friends in New Zealand,” he acknowledges it probably kept him from playing in the NBA.

“As far as a professional career it would have been better not to have gone,” he said. “It was really tough to get back in shape after being back for two years. It took a toll.”

Nemelka had been drafted by the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA and though he briefly attended their rookie camp before his mission, he was invited back after he returned. 

“When I got back, they had moved to Atlanta and invited me to their camp. I went down for a week, but I was so far out of shape, I could hardly move. My body was out of shape — I’d gained 30 pounds in the mission field.”

Nemelka went back to school and got his master’s degree in psychology at BYU, where he taught for a year. Then, out of the clear blue, he got his opportunity to play pro basketball.

The Los Angeles Stars had just moved to Utah in 1970 and Nemelka’s old high school coach, Steve Heiner, played golf with Stars coach Bill Sharman and arranged for a tryout for Nemelka.

Nemelka made the Stars team which featured Zelmo Beaty, Willie Wise. Red Robbins and Ron Boone. He only played in about half the games and averaged 5.5 points, although he was the team’s leading 3-point shooter by minutes played.

“It was a great team, a lot of fun. Salt Lake fans took to the Stars like nothing I’ve ever seen.” — Dick Nemelka

“It was a great team, a lot of fun,” he said. “Salt Lake fans took to the Stars like nothing I’ve ever seen. I have people who were Stars fans come up to me with memorabilia and ask me to autograph it 50 years later. The Stars were a big thing. It was fantastic.”

Nemelka played part of the following season and soon after went to the University of Utah law school and graduated in 1975 and became an attorney. With degrees from both schools, he has loyalties to each, but says, “I’m more of a Utah fan now because all of my kids and grandkids have gone to the U.”

Nemelka continued to play recreation basketball locally for a few years as he practiced law — “domestic and family law, the not-so-fun stuff,” before retiring about five years ago.

Nemelka calls it “luck of the draw.”

His life changed almost overnight last spring when he was told the cancer found the previous year, “had metastasized and become extremely serious” and he started all the treatments, one of which is an experimental drug that keeps him positive about the future.

“Hopefully it ends up killing the cancer and lets your immune system start attacking the cancer,” he said. “You just hope it extends your life for a period of time.”

Nemelka says he’s lost more than 40 pounds and preferred not to pose for an updated photo, because “I look like a scarecrow.”

He still relishes the memories, such as scoring the winning basket in the final seconds of a 94-93 victory over Utah in front of a sold-out crowd at Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse in 1966, the year the Utes went to the Final Four.

Or leading his West High team to a 20-0 record only to lose in the state finals to his future BYU teammate and good friend Steve Kramer in the state finals, something Kramer “always reminds me about.”

Or being carried off the Salt Palace floor on the shoulders of ecstatic fans after the Stars’ Game 7 victory over the Kentucky Colonels. 

He’s still amazed to be remembered by fans from his days as a Utah Stars benchwarmer. Recently a stranger found Nemelka’s old Topps bubblegum rookie card “online someplace” and asked him to autograph it.

“It was a lot of fun back then,” Nemelka says. “Too bad we have to get old.”