I was a new sports writer covering high school sports at the Deseret News. He was the owner of the Utah Stars, Salt Lake City’s first professional basketball franchise.
I didn’t think there was much of a chance he’d say yes when I called his office and asked if he’d hand out the all-state certificates at the banquet the newspaper hosted every year to recognize the state’s top high school basketball players.
But he did say yes, or sure thing, or you bet — whatever would have been the jargon in 1974.
The Stars had come to Utah four years earlier when Bill Daniels bought the Los Angeles Stars — one of the original franchises in the American Basketball Association — and moved them here. The ABA was trying to compete with the NBA, hoping to make inroads with innovations such as the 3-point shot, an idea that stuck even if the league did not.
In their inaugural season in Utah, 1970-71, the Stars won the ABA championship. They’d been riding that wave ever since, contending for another title every season.
Daniels was typical of the breed of sports owners at the time. Today it’s tech billionaires. Then it tended toward car dealers, fast-food kings and guys like Bill, who made his money pioneering cable TV before anyone else thought of doing it.
The night he passed out those all-state certificates in the spring of 1974, looking like a movie star in his madras sport coat and sharply creased slacks, he was definitely The Man. In Denver, where he kept his full-time residence, he had just mounted a campaign to be Colorado’s next governor.
But then the worm, as they say, turned. First Daniels lost the governor’s race, then America went into a recession, wiping out that part of his fortune the campaign hadn’t already taken.
Broke and getting more broke, he tried to sell the Stars, twice, but both attempts failed. By December 1975, he couldn’t make payroll and was forced to declare bankruptcy. The Stars would not be seen again, and neither, everyone assumed, would Bill Daniels.
I remember thinking at the time, glad I’m not that guy.
Why is this history relevant almost half-a-century later?
Because this week, in what has become a rite of spring, 32 Utah high school seniors received full-ride college scholarships — from Bill Daniels.
Every year this keeps happening: college-bound kids find out a man they never met is going to pay for it.
Their good fortune tells the rest of the story.
Under bankruptcy rules, when Daniels left the state owing a lot of people a lot of money — vendors, employees he’d made contracts with, more than 3,000 season ticket holders who had been denied almost all of the 1975-76 season — he was under no obligation to pay those debts.
Under Bill Daniels rules, he couldn’t sleep until he did.
In less than five years, he turned his ship around enough so he could contact all his Utah creditors and pay them what he owed them — plus 8% interest.
If that said volumes about the man’s principles, it turned out it was just a warmup.
From 1980 on, Bill Daniels became the Intermountain West’s answer to Warren Buffett. Everything he touched turned to profit. He even made money investing in an upstart sports franchise, founding the Los Angeles Express in the United States Football League and selling the franchise three years later for $8 million.
By the time his health began to fade in his late 70s his personal fortune stood at $1.1 billion.
Before he died in March 2000, he left instructions to put the $1.1 billion into a charitable foundation called the Daniels Fund, designating that the money be used to help improve the quality of life in the states of Colorado, where he was born; New Mexico, where he grew up; Wyoming, where he first established his cable empire; and Utah, where he once owned the Utah Stars.
In the 23 years since, slightly more than $1 billion has been awarded to worthy causes in those four states. That includes $250 million for more than 5,000 college scholarships.
Austin Wages, a senior at Provo High School whose father is a librarian and mother is a PTA volunteer, was one of the 238 Daniels scholarship winners announced this week. He’ll receive up to $100,000 over the next four years to cover his costs at the school of his choosing.
An accomplished trombonist — he’s first chair in the award-winning Caleb Chapman’s Crescent Super Band — Austin plans on studying music and architecture at either BYU, the University of Utah or, now that he can broaden his possibilities, Rice University in Houston.
Austin was home alone Tuesday afternoon practicing his trombone when he heard the ping on his phone alerting him to an email from the Daniels Fund.
How did he react? Here’s his verbatim description:
“I open the portal and I’m like, ‘Woah!’ I texted my mom and sent her a screenshot. She’s like, ‘That’s amazing!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s so sick!’”
Receiving a scholarship that won’t require him to go into debt, he proclaims, “is huge. This can be life-changing.”
For Bill Daniels, his experiences in Utah were life-changing.
“He treasured his Utah years. He always said that winning the ’71 championship was a thrill of his life,” mused Bo Peretto, a friend and colleague of Bill’s who is senior vice president of the Daniels Fund in Denver. “The Stars bankruptcy was super tough for him. It caused him tremendous heartbreak. He was bound and determined to go back and pay all his commitments, not because he was required to, but because he had to look himself in the mirror every day.”
And so goes the giving chain that dates back to the man who first brought pro basketball to Utah. When Bill Daniels agreed to hand out those all-state certificates for me in 1974, I thought it was a one-time thing. I had no idea his generosity to the youth of Utah was just getting started.