The Salt Lake Series
The late 1960s were an unprecedented time for growth in the NBA. The league entered the decade with just 8 teams and on the verge of collapse. By the decades end the league had ballooned to 14 teams and was on the cusp of adding 3 more. The decade was dominated by the greatest dynasty sports had ever known in the Boston Celtics, and the league was facing real competition from the ABA and was winning.
The competition from the ABA is what spurred the expansion of the NBA. When the ABA was founded in 1967, the NBA had just 10 teams, but when the ABA announced it was going to put teams in Seattle and San Diego, the NBA quickly added teams to those cities. This kicked off an expansion arms race which culminated in the race for one city that no one would expect. A city located in the western reaches of the Rocky Mountains and who until this point had been a sports afterthought - Salt Lake City, Utah.
Salt Lake City had always been a popular destination for basketball. The city was home to several minor league teams during the 1950s and 1960s, it had even held an exhibition game of the NBL's Denver Nuggets in 1948. The three major universities - Utah, BYU and Utah States - had turned out several prominent NBA players. But it was a small city, which had strict morality laws, and it was racist.
The racism which had kept the NBA out of the deep south was also a major issue for Salt Lake City. When the NBA began looking at cities to expand to in 1966, Salt Lake City was on the list but passed over for Seattle, San Diego, and Phoenix. Those cities were bigger and had more favorable laws, especially concerning alcohol sales. The NBA frequently hosted games in non-NBA cities to expand the leagues presence, get more fan support and to look into possible expansion or relocation venues. But it was these liquor laws which always kept Salt Lake City out of the running.
In 1963 the NBA was going to schedule a regular season game between St Louis and Boston in Salt Lake City, the one request for city leaders was for the venue to allow alcohol sales. Before the city even rejected the request, many locals protested the game even being considered. It is unclear if it was the NBA who backed out, or if it was Salt Lake City, but the game was never scheduled. In a cruel twist of fate, the game would never would have been played anyway. The game was scheduled to be played on November 22, 1963. Earlier that day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Despite all this issues the NBA and the ABA found themselves staring down Salt Lake City as a potential expansion destination in the summer of 1968.
Where the NBA failed to get a game played in Salt Lake City, the ABA succeeded. Playing several games in Salt Lake City in 1968 and 1969.
One reason both leagues were so interested in Salt Lake City was the newly constructed Salt Palace. The arena was small by todays standards, only seating ten thousand spectators, but the arena was state of the art. Originally built in 1968 in a failed attempt to get the 1972 Winter Olympics, the arena was perfect for basketball. Most of the other cities the NBA and ABA were looking to expand to did not have even have arenas less than 10 years old, and some like New Orleans stated they would not build new arenas.
The NBA finally got permission to host a series of games called "The Salt Lake Series" in 1969 and 1970. In total, 5 games would be hosted in Salt Lake City during the 1969 season. The first of these games was between the San Francisco Warriors and San Diego Rockets was played on November 10, 1969. The Rockets lead by Elvin Hayes pulled off the upset of the Warriors lead by Nate Thurmond 100-99.
The Next game was on December 2, and put the Chicago Bulls against the Phoenix Suns. The Suns, who were incredibly popular in the area because former Ute forward Jerry Chambers played for them, defeated the Bulls 121-110. Dick Van Arsdale of the Suns lead all scorers with 38 points, while Bob Love scored 34 for the Bulls. The Bulls second leading scorer was Jerry Sloan, who would go on to have a hall-of-fame coaching career in Salt Lake City.
A week later on December 9, the Warriors would return to Salt Lake City and host the Atlanta Hawks. The Warriors once again lost a close one falling 117-115 to the Hawks. Thurmond once again starred for the Warriors scoring 34 points and grabbing 25 boards. Lou Hudson would lead the Hawks with 31 points. Hudson would retire from the NBA and eventually find his way to Salt Lake City and host several basketball clinics at Northwest junior high school in the late 1990s.
The Suns would return on January 12, 1970, only this time they would get blown out by the Knicks. Connie Hawkins and Van Arsdale would lead all scorers with 26 a piece for the Suns, who fell 130-114. The Knicks, who would go on to win their first NBA title later in the season, were lead by Bill Bradley with 24 points, Dick Barnett and Walt Frazier with 23 each and Willis Reed added 21.
When announced the fifth game was the high light of the schedule. It was played on February 16, 1970 and once again featured the Warriors, only this time they were taking on the 11 time and defending NBA champion Boston Celtics. But before the season started Bill Russell retired and the Celtics struggled. This game which was suppose to be a great game between two championship contenders instead featured two teams destined for the basement in their respective conferences. Jeff Mullins and Jerry Lucas lead an injured Warriors team, which was without Thurmond, with 24 points a piece as they fell to the Celtics 117-114. Jo Jo White and John Havlicek each scored 24 for the Celtics and Don Nelson lead all scorers with 25 points.
Fan support for all 5 games was enormous. All 5 games in Salt Lake City sold out and there were high expectations for the 5 games to be played in 1970. There were even rumors of 5 more games being added in 1971. But the ABA had other plans.
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The Long Term Impact
For 3 seasons the Los Angeles Stars, or Anaheim Amigos as they were called their first season, struggled to compete in southern California with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had star names like Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The Stars had Wayne Hightower and Mack Calvin and mediocre basketball at best. The Stars owners sold them and the team quickly announced they were relocated to Salt Lake City.
The ABA had managed to let the NBA do all the leg work of driving up a fanatical fan base, and the ABA got to reap the reward. The Stars were an instant hit and soon signed Zelmo Beaty to join the team.
In their first year of existence the Utah Stars would win the ABA championship. This championship being Utah's only professional basketball championship, and states first championship of any kind until MLS's Real Salt Lake won a championship in 2009.
The Stars immediately put an end to the Salt Lake Series with the NBA, and the power grab mixed with more expansion by both leagues pretty much ended the neutral site games. The NBA would continue to play neutral site games sparingly through-out the 1970s and 80s, and then almost end them after the 1990s. The modern neutral site games are almost all played outside of the United States today.
The impact of the Salt Lake Series would resonate throughout the NBA. It forced the NBA into more expansion, eventually adding teams in Cleveland, Buffalo, Portland and New Orleans, while the ABA went to St Louis, Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for the Stars, they were mismanaged at the end of the ABA era when their owner ran unsuccessfully for governor of Colorado and disbanded a year before the ABA merged with the NBA. The Stars impact on Salt Lake City showed that the city could support an NBA team and in 1979 the New Orleans Jazz would move to Salt Lake City and become the Utah Jazz.
The Utah Jazz history would have a strange connection with those 5 games played in Salt Lake City in 1969 and 1970. The obvious connection is Jerry Sloan, who coached the Jazz to two NBA finals. But other players in that series would have gigs in Utah, or become rivals to the Jazz.