Utah Prospectors: Utah's second professional basketball team
The Utah Prospectors, or Pro's as they were sometimes called, were a Western Basketball Association team that lasted only one season and played their home games in the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City. Sometimes the team is referred to by it's original name: Salt Lake City Prospectors.
The WBA as a whole was a league set to rival the NBA and pick up where the ABA had failed, but with a regional aspect. The seven-team league included the Fresno Stars, Great Falls Sky, Las Vegas Dealers, Reno Bighorns, Tucson Gunners, Washington Lumberjacks, and of course the Prospectors. The names and locations of the team tried to play off of the history of the locales that the teams.
The league was founded by Larry Cregar who was an assistant coach in both the NBA and the ABA and businessman Neil Christiansen.
The Utah team was owned by Frank Nelson, a Salt Lake City area businessman. The team was coached by former Utah Stars player Dick Nemelka.
The WBA had regional territorial picks much like the NBA had in the earlier days of its existence, and much like it did in the NBA the WBA rule caused a lot of hurt feelings. Utah had six colleges which were assigned to it as being in its region, other teams were not as lucky. This was thought to be a huge advantage to Utah as both Utah and BYU had several players going into the NBA throughout the years.
The Pro's wanted to court the past and be like the Utah Stars of the ABA. The team hired several Stars personalities and even had the same color scheme as the old Stars. The Utah Stars of the ABA had put Utah on the map as a major basketball loving city, and when the Stars disbanded and the ABA merged it looked as if Salt Lake City was not going to have another professional basketball and the Pro's hoped to fill that void.
The Utah media tried to hype the team as well. A Deseret News article written by Linda Hamilton from August 25, 1978 attributes Great Falls coach Bill Klukas as saying he would not trade the Big 10 conference for the schools the Pro's get to pick from. This is likely hyperbole as even at it's best the Utah schools do not put out the number of star or talented players that the Big 10 does.
Though while the Pro's courted the past the league itself did not. Though it did keep the no foul out rule and three point shot. The league was seen as somewhat of a sideshow once it got going with a number of antics that both made fans laugh and cry at the same time. The ABA liked antics too, but they kept them in a much more professional environment. But the buffoonery aside the WBA did have some success as a minor league to the NBA and several players did get called up to the NBA.
One such player that got called up was Utah's Sam Smith, who joined the Lakers in 1978. In Smiths first game he hurled a three quarters shot off the backboard and into the hoop; which was a WBA specialty.
The contrast of professionalism and circus sideshow plagued the league and most of the teams as well and Utah was no exception. One common problem was players just quitting mid-game. Utah's Bruce Seals did just that when he confronted coach Nemelka over playing time and Nemelka told him to go home; and Seals did. This wasn't the only time this happened. Yet despite these kinds of set backs the league did provide better lodging and an better overall experience for the players.
The first WBA all-star game was to be held in Salt Lake City on January 18, 1979, but due to financial issues the game was cancelled.
Unlike the NBA at the time which had 12 player active rosters and could have up to 15 total players on their rosters, the WBA allowed for only 11 player rosters and only 9 traveling players. The league paid well for its stature with a minimum of $10,000 a year per team.
Despite the high hopes for the team, the Pro's won only 19 games and finished in 6th place. Sam Smith did earn all league 3rd team honors.
Several factors lead to the demise of the WBA. One was the announcement in April of 1979 that the New Orleans Jazz would be relocating to Salt Lake City. This put the WBA and the NBA in direct competition in what would become the NBA's smallest market but what was one of the WBA's largest markets. The WBA began to actively look to move the Prospectors and were looking at cities such as Provo, Cheyenne and Barstow, when news came that the Continental Basketball Association wanted to do a merger. This looked like a great deal and both sides agreed to it. All the teams except Utah would join the CBA, and Utah would disband because they could not compete with the Jazz. Unfortunately, for the WBA none of its teams could make the financial commitment and before the merger could be completed the entire league folded.
Several players who would go on to play for the Utah Jazz played for the WBA they include Jeff Cook, Brad Davis and Duck Williams. .