“My first and only goal coming into the ABA was to be a great defensive player,” explained Wise. “I loved playing defense. It was always a challenge to see if I could stop guys like Rick Barry, John Brisker, and Roger Brown. But I didn’t like to think of myself as the best defensive player in the league. That’s because when I started to think about that I might have let down.”
Like the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Willie Wise was never quite satisfied with himself. No matter how well he played, how well he shot, how well he shut down opponents, he was never ever satisfied with himself. For Wise basketball was a game meant for passion and zeal. To believe perfection had been attained was to acquiesce with complacency.
Wise had no time and no place for resting on laurels.
He was a man dedicated to improving every facet of his game. Working with Utah Stars coach Bill Sharman, himself a great shooting guard, Wise drastically improved his offensive game and by 1972 was averaging 23 points a game while shooting a touch over 50% from the field. His defense was stifling and suffocating. And even though he stood just 6’5″ he was also a superb rebounder, snaring 10.7 boards a game over his first three seasons (1970-’72).
“Beaty did a great job,” Sharman said following the game. “But Wise was outstanding.” The Utah coach described Wise’s 26 points and 24 rebounds as “just too much to expect.”
Wise and Beaty had huge games at the right moment. It was Game 2 of the 1971 Finals and they edged out Kentucky 131 to 121. They eventually won the title in seven games. The Stars behind Wise, Beaty, and Ron Boone were a constant power in the ABA from 1970 to 1974, making at least the Conference Finals every season.
And Wise was constantly a power in the postseason. The Stars could not only count on Wise to maintain his play, they could expect elevated play from the all-around star. Just check the following upticks in production he experienced come playoff time from 1971-’74.
Wise may have hated to praise himself, but this team success left him gushing all over. And as this successful team filled with teammates and friends aged it was dismantled. Wise, a man who played for passion, lost much of his drive and zeal as he saw management discard his brothers in basketball arms.
After the 1974 season ended with a Finals defeat against the New York Nets, the Stars tossed aside Beaty and super scorer Jimmy Jones while Wise went into hiding refusing to play. After months of stalemate, the Stars sold Wise to the Virginia Squires late in the 1974-75 season. Willie played just 16 games but, despite the layoff, he looked close to his normal, All-Star self averaging 21 points and six rebounds.
The next season (1975-76) Wise began suffering from a balky knee. The knee quickly proved extremely troublesome and his career was totally over by 1977 at age 30. Wise, true to his name, wasn’t one to beleaguer the point. He didn’t try and hang on for years making comebacks. One moment revealed to him it was all over:
I remember they put me on the Iceman. That’s George Gervin. And I don’t mean this in a vain, proud way, but I used to be able to stay with the Iceman as long as he was out on the court. If he took me down on the block, he could elevate over me because he was 6’7″, almost 6’8″, and he could leap. But if he tried to beat me out on the floor, he couldn’t. And boy, he blew by me. I thought, Whoa. And that’s when it really hit me that I just couldn’t move laterally anymore. That was the time on the court that I thought, You know what? I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.
But when Willie could do it, he was one of the best.
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1973-’74)
2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1972, 1974)
3x All-Star (1972-’74)
All-Rookie Team (1970)
Regular Season Career Averages (552 games):
Playoff Career Averages (74 games):