Wayne Estes a magical presence at Utah State, 50 years after his death

Wayne Estes a magical presence at Utah State, 50 years after his death

Published Feb. 5, 2015 7:00 a.m. ET

The year was 1965, and Wayne Estes was everybody's All-American. The Utah State forward spent the season neck-and-neck with Miami's Rick Barry (a future NBA Hall of Famer) for the nation's scoring title, and was considered to be every bit the equal of (if not better than) fellow All-Americans Bill Bradley, Gail Goodrich and Cazzie Russell. A future with the Los Angeles Lakers, who owned his territorial draft rights, seemed inevitable, one day pairing Estes with his boyhood idol, Elgin Baylor.

But that was the future, and on the night of Feb. 8, 1965 — 50 years ago this Sunday — Estes' sole focus was on his opponent, the University of Denver.

Well, his sole focus was on the University of Denver, and the record books. Estes entered the night with 1,953 career points, needing 47 to become the 18th player in NCAA basketball history to eclipse 2,000 in his career.

Yes, you read that correctly: 47 points!


That's no small task for any player, in any era. Then again, Estes was no typical player. He'd already topped the 40-point mark six times in his career. Those who filled the George Nelson Fieldhouse that night didn't just expect Estes to hit the 2,000-point mark. They knew he would.

Still, All-Americans have off nights, and Estes started slow against Denver, complaining of a tingling and numbness in his hands that no one would have the chance to explain. Eventually, as all great players do, Estes heated up. The man who averaged 33.7 points per game that season, the one who many said was — and still is — the best shooter they've ever seen, had 24 points by halftime. A hot start to the second half had him sitting at 46 points with a little more than five minutes to go.

Then, the magic moment happened. With a capacity crowd of more than 6,000 people on their feet and Estes sitting at 1,999 career points, the Aggies' star caught the ball in the right corner. He passed it back to guard Hal Hale at the top of the key before Hale passed it back to him.

Estes, in a move he assuredly had practiced thousands of times by himself in an otherwise quiet gym, caught the pass, made a quick ball fake to the left and took a dribble to the right before lining up his body for a picturesque two-point bucket.

Swish, nothing but net.

The game stopped and teammates mobbed the court. Fans eventually turned their cheers to boos, after head coach LaDell Andersen elected to take his star out of the game, four points away from tying his school record of 52. Andersen was unfazed; as he explained in a postgame interview, Estes would have plenty of chances later in the season to break that record.

Those chances never came.

Less than two hours after he scored his 2,000th point, on the same night that he cemented himself as a college basketball legend, Wayne Estes was dead.

The numbness in his hands became a bizarre footnote to a much larger, unspeakable, one-in-a-million tragedy that took his life.

Fifty years after his shocking death, the people who knew Estes best reflect back on the life of a long-forgotten college basketball legend.

Like every other star athlete, from every generation, Wayne Estes wasn't always known only for his athletic prowess. The son of a smelter, Estes had humble beginnings, growing up in the small town of Anaconda, Mont., in the southwest corner of the state. The house he was raised in was nondescript, other than a basketball hoop in the backyard that teammates would later notice when they delivered Estes’ body back to his hometown following his death.

For whatever Estes' upbringing lacked in high-end amenities, Joe and Helen's home remained a social hot spot for Wayne and his friends, who would always stop by to hang out and eat a hot meal. In his free time, Wayne was like any other kid who grew up in Montana during that era. His passions were sports and the outdoors, and he made sure to bring his brother Ron, 10 years his junior, with him everywhere he could.  

"We hunted, we fished, we camped," Ron Estes told FOXSports.com recently. "I played baseball, and he started me on that. As a young kid, I can remember going out in the street with him and playing catch."

"He loved life, he loved people. To me, he wasn't a basketball star. He was my brother."

Wayne Estes' life and career are now fixtures at Utah State.

In hindsight, Ron Estes' words are a bit ironic, if only because there were plenty of others who didn't consider his older brother to be a basketball star, either ...  including most college basketball coaches.

During his high school days, Wayne was better known for his exploits on the gridiron and track than anything he did on the basketball court; both his home-state schools, Montana and Montana State, elected not to recruit him at all in basketball, something that eventually became a point of contention when he blossomed into an All-American at Utah State.

Then again, in defense of both schools, Utah State didn't technically recruit him in basketball.

That's because when Andersen hit the recruiting trail the summer after Estes' senior year, he did so with a unique demand from his athletic director: In addition to recruiting for the basketball team, he had to recruit for all of Utah State's sports teams. There simply wasn't enough money to send everyone on the road, meaning that if Andersen wanted the school to pay for his recruiting trip, he had to find some football players and track and field stars, in addition to guys for his basketball team.

And it's because of those unique circumstances that Andersen ended up at Estes' house in the first place with assistant coach Nog Hansen, who had coached high school ball in Montana and told Andersen that Estes would make a heck of a recruit ... for Utah State's track team.

"We went over there, and I start talking about our track program," Andersen, who's now 86 years old and still living in Utah, said recently. "We'd had L.J. Sylvester, who was an Olympian, and I'm telling him all about that."

Before Andersen could finish the spiel however, Estes cut him off.

"He says, 'Coach, I've got to tell you, I enjoy track and football, but I want to play basketball,'" Andersen said. Estes added that if he were to come to Utah State, he would also need help finding a job.  

Although Andersen hadn't planned on finding a basketball player that afternoon, he simply couldn't pass up the chance to bring in a 6-foot-6 kid who clearly had a love for the sport.

"I said, 'I'll tell you what? Get on that train Monday morning, and I'll pick you up in Cache Junction,' " the coach said, of the small town located about 15 miles from Logan. "' You've got a summer job and a full-ride scholarship.' "

As they say, that moment was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Even if it got off to a bumpy — or should we say lumpy — start once Estes got to Logan.

Estes arrived at Utah State a few days later, but for anyone who claims he had "All-American" written all over him when he got on campus, well, they'd almost certainly be lying. Estes may have had the height of a basketball player at 6-6, but he also had the round waist of a football player, thanks to a little too much of mom's home-cooking.

His teammates quickly nicknamed him "Baby Huey," after a famous cartoon of the generation, and when pre-practices began that fall, many wondered what the coaching staff could've possibly seen in the doughy, soft forward.

Former teammate and eventual roommate Del Lyons still remembers his immediate reaction, the first time he was paired with Estes in a pick-up game. 

"I was like, 'Oh, this is just great. I've got to play with this big fat kid,' " Lyons said.

A few possessions into the game, Lyons changed his attitude.

"It didn't take me long to find out that the best thing I could do was throw the ball to that big fat kid because we'd stay on the floor a long time."

Eventually all of college basketball learned the same lesson.

Estes didn't blow anyone away physically during his first year at Utah State but quickly proved to be one of the most efficient freshman team scorers in the country. He averaged over 20 points a game that first year (freshmen weren't allowed to play varsity), leading many of the schools that had passed on him coming out of high school to try to re-recruit him, including both Montana and Montana State.

Wayne Estes was a unique talent.

Estes wasn't interested though, and as he went into that first offseason, he continued to refine both his body and his game. Assistant coaches helped Baby Huey shave off some of his baby fat, and when he returned home to Montana after school let out, he showed off a maniacal work ethic that would eventually help him become an All-American.

"I remember he'd come home for the summer," Ron Estes said. "I'd get up looking for him and there'd be a note at the kitchen table that said, 'If anyone is looking for me, I went to the gym.' "

Eventually Ron Estes began tagging along with his older brother, though things didn't always end well.

"I can remember going with him and literally crying," the younger brother said. "He would shoot thousands of shots, thousands of free throws a day. After a while that was enough for me; I didn't want to do it anymore."

Though the workouts left Ron Estes in tears, they paid off for his big brother. Wayne Estes evolved into one of the most feared scorers in college basketball, averaging 20 points as a sophomore and earning an honorable mention UPI All-American selection in the process. As a junior, he was named an All-American again by several outlets after averaging 28 points per game.

Though the overall numbers are staggering, so too are were his individual performances. Estes scored at least 20 points 31 times in his career and went for 40 on seven occasions — and he did it without the help of a 3-point line. He remains one of the most diverse scorers the game has seen, someone whose style hasn't quite been replicated in the 50 years since he last played a game.

"I remember being so impressed with his skill level," said current Utah State coach Stew Morrill, who grew up in nearby Provo and saw Estes play several times live. "He shot a right-handed roll hook, a left-handed roll hook, he was a highly skilled jump shooter."

Estes' former teammate Lyons took things one step further. When Lyons was asked to compare Estes to a modern player, well, there wasn't one he could come up with.

"I'll answer it this way," Lyons said, when asked for a comparison. "There's nobody you can compare him with then, or today. Wayne was probably the best shooter I've ever seen, period."

Like Morrill, Lyons described a versatile scorer defenses simply didn't have an answer for.

"He had a jump shot, a hook shot, a set shot. He was a great free-throw shooter," Lyons said. "He'd get under the basket and power through you. No matter what you tried to do, no matter how you tried to stop him, you just couldn't."

By the time Estes was a senior, it was impossible not to take notice of the fully established superstar. He set a school record with 52 points against Boston College and spent most of the season jockeying with future Hall of Famer Rick Barry for the nation's scoring title. The Los Angeles Lakers, who had Estes' territorial draft rights seemed intent on selecting him, an idea Estes couldn't fully wrap his head around.

The small-town kid from Anaconda had always expected to become a PE teacher after he graduated from college. When the Lakers did call, he never knew exactly what to say.

"It used to astonish Wayne because those guys were talking to him all the time," Lyons said. "He always used to say, 'If you guys draft me, you've got to take Del, too, because he knows where I like the ball.'"

As he marched through his senior year, it seemed like there was nothing that could stop Wayne Estes.

Until the night of Feb. 8, 1965.

Everyone in Logan, Utah, knew Wayne Estes was going for history on the night of Feb. 8, 1965.

Those closest to him also knew something else: In the lead-up to the game there was something wrong with Estes.  

"The day before the game he wanted to go to the field house and shoot," LaDell Andersen's son, Richie Andersen, remembered. Like a lot of kids, the younger Andersen and his brothers spent a significant amount of time around his father's team.

"He was complaining about tingling in his fingers."

The tingling sensation continued into the next day, as well as the early part of Utah State's matchup with the University of Denver. Nobody was quite sure what was wrong with Wayne Estes, but when the game tipped off it was clear that he was not himself.

"He was shooting air balls at the start of the game," Richie Andersen said. "I was mystified. Everybody was. Wayne Estes? Shooting air balls? We couldn't believe it."

Eventually though, Estes shot his way out of the slump. He tallied 24 points before the half, leaving no one in the crowd with any concerns that there might be something wrong. Estes appeared to be fine on the exterior, but the tingling in his hands persisted. He tracked down the team's physician, John Worley, hoping he might have an explanation.

"At half, Wayne came over to the dressing room and was still complaining of some numbness in his hand," Dr. Worley, who is now in his 90s but can vividly remember the night, said. "I checked him over but couldn't find anything."

Estes trotted out for the second half, and though his shots continued to fall, the discomfort persisted. Throughout the game, he was heard saying to both teammates and Coach Andersen that though he was the one putting up the shots, "somebody else was putting them in." His coach responded the only way he knew how, saying that if there was something wrong with his player, he hoped it never got better.

In the stands meanwhile, the tension continued to grow as Estes inched closer to history. He missed only three shots following intermission, climbing past 30, then 40 points. He got to 46 with a little over five minutes to play, needing one more bucket to get his historic 2,000th.

"Everybody remembers where they were when Kennedy got shot," said Jim Laub, a Logan resident, who was in the stands as a child the night Estes got to 2,000. "Well, that's kind of how it was in this community. Everybody remembers where they were the night of that last game."

Finally, Estes hit the historic bucket. He received a pass from Hale, before swishing a corner jumper in the defender's face. The crowd went wild, the game stopped, and Estes was honored before the superstar was pulled by Andersen with Utah State comfortably ahead.  

Wayne Estes: Perfect form.

The capacity crowd was not happy. Estes was within four points of his school record of 52 points. The fans wanted to see another milestone fall.

"When they took him out of the game, all the students and fans were yelling to put him back in," Laub said.

Eventually the game went final, but in the locker room after, none of the talk was about record-setting buckets, but instead that lingering arm issue. Estes was beginning to grow worried that something was seriously wrong.

"After the game, he came over and said, 'I still have that numbness in my hand,'" Dr. Worley said. "So I pulled him over, considered a few things, and I couldn't find anything to be concerned about. I told him that if he still had it come Monday, we'd go see a neurosurgeon."

Estes got up, and left the locker room. Although Dr. Worley could've never known it at that moment, it would be the final time he saw Estes alive.

It's a moment that stands still in Dr. Worley's head, 50 years later.

"He was tall, a really good-looking guy," Dr. Worley said. "When he left the dressing room, I remember distinctly him wearing a cashmere blue sweater and how sharp he looked."

Dr. Worley would again see Estes in the same blue sweater later that night — under entirely different circumstances.

With his 2,000th career point firmly in hand, Wayne Estes was no doubt the big man on Utah State's campus the night of Feb.  8, 1965. Rather than celebrate such an occasion as any college kid would, Estes tried to hide from the limelight rather than seek it.  

He and Lyons quickly went back to their apartment and on the drive noticed a nasty car crash on the side of the road. After Lyons changed his shoes — it was a snowy night, and he wanted to throw on some beat-up sneakers — and a brief phone call from Estes to his parents, the pair met up with another friend at a local pizza house. They again drove by the same car crash.

Eventually the trio finished their pizza and left to go back to their apartment. On the way they couldn't help but once again notice the nasty crash; a car had been speeding downhill onto campus via 4th North, and in awful weather conditions, the driver lost control and smashed into a telephone pole. It left a mess everywhere, including dangling power lines.

By the third time that Estes, Lyons and their friend drove by, the curious college kids couldn't help themselves. They had to stop and see what was going on. It was a mistake they could never take back, though no danger was clearly evident.

The three simply walked to the scene of the crash and were mostly disappointed in what they saw. The accident had occurred hours before (remember, they'd driven by three times by then) and was mostly cleaned up. After surveying the scene and realizing there wasn't anything left to see, they headed back to the car.

But the circumstances remained incredibly dangerous.

The trio had parked in a dip on the road, and as Lyons made his final step toward the car, the guard who stood just taller than 6-foot noticed a downed power line near his eye-level. Lyons immediately grew cautious; he and Estes had just taken a first-aid class — remember, Estes planned on being a PE teacher after graduation — in which they had learned about the dangers of electricity.

This was the exact type of situation that Lyons and Estes knew to instinctively avoid, and milliseconds before Lyons nearly walked into the wire, he ducked out of the way. Immediately he called back to Wayne to do the same.  

"I said to Wayne, 'Watch that wire, it might be hot,' " Lyons yelled.

It was too late.

While Lyons was able to duck and completely miss the wire, Estes had no such luck. He heard his friend's warning and ducked too; but Estes wasn't 6-foot, he was 6-foot-6, and the wire grazed the top of his head.

A jolt of electricity blew through Estes' body, and when it did, his fight-or-flight instincts kicked in. Estes tried to knock away the power line, but accidentally wrapped his hand around it.

"I think his natural instinct was like when a bee stings you," Lyons said of the fateful night. "What's the first thing you do? You swat at it, and I think he swatted at it and grabbed that wire and that was it."

The electricity surged through Estes' body; he then reached for his teammate desperate for help, in what might have been the last clear thought of his life. When Estes grabbed Lyons, the rush was so strong it actually sent Lyons flying over the car and into the street. He could've died too that night, if not for a seemingly innocent decision he'd made earlier.

"Probably the only thing that saved me was that I changed my shoes when we got back (from the game)," Lyons said. "Back then (we) had those shoes with big, leather soles. I changed shoes and put Converse on."

For Lyons, the electricity was able to shoot through the bottom of his feet, potentially saving his life.

"I went to take my socks off (later that night), and my heels, they looked as if someone had shot me with a .22," he said.

The electricity coursed through Estes, and while no one will ever be able to confirm it, most assume he was dead by the time he hit the ground. Paramedics who were still on the scene from the original crash rushed him to the emergency room, where he was met by, of all people, Dr. John Worley. In a twist of irony that seems too surreal to be true, Dr. Worley actually had been called into the ER earlier that evening to tend to the original crash victims.

Wayne Estes goes up for a hook shot.

When he heard Estes was on his way, he assumed it was related to the issue that had bothered him the previous couple days.

"I got a call from the emergency room, and they said, 'Doctor, we're bringing Wayne Estes in, and we were hoping you could see him,' " Worley remembered. "I was thinking that it was probably related to the numbness in his hand, and I said, 'Well yeah, I'll be right down.' I didn't have any idea what had happened."

Worley was completely unprepared for what he eventually walked into.

"It was the most shocking experience I'd ever seen," Dr. Worley said. "I was expecting to see the Wayne Estes that had left the locker room. Instead I saw this big handsome guy in a blue sweater, dead."

Wayne Estes had been on top of the world, a seemingly endless basketball future in his sights, and 2,000 points under his belt. Two hours later, he was dead at 21.

1965 was in an era long before cell phones and text messaging. Still, news of Estes' death traveled quickly. Locally, LaDell Andersen found out about the incident within minutes, after driving by the same car accident that his players had moments before.

Meanwhile, across the country, the death shook up another college basketball star, teaching him a lesson about mortality in the process.

"It really was a reality check that anything can happen to anyone," said Rick Barry, who never had the opportunity to play against Estes but was shaken up by the tragedy. "When you're 20 years old, you think you're going to live forever."

Yet as much as the tragedy shook the country, nowhere did the ramifications hit harder than in a tiny home in tiny Anaconda.

Remember, shortly after Utah State's game against the University of Denver had gone final, Estes had phoned home to speak with his parents, leaving them with no indication that he was, or would be, in imminent danger. Estes' dad had left for work shortly after the call, and his mom and younger brother were at home.

"I can remember in the middle of the night, someone knocking on the door," Ron Estes said. "I heard my mom break down. I didn't know what was going on; it was scary, it really was. I was in bed, and I could hear all this commotion, all this crying that was going on out there."

From there, the rest is a blur for most everyone who knew Estes best, each person sharing bits and pieces of the days which followed the tragedy.

Lyons remembers going to the mortuary and helping the mortician do Estes' hair just right, noticing a burn mark on his hair line, where the power line likely brushed the top of his head, setting off the whole chain of events. Lyons and the team went back to Anaconda for the funeral, with a separate ceremony held at some point in Logan, Utah.

Then, like it always does, life went on. On the court, guard LeRoy Walker helped replace some of the scoring slack left by Estes, even if emotionally, the team simply wasn't the same. The season ended unceremoniously for the Aggies, who missed the NCAA tournament altogether — even with Estes, they likely would've missed it — a year after making the Sweet 16.

From there, everyone went their separate ways. Several of Estes' teammates graduated a few months later, allowing them to escape campus, and the daily reminders of their fallen friend. Eventually, Andersen welcomed in a new batch of recruits, with promises of full scholarships and summertime jobs.

Andersen acknowledged in interviews through the years that he had trouble coaching in the immediate aftermath of the death. Who could blame him?

When asked about the incident for this article, it was clear that Estes' death lingered with his coach some 50 years later.

"It was the great tragedy of my life," Andersen said.  

Under normal circumstances, the memories of Estes would've faded long ago. Maybe a few years after the incident, maybe once his teammates and Andersen had left Utah State, possibly after the adults who attended Utah State's games during Estes' career had eventually passed on.

The thing is, Estes was no normal basketball player. He was no normal man, either. And his legacy has lived on long after his death.

"Not a year goes by without someone bringing up Wayne's name to me," Lyons said. "This is 50 years, and it's still going on. That's a tribute to Wayne. That describes his character better than anything I can think of."

Though those who were closest to Estes will never forget him, an entirely different generation of college basketball fans in Logan, Utah, learned a little bit more about the local star on May 14, 2014.

That was the day Utah State opened a state-of-the-art, $9.7 million basketball practice and volleyball facility. It is called the Wayne Estes Center, and the primary benefactor who helped fund the project couldn't imagine naming it after anyone else.

"I think it was my youngest son who suggested it," Jim Laub said.

The Wayne Estes Athletic Center.

Remember Laub? The little boy who was in the crowd the night Estes scored his 2,000th point was now a grown man. And he had been telling his own children Estes' story for years. They eventually learned how much Estes meant to their father and the entire Utah State community as a whole. It left one of them with the bright idea to name the building after him.

"(My son) said, 'Why don't you name it after Estes?' I said, 'That's perfect.'"

Going forward, the Wayne Estes Center will serve a multitude of purposes for Utah State; first off, it gives the basketball team a place to practice, and the volleyball team a spot to play its home matches.

More important, it allows the legacy of Estes to live on. The building is home to a display case filled with just about every piece of relevant Estes memorabilia the school owns. It honors a Utah State legend a younger generation might not know much about, if it knows anything about him at all.

"As the years have gone by, you start to bring up his name to younger fans and they look at you like, 'Who's Wayne Estes?' They have no clue," Laub said. "Now that there's the Wayne Estes Center, people have become aware of who Wayne Estes is again."

That includes a current member of the women's track team, who has a famous last name and who throws the javelin about as well as her uncle did once upon a time.   

"My daughter, she's a sophomore down there (at Utah State) and she had no idea (about Wayne Estes' legacy)," Ron Estes said.

The Estes family was in the crowd the day the Wayne Estes Center opened, as were several of Wayne's former teammates, including Lyons.

For Ron Estes, the trip served many purposes. Most important, it allowed his family to learn a little bit more about the uncle they never got a chance to know.

A tribute to Wayne Estes at the center named for him.

"To listen to the other people talk and tell you what kind of person and athlete he was, it was pretty overwhelming," Estes said.

Not that it was a surprise to Ron Estes.

After all, Wayne never was a basketball star in Ron's eyes. Just his big brother.

Aaron Torres is contributor to FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com.