Joe Belmont remembers that when the 1969-70 American Basketball Association season began, he was the only member of the Denver Rockets’ front office staff who had ever shot a basketball.
Denver’s pro franchise was in turmoil after the resignations of Bob Bass and Dick Eicher, the organization’s first coach and general manager. Team owner Bill Ringsby brought in John McLendon, a coach with a lengthy college and international resume, to succeed Bass. Hiring McLendon opened the door to getting potential superstar Spencer Haywood to play his first professional season with the Rockets.
McLendon knew the Xs and Os “better than anybody” but needed time for the players to buy into his system, said Belmont, who was doing some scouting and related tasks for the team back then. Time ran out on the new coach after 28 games and the Rockets standing at 9-19. Belmont got a call from new general manager Donald Ringsby (Bill’s son) asking if he wanted to be the interim coach. Belmont replied “no problem” but still says “I actually got the job by default.”
Belmont, whose career bridged Denver’s basketball eras, had arrived in 1957 to play for coach Johnny Dee and the Denver-Chicago Truckers. The former Duke University star was a fixture for the Truckers in the National Industrial Basketball League until its demise in 1966. With the truckers, he competed in the storied AAU tournament, once Denver’s premier sports event. The low point of his Mile High career, in fact, was in 1958 when the Truckers succumbed to the Peoria Cats in four overtimes and lost a chance to become the first Denver NIBL team to win the AAU tournament.
“He learned his basketball on the tough streets of Philadelphia,” said Eicher, a Truckers teammate in 1957. He played with a high basketball IQ…We called him “Little Weasel” because he darted around quicker than anyone else on the team.”
Taking over the struggling Rockets, Belmont inserted a less complicated style of play. A landmark season followed. The Rockets were 42-14 with Belmont at the helm, winning the ABA’s West Division title. “My coaching philosophy was easy,” Belmont said. “I just wanted our players to go out and play and have fun. Basketball’s an instinctive game. It’s learned on the playgrounds and it starts with offense.”
Belmont admittedly didn’t like the Xs and Os of the game. He just wanted the Rockets to take more shots than their opponents. If his team could get 20, 30 more shots and hit 50 percent of the extra shots, he figured they’d have a good chance to win. His non-textbook methods worked. In the 69 games that Belmont coached, the team’s winning percentage was .652, the highest of any of Denver’s pro basketball coaches, including NBA mentors Larry Brown and Doug Moe.
Before the 1970-71 season began, however, Haywood jumped to Seattle in the NBA. “We were 8-0 in the exhibition season when Haywood left,” Belmont recalled. “We got off to a rough start in the regular season.” Belmont was fired 13 games into the second season as the Rockets plunged to 3-10. “Coaching really wasn’t my cup of tea,” he asserted. “I preferred officiating and I went into that.”
Belmont and his players – a list that includes Haywood, Julius Kaye, Byron Beck, Larry Jones, Lonnie Wright, Jeff Congdon and Walt Piatkowski – still put a stage in Denver’s sports record book. And from AAU low point to ABA division championship and beyond, Belmont remains a frontrunner on Denver’s basketball courts.
We called him “Little Weasel” because he darted around quicker than anyone else on the team.