by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It has not been an easy few months for the basketball community, which lately has been hit with a lot more sad news than usual. And for those like us at TGS who can recall an earlier hoops era, much of the recent news has understandably hit us hard. Recently, it was Flip Saunders, coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who first came to our attention as a scrappy guard for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 1970s, who passed away right before the tip-off to the current NBA season. In previous months, pro hoops lost another couple of very recognizable faces from the previous generation—the great Moses Malone and the very colorful Darryl Dawkins. All deserve mention on these pages and any of them would be proper subjects for a retrospective, which we might follow up upon later in the season.

The most recent shocker, however, came late last week when news that former great Indiana Pacers C Mel Daniels passed away suddenly at the age of 71. We will excuse modern-day hoops aficionados, and those of the ESPN generation, if they draw a blank on Daniels. But even those sorts are likely aware of the old ABA, and they ought to know that the league was more than Julius Erving and flying slam dunks and wild hairdos. There was a blue-collar side to the ABA exemplified by Daniels and his Pacers. And it really wasn’t Erving (who joined the ABA about halfway through its existence) or his flashier New York Nets, twice champs in the last three seasons, that were the heart and soul of the league.

That would more accurately belong to Daniels and the Pacers. In fact, in the epic ABA retrospective book Loose Balls, author Terry Pluto calls the Pacers “The Boston Celtics of the ABA,” right down to the fact that Indiana wore black shoes, like the Celtics of the era, for its first several years of existence.

There was nothing too remarkable about the Pacers at the outset of their era in the old ABA, of which Indiana was a charter member. Contrary to a couple of my theories as a boy as to the origin of the “Pacers” name (“Pacers” as in harness racing, Pacers & Trotters perhaps?; or maybe like the “pace car” for the Indy 500?), the team’s objective would be to “set the Pace in professional basketball” and hence would be called the “Pacers.”

The collection of players for the initial 1967-68 season looked like an early ‘60s reunion of college all-star players from the region, including ex-Loyola Chicago star Jerry Harkness (right), ex-Cincinnati sharpshooter Ron Bonham, and ex-Indiana Hoosier dagger thrower Jimmy Rayl, the “Splendid Splinter” and who many believe might have been the best pure shooter of his era. Others, including former Cincy Bearcat assistant and Wisconsin HC John Powlus, believed it was actually Bonham who was the generation’s best marksman (“What about Rick Mount?,” we asked Powlus when meeting him at his Madison, WI tennis center back in 2009. “No,” said Powlus, “Mount just shot a lot. Bonham was a better pure shooter.”). However, it was Harkness who made the shot of the year in the ABA’s first season, early in the campaign on November 13 in Dallas, when he hit a 92-foot buzzer beater from the opposite baseline, hurled almost discus-style, to beat the host Chaparrals. The shot, at the end of the game, was still at a time when the ABA’s new 3-point concept was considered something of a gimmick, and the players and fans had initially thought that Harkness’ heave had merely tied the game as a 2-point shot. “Then ref Joe Belmont came up to me,” Harkness told us in 2009, “and said that it was a 3-pointer and the game was over! It took us a few seconds to realize we had won the game!”

Although there were some other building blocks in place for the Pacers’ future, including Roger Brown (left), a 6-5 swingman considered one of the great players ever produced out of New York. Before he could play a game at the University of Dayton, however, Brown became ensnared in the same controversy involving gambler Jack Molinas as did Connie Hawkins, who had previously enrolled at Iowa. Both were banned from the colleges and the NBA, though while Brown toiled away for local AAU teams, Hawkins would star in the old “ABL” (predecessor to the ABA) in the early ‘60s and then with the Harlem Globetrotters before the ABA would give both the Hawk and Brown a chance at pro ball in 1967. Brown was an unstoppable offensive force when the mood struck, and was part of a early Pacers core that also included rookies Arizona State G Freddie Lewis and Drake F Bob Netolicky. But Indiana lacked a presence in the paint, and despite becoming the ABA’s hit attraction at the gate, and occasionally even selling out the Fairgrounds Coliseum (still standing today as the Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance Coliseum) and its 9300 seats, the Pacers could only finish at 38-40 for HC Larry Staverman and in third place in the Eastern Division, knocked out of the playoffs by Connie Hawkins and his eventual champion Pittsburgh Pipers in a 3-game sweep.

Following that initial season, Mike Storen, whose long career in hoops administration (including a stint as ABA Commissioner) would begin with Indiana as the GM, and years before he would also become known as the father of TV sportscaster Hannah Storm, made the personnel move of his lifetime and the best deal in the history of the ABA. For the cost of spare parts including Jimmy Dawson, Ron Kozlicki, and cash, Storen was able to steal Daniels from the cash-strapped Minnesota Muskies, who were in the process of moving to Miami to become the Floridians.

This was the ABA equivalent of Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. Hence began the most dominant run in ABA history, as, over the next five seasons, the Pacers would more or less rule the league.

That Daniels was even in the ABA surprised many hoop insiders of the day. A HS star from Detroit’s legendary Pershing High (whose hoops alums also include Spencer Haywood, Kevin Willis, Ralph Simpson, and Steve Smith, as well as original “Four Tops” Levi Stubbs, Jr. and Duke Fakir) and All-American for HC Bob King at New Mexico, Daniels was the top pick (ninth overall) of the NBA Cincinnati Royals in the 1967 draft but instead opted to ink with the upstart new ABA and the Minnesota Muskies, who were to play their games at the new Met Center in Bloomington along with the NHL’s new expansion team, the North Stars. Daniels, along with G Donnie Freeman, quickly became the main attraction for the Muskies, who despite playing in one of the league’s best arenas could not draw fans, averaging only a bit better than 2800 despite chasing Hawkins’ Pittsburgh Pipers to the wire in the Eastern Division and finishing with a 50-28 record. The Pipers would eliminate the Muskies in the East Finals, but Daniels had made quite a mark, scoring 22.2 ppg and hauling in 15.6 rebounds per game to become a clear winner of the ABA’s first Rookie of the Year Award.

A 6-9 center, Daniels was the dominant post threat in the league, with a physical yet explosive style that would intimidate other ABA frontliners, who were often bulled into the baseline seats by an intensely competitive Daniels, who took no quarter in the paint. His addition to the Pacers changed the complexion of a franchise that was suddenly ready to take off.

It didn’t start at the outset of the 1968-69 season, however, as HC Staverman would see his team stumble out of the gate at 2-7, to be replaced after nine games by Bob “Slick” Leonard  a former Indiana Hoosier star who spent several years in the NBA as a player with the Minneapolis Lakers, Chicago Packers and Zephyrs, and as a player-coach for the Zephyrs in 1962-63 and then head coach of the the team in 1963-64 when it moved to Baltimore and was re-christened the Bullets.

Under Leonard, the Pacers, then led on the floor by the irrepressible Daniels, would click. Leonard’s fire was recalled in Pluto’s Loose Balls book in a brief passage provided by Netolicky. “In his third game as coach, Slick was upset at one of the officials,” Neto said in Loose Balls. “The guy had made a couple of terrible calls and Slick said, ‘If that guy blows another one, I’m gonna smack the hell out of him.’ Nobody on the bench who heard that thought much of it. Coaches say things like that all of the time, but the ref blew another call, Slick went out on the court after the guy, and we almost had a riot!”

The Pacers were also quickly gaining a reputation as the tough guys of a tough league, with Daniels as the main enforcer. “The Pacers were the bullies of the league,” said Gene Littles, a former ABA star with the Carolina Cougars and future Charlotte Hornets HC, in Pluto’s Loose Balls. “They were like the (bad-boy days) Detroit Pistons. If you got ahead of them, then Daniels or somebody would push you, the benches would empty, and you’d have a fight. I remember a game where (guard) Bob Verga and Daniels got into a fight, and the next thing I knew, Slick Leonard had jumped on Verga. That team fought so much that even their coach liked to fight. In my five years at Carolina, the only team I remember fighting with was Indiana.”

“Slick” himself would even later have to laugh at his considerable antics. “The funny thing was I was kicking over chairs and throwing things long before Bobby Knight, and people write a book about Knight and make a million dollars,” Leonard would note in Loose Balls.

Leonard would steer Indiana to a 42-27 record for the remainder of the 1968-69 season to win the Eastern Conference title, with Daniels making major contributions. Early in the season, Daniels would continue to play with a broken nose, refusing to sit out, and scored 30 points in two of his next three games to set the tone for the remainder of the campaign. Big Mel would score 24 ppg and gather an eye-opening 16.5 rpg to win the league’s MVP honors. The Pacers had to overcome a tough challenge from the Kentucky Colonels in the first round of the playoffs, rallying from a 3-1 deficit, but the Colonels were eventually vanquished in seven games, then the Floridians in five, before the Finals against the Oakland Oaks, who had survived a midseason injury to star Rick Barry and would ride G Larry Brown (heard of him, right?), F Doug Moe, and rookie sensation Warren Armstrong (later Jabali)  to the title.

But 1968-69 was just the appetizer for the following season in which the Pacers would dominate the league, with Daniels as the center-piece. Roaring through the regular season at 59-25, the Pacers would run away with the East and dominate their half of the playoffs, losing just once in the first two rounds, before facing the challenge of the upstart Los Angeles Stars, coached by Bill Sharman, in the final series, featured nationally on CBS, with games called by Don Criqui, in games two and five. The Pacers, who shook tradition in the CBS games and wore their dark blue jerseys, not their whites, at home (to help better contrast with the Stars, whose powder blue road jerseys did not contrast well enough on black-and-white TV sets with the Pacers’ whites), would finally repel the Stars, who managed two wins at the Fairgrounds Coliseum but could not win at home, in games played at the Anaheim Convention Center and LA Sports Arena, as Indiana would win in six. Brown was unstoppable in the series, scoring 32 ppg, and was named Finals MVP, though it was Daniels as usual providing the yeoman-like work in a year he again posted mind-numbing numbers, including a staggering 17.6 rpg, along with 19.7 ppg.

Rebounds. Daniels collected them like coins. No ABA player got more rebounds than Daniels, who won the league title in that category three times. In a March, 1969 game against the Nets, Daniels had 37 points and 26 rebounds–all in the second half! He was a force of nature and would eventually conclude his career with staggering rebound average of 15.1 per game. Strong, with skills to match, Daniels wasn’t simply a heart and hustle guy who scrapped for points.

Daniels was more than stats, however, as he was also the unquestioned emotional leader of the ABA’s greatest team. And he was the Pacers’ enforcer, too. “He was not a man to back down from a fight,” said his coach, Leonard.

Even later in his career, Daniels still had the reputation as the guy you didn’t mess with, as was noted in a story in this week’s Indianapolis Star, written by Candace Buckner, who quoted a teammate of Mel’s from the end of his playing days. “I was hanging onto Mel like a little dog,” said former Purdue star Frank Kendrick, who teamed with Daniels briefly for the Baltimore Claws in 1975. “I didn’t worry about anyone, but I really didn’t because I knew if anything was to go down, Mel would be right there. And it would come to an end.”

Buckner made sure everyone knew of the essence of big Mel. “Daniels carried around this strength like a business card, even flashing it through death-grip handshakes until his final days. But Daniels saved his greatest show of strength as the league’s all-time leading rebounder. In six seasons with the Pacers, Daniels grabbed 5,461 rebounds — a number yet to be surpassed in franchise history — and finished with an ABA best 9,494 rebounds.”

“He was ferocious. It was like a Moses Malone-type thing. Some people have a nose for the ball,” Pacers teammate George McGinnis said, explaining Daniels as a relentless rebounder. “He was a good size for that era, but he played bigger. Much bigger. He wanted every rebound.”

McGinnis would continue, recalling how Daniels wanted the ball on the low block. “Face the rim and throw in a long sweeping hook shot from the right side. Unstoppable. But if the defenses sent over help, Daniels’ counter move was the smart move: a pass back out to a teammate.

“Very unselfish,” McGinnis concluded. “(Daniels) wasn’t a dark hole. It (the ball) would come back to you.”

Indiana would move to the Western Division for the 1970-71 season and would engage in a season-long battle with their new nemesis, the Stars, having moved to Salt Lake City. Newly-named Utah, fortified by NBA transfer C Zelmo Beaty, would get its revenge in a bruising 7-game Western final en route to the title in the spring of ‘71. The addition the next season of McGinnis, who left Indiana U as a hardship case to join the Pacers just as Bob Knight arrived in Bloomington, plus our personal favorite, shot-swatting 6’10 Darnell "Dr. Dunk" Hillman (left), a San Jose State product who seemed about 7’4 with his stylish Afro and was one of the league’s great dunkers (indeed, he would win a CBS dunk contest that aired at halftime of the national TV games in the later 1976-77, post-merger season) would put the final touches on the next stages of the Pacer powerhouse, and would swing the power back to the Pacers the following year, when Indiana would avenge that playoff ouster and take out the Stars in the subsequent West final before dispatching Rick Barry and the New York Nets in six games in the Finals.

By that time, Storen had made further adjustments to the roster, losing Netolicky and G Rick Mount, but landing star G Donnie Freeman in trade. To prove the 1971-72 title was no fluke, the Pacers did it again in the following 1972-73 season. Celtics-like, Indiana saved its best basketball for the postseason. The Stars would be met yet again, for the fourth straight year, and once more the Pacers would prevail in seven games to advance to the Finals, where they would face the nearby Kentucky Colonels in a spirited “I-65 Series” classic, including protests, brawls, and an eventual Indiana victory in Game Seven at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, 88-81.

Former Purdue star and Pacers G Billy Keller left no doubt who was the key to the Pacers’ success–Daniels—when quoted in Loose Balls. “(Mel) played a man’s game inside,” said Keller. “He set the picks, he got the rebounds, he blocked the shots and he was in the middle of every fight. He scared people out of driving the lane against the Pacers. If he went for the ball and ended up with someone’s head in his hands, he was just as likely to put a headlock on the guy than let him go. If Artis Gilmore had Mel’s temperament, Artis would have been the greatest player in the history of the game. But Artis was just a quiet, nice guy. Mel would get right in his face and play the big fella even.

“What impressed me about Mel was that he was often unselfish. When he got a defensive rebound, he immediately looked upcourt to throw the long outlet pass and start the fast break. He didn’t hold the ball like some big guys do, making the guard come back to get it so that the pace would be slower and the center could walk up the court and set up under the basket.

“You’d see that unselfishness on defense. If Neto’s (Netolicky’s) man drove around Neto, Mel would be there to pick him up. Mel got a lot of extra fouls that way, and he’d get mad at Neto for playing bad defense, but Mel was always there to clog the middle.

“Offensively, he was not a graceful player. He used his size and strength to get second shots. But he did have one shot for which he was famous–he would catch the ball and fake as if he was going to drive the baseline, then shoot a soft, fadeaway jumper. That was an unstoppable move.”

After winning the back-to-back titles and their third in four seasons, the Pacers began to slow down a bit in 1973-74. Seven seasons of punishing, rugged, no-holds-barred ABA in-fighting in the paint had begun to take a toll on Daniels, and injuries mounted. Utah would lead the West for the entire season and once again would clash with the Pacers in the West final, and the Stars looked ready to sweep when bolting to a 3-0 lead, only for Indiana to summon one more surge and fight back to force a Game Seven. The Stars would survive Game Seven before losing to the Nets in the Finals, but an era was coming to a close in the ABA as the Pacers’ core would soon be disbanded.

Former GM Mike Storen had since moved to the Memphis franchise, which had been bought by the league from Charlie Finley, the controversial owner of baseball’s Kansas City and Oakland A’s who called his Memphis team the “Tams” (Tennessee-Arkansas-Mississippi–really!) and dressed them in various combos of green and gold, as Finley had done with his baseball team. Storen would be part of an ownership group that would supposedly include Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, future KC Royals owner Avron Fogelman, and musician Isaac Hayes, at the time famous for his “Shaft” hit song for the movie of the same name. The team would be re-named the Sounds. But Wilson and Hayes would become squeezed for cash and did not join the ownership group, putting Storen in a tough spot after he had paid big money for an old Pacers reunion in Memphis. Daniels, Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown, and Rick Mount all were acquired by Storen's Sounds, though the situation quickly deteriorated in Memphis, and Lewis and Brown were shipped out shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Daniels would injure his back and was then on the downside of his career.

After the disappointing 1974-75, the Sounds would move to Baltimore and, after a brief period in which they would be called the Hustlers, changed their name to the Claws. But they would play only a few exhibition games before the team would fold.

That was effectively it for Daniels’ career, which, like the punishing NBA enforcers of the era such as Dave Cowens and Willis Reed, had decelerated quickly due to injuries. Daniels did make a brief appearance in the 1976-77 merger season with the Nets, who had sold off assets, including Julius Erving, and were a hodge-podge collection that season, still playing in the Nassau Coliseum before moving to Rutgers the next year and re-naming themselves the New Jersey Nets. Daniels would play in just 11 games as part of the NBA after spending the entirety of his previous nine years in the ABA.

Nonetheless, the Daniels we remember is the one who was the unquestioned leader in the glory years of the Pacers franchise. He was an ABA All-Star for seven straight seasons thru the 1972-74 campaign. Twice (1969 & ‘71) he was the ABA MVP. Mel was also the All-Star Game MVP of 1969. As mentioned, he was also the ABA’s all-time leading rebounder.

Like many ex-Pacers, Daniels stayed around Indianapolis after his playing days and would be employed by the team in the front office for almost 25 years before retiring. He was among the most popular of ex-Pacers in the community and in their very active alumni group. Big Mel also spent time coaching, including a stint as an assistant at Indiana State (under his New Mexico coach Bob King) when Larry Bird played for the Sycamores. Fittingly, Daniels was selected as a member of the all-time All-ABA team by a panel of ABA-affiliated personnel in 1997. And Daniels would receive his biggest individual honor when the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA inducted him in 2012. Along with Roger Brown, Reggie Miller, and George McGinnis, he is also only one of four Pacers to have his jersey number (34) retired.

Hoop insiders, however, long knew that Daniels was special and the real face of the ABA for its existence. And, of course, all along the way, the constant in the Pacers’ success was Daniels. “Mel was the anchor,” former teammate Netolicky said in the recent Indy Star story. “Had Mel not came to this team, I can guarantee you 100 percent we wouldn’t be sitting down at (Bankers Life Fieldhouse).

“Had we not had the success we had, they would’ve folded the team. The thing I hope people understand, they have no idea how important this guy was to the city.”

We at TGS understand, because we watched him play and remember the glory days of the Pacers in the ABA. And please know that whenever we might make a comparisons to Mel Daniels with one of the modern-day players, we are passing out the highest of basketball compliments.

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