Posted Sep 10, 2012 7:45 AM
Mel Daniels missed out. Unlike the other great stars of the upstart and short-lived American Basketball Association -- Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, Dan Issel, Moses Malone, David Thompson -- Daniels' best years were spent entirely in the lesser-known and long-disrespected ABA.
By the time the two leagues merged for 1976-77 and ABA alumni flooded the 1977 NBA All-Star Game in Milwaukee (10 of the 26 players chosen), Daniels was done. After sitting out the "other" league's final season with back pain and other ailments, he came back for just 11 NBA games with the Nets before retiring for good in December 1976.
But in Daniels' opinion, he didn't miss out at all. Not then and certainly not now, as he enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2012.
When he is inducted Sept. 7 as the second player honored via the Hall's ABA committee (Gilmore was the first in 2011), Daniels will stride through the front door, not some side entrance. He'll stand side-by-side with fellow Pacers star Reggie Miller and know, in his bones, that he teamed with and competed against players as talented and deserving as any in Springfield.
How does he know? Because he saw first-hand what the NBA had, too.
From 1971 through 1975, ABA teams faced NBA competition in a series of preseason games. With one league determined to prove itself and the other perhaps hoping to embarrass and distance itself from the red, white and blue pests, they played a total of 155 games. Most of them were hotly contested, switching between the traditional NBA ball and the ABA version at halftime, same as with the upstarts' 3-point rule. Over the final three seasons, ABA teams had a 62-34 edge and they won the interleague clashes overall, 79-76.
Also, the NBA and ABA players' associations staged two "supergame" All-Star contests in May 1971 and May 1972, during which Daniels matched up with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond and Elvin Hayes.
No doubt in Daniels' mind: He belonged on the same court and, grateful for this honor, he belongs in the same shrine.
"I played against Wilt, I played against Bob Lanier, I played against [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar. And we held our own," Daniels, 68, said in a phone interview from his Indiana farm. "To me, basketball was basketball and they had to prove themselves to us, too."
The ABA survived for nine seasons, transformed professional basketball (and players' salaries) in the 1960s and '70s, and featured (then replenished the NBA with) some of the game's greatest talents. If Erving was that league's Michael Jordan, Daniels was its Bill Russell, its Chamberlain or its Abdul-Jabbar -- a dominant and decorated big man.
Daniels was the junior league's first Rookie of the Year in 1968, after averaging 22.2 points and 15.6 rebounds for the Minnesota Muskies. Sold to Indiana that offseason, Daniels won the ABA's Most Valuable Player Award in 1969 and 1971 and led the Pacers to championships in 1970, 1972 and 1973.
A seven-time All-Star and five-time all-ABA pick (four first-team), Daniels finished at 18.7 ppg and 15.1 rpg. He ranks as the ABA's all-time leader in rebounds, fourth in points and fourth in minutes.
Offensively, Daniels was adept with hook shots with either hand. He had an elusive turnaround jumper and showed good hang time for a man his size (6-foot-9, 220). Defensively, he was tenacious on the boards and in challenging shots, as well as a willing help defender. "My thing was to be as efficient and as responsible at my position as I could be," he said. "To do my job, which was to defend, to block shots, to rebound and to score when I got the opportunity."
During and in between all that, Daniels brought an intensity to the floor and a toughness that got opponents' attention.
"Mel was a warrior," said Bobby (Slick) Leonard, coach of those Pacers title teams and the team's longtime broadcaster. "I can't ever remember him walking inside those lines when he didn't give you 100 percent. If you look at the numbers he put up, scoring and rebounding, he easily -- easily -- belongs in the Hall of Fame."
Teammate Billy Keller talked of Daniels' fire to author Terry Pluto for his 1990 book "Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association." "He played a man's game inside," Keller said. "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 as let him go."
Recalling his rookie pro season, Daniels once said he was in 78 games and 78 fights. In his first game, in fact, the big man had 19 points and 17 rebounds in the first half, then got tossed soon after halftime for fighting with Kentucky's Bobby Rascoe. Leonard, a sore loser himself, said Daniels was even worse, and given a wide berth on nights when his team lost.
"Everybody was trying to establish themselves and you did what you had to, to make that happen," Daniels said. "You could not back down because that showed a sign of weakness. If you showed a weakness, that showed you had flaws in your game that could be taken advantage of.
"So rather than fighting to fight, you established who you were, that you were not going to be taken advantage of. That was the same in the NBA, in football, in hockey. But it was a new league and everybody had to find their niche."
The ABA's $25 fine for fighting wasn't exactly a disincentive. "If it had been today," Leonard said, laughing, "you wouldn't have had any salary left. There were a lot of skirmishes."
Daniels' background was tough from the start. He grew up in Detroit, playing at Pershing High for legendary coach Will Robinson. That's the school that produced Spencer Haywood a few years later, and Robinson is the man who became the first African-American head coach in Division I when he was hired in 1970 at Illinois State (where he developed Doug Collins into a U.S. Olympian and NBA All-Star).
Robinson steered Daniels to the University of New Mexico, where another 6-foot-9 Detroit preps star, Ira Harge, had played, putting the Lobos on the basketball map. In three seasons, Daniels averaged 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds. After being snagged by Cincinnati as the ninth pick in the 1967 draft, Daniels became the first first-rounder to snub the established league.
"At that time, it wasn't about money for me. But y'know, 2 + 2 is still 4," Daniels said. "I was offered $15,000 by Cincinnati as a bonus and $17,500 as a salary. I was offered $15,000 as a bonus in Minnesota and $30,000 as a salary. So the higher number somehow won out."
The numbers have morphed and blurred through the years -- Daniels said the Muskies paid $12,000 and $24,000 in Pluto's book -- and had he signed with the Royals, he would have slid into the lineup next to 29-year-old Oscar Robertson, perhaps altering NBA history.
But Daniels never looked back. Minnesota finished 50-28 and reached the playoffs, but Muskies ownership ran into money problems -- a chronic malady in the ABA, undermining almost every attempt to go legit -- and his rights were sold to Indiana for a reported $75,000.
The Pacers were busy establishing themselves as the ABA's most successful and stable franchise. Daniels merged into a talented group featuring forwards Roger Brown and Bob Netolick and guard Freddie Lewis. They provided the core for a team that averaged 50 victories over the next seven seasons, went to the ABA finals five times and won three titles. Nine games into 1968-69, Leonard replaced Larry Staverman as coach.
"Slick was one of the most creative, innovative coaches ever," Daniels said. "He would change our offense at halftime. He'd create six new plays and we executed them the way he drew them up on the board."
Said Leonard of Daniels: "He was the leader on the ballclub. He expected his teammates to bring it every night and he would get on 'em. But off the floor, he was like a big bear."
By 1975, Indiana was looking to retool and broke up that core. Daniels was shipped to the Memphis Sounds, looking to reunite with Brown and Lewis. "I was traded there with the understanding that we'd play together," he recalled. "But Roger was traded to Utah and Freddie went to St. Louis. We were lied to. Then I hurt my back. Everything kind of fell apart.
"I never got my passion for the game back. Once you're lied to, you lose respect for the people who did it to you. You start doubting yourself a little bit. And your boys are gone."
The Memphis franchise tried to reinvent itself as the Baltimore Claws for 1975-76 but folded without playing a game. By the time Daniels got a shot with the NBA Nets in the fall of 1976, he was 32 and hurting. "Oh I still loved the game," he said, "but my heart wasn't in it."
Reflecting as he prepared his Hall speech, Daniels felt great pride for a career spent propping up the ABA, a ramshackle league financially but with a dynamic brand of ball.
"Early, there were a lot of people who were totally against us," he said. "They thought we were clowns. They called us this or that because we had a new air about us. It was an up-tempo game. We had a flair. We had the red, white and blue basketball. Guys wearing bell bottoms, Afros, the whole nine yards.
"We were fierce competitors on the floor, but after the game ... we were trying to make sure people respected us as a 'professional basketball league' and didn't see us as some guys who got together to play basketball because it was something to do."
Two of Daniels' greatest rivals were Zelmo Beaty and Gilmore. Beaty was a wily vet who jumped from the NBA at age 31 and brought a career's worth of insider tricks -- grabbing a handful of shorts, clamping a hand on the other fellow's thigh -- to gain an advantage. Gilmore was five years younger, a powerful and towering 7-foot-2 (taller with his great Afro) but a player Daniels handled well.
"The way Zelmo took advantage of me," Daniels laughed, "I took advantage of Artis."
They became close friends, and Gilmore will be one of Daniels' presenters to the Hall. "I was in the learning stage and of course he was an exceptional, physical player already. Mel was the primary godfather in the ABA when I got there. And other than learning the game from him, he was a great person."
Leonard and his wife Nancy also will be there, flying with Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh on a private jet for the table the Pacers have booked in Springfield. They will be there for Miller, too.
Up next for Indiana in the Hall? Brown, the dazzling small forward who passed away in 1997, is considered by many to be a deserving ABA choice, though Daniels lobbies for Leonard. "I would love for him to enjoy the emotion I feel," the player said.
After his playing days, Daniels did some coaching, serving as an assistant on Bill Hodges' Indiana State staff that rode Bird to the 1979 NCAA title game against Magic Johnson and Michigan Sate. He then worked in the Pacers' front office for 26 years until 2009.
Now, the kid from Detroit whose cowboy ambitions were apparent even during his playing days (Daniels favored hats, boots, Western shirts and even six-shooters as accessories) spends most of his time wrangling horses on his farm outside Indianapolis.
His message about a career well-spent in the ABA, to basketball fans old enough to remember and those too young to know, remains the same.
"We weren't a bunch of clowns," Daniels said. "We were legitimate."
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