Recognition coming for Pacers' ABA legends?
Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the Hall of Fame prospects of former Pacers including Reggie Miller, Bobby Leonard, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and George McGinnis.
He also hit upon what might be the single biggest reason recognition has been almost nil for players and coaches of that era: the league lives on largely through myths and legends.
"There's very little film footage," said Pluto. "There are people who tell stories. … Many of the stories I wrote were difficult to cross-check because there was nothing to cross-check it with. You have people's versions of events. Bob Costas talks about it like the wild West with Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid and it might as well have been the same thing: they were the stuff of legend."
In the nine seasons of the ABA, the Pacers won three championships and reached the final round two other times. Pluto referred to them in his book as "the Boston Celtics of the ABA." And yet the best players from the best team have yet to crack the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
- The bruising Mel Daniels averaged 18.7 points and 15.1 rebounds in his ABA career, ranking fourth in league history in points and first in rebounds, and was twice named MVP.
- George McGinnis, co-MVP (with Julius Erving) in 1975, the lone player from the group to make a successful transition to the NBA after the leagues merged in 1976, a three-time All-Star in both leagues. His career averages of 20.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists reflect a player who redefined the power forward position.
- The late Roger Brown, the original Pacer, didn't have the same gaudy career statistics because he came late to the pro game, starting at age 25. But ask those who played with and against the "Rajah," and you'll hear stories of a player capable of doing whatever he wanted on the basketball court, as evidenced by his performance in the final three games of the Pacers' first championship series in 1970 when he racked up 137 points.
"Of all the great Pacer teams not a single guy has made it, which is a travesty," Pluto said. "You can make an argument for (coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard), for Roger Brown, for Mel Daniels. Certainly out of that group there's got to be somebody that belongs, that is representative of that team."
The doors to the Hall may be opening, at least a crack, for the ABA legends. Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo created the ABA Committee specifically for that purpose and among this year's inductees was former Kentucky Colonels center Artis Gilmore.
In the opinion of at least one expert, that could be very good news indeed for the former Pacers.
"I think the ABA people should be quite pleased that Jerry Colangelo has instituted a very broad policy for specific sub-sections of the basketball world, one of which is the ABA," said esteemed basketball writer Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe. "Artis Gilmore was inducted, and he in the eyes of many had been ignored for years
"I predict Mel might very well be the next ABA player selected by that committee. No offense to Roger but that's the guy. I expect him to be selected in the next three to five years. Maybe I'm wrong but I think Mel's the guy."
While acknowledging the progress represented by Gilmore's induction, Daniels' outlook toward the Hall of Fame is understandably skeptical.
"I'm happy that Artis got in as an American Basketball Association player," he said. "While I applaud it, there are also flaws to it. There are a lot of guys from the American Basketball Association that were very effective in injecting a shot of energy into the National Basketball Association. We came along and gave them a shot of energy and that's been proven by in the years after the merger, a lot of guys that were in the ABA made the All-Star team.
"I'm happy for Artis but I certainly hope they realize there are more guys in the American Basketball Association deserving of recognition because of their accomplishments, because of their contributions to professional basketball: Willie Wise, James Silas, Roger Brown, Fred Lewis, Darrell Carrier, Louie Dampier, I could go on and on. There's still a lot of work to be done as far as the recognition of the contribution the guys in the American Basketball Association made to professional basketball."
Brown averaged 17.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists in his ABA career but the fear he struck in opponents' hearts could not be found on a stat sheet. Of all the Pacers, he was the guy whose presence was the most commanding.
"Roger was so unique, he was so good and he got dealt such a bad hand in college he never really got to play a long career," said McGinnis. "He was so good, just so much fun to watch. We played the New York Nets in a championship series and they had Rick Barry who was a great player and had just come over from the Golden State Warriors where he had won a championship, led the NBA in scoring several years. We saw Roger run him out of the championship series and it was incredible to watch."
McGinnis also believes Daniels is worthy of recognition.
"Mel was ferocious, I mean he was never, ever calm," he said. "He was probably as big a competitor as you'll ever find anywhere. He came to play and he played hard all the time. He was really skilled, too. Down low he could really score the ball, he defended very well and he carried a little edge to him. He had an attitude."
What about McGinnis himself? A chiseled 6-8, 230-pound product of Washington High and Indiana University, McGinnis was the forerunner of LeBron James -- a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism that made the game seem easy, unless you were trying to guard him.
He had some of the best seasons in Pacers history, including averages of 29.8 points, 14.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.3 steals in 1974-75. After signing with the 76ers as a free agent in 1975, he teamed with Julius Erving in one of the most spectacular frontcourts in NBA history.
In his prime, there were few -- if any -- better. From 1972-79, McGinnis averaged 24.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.09 steals, staggering numbers.
"When he went to the NBA, compare his stats with Julius. George came out on top, and Julius has been in the Hall of Fame forever," said Leonard. "When you're looking at power forwards in this business, there's two that come to my mind. One is Karl Malone and the other is George McGinnis. In his prime, George was as tough as anybody."
McGinnis said he doesn't give the Hall of Fame much thought anymore but hopes Colangelo's committee finally sheds some light on players whose performances have been left in the shadows of history.
"I don't give it a whole lot of thought. I just kind of live my life," he said. "I think it's great for the guys that have gotten in but it's something I don't dwell on."
Pluto is concerned that whatever recognition might come as a product of the ABA Committee could be too late for many of the recipients, and would like the process expanded and expedited.
"If I were on the committee," he said, "I would say, 'Look, gentlemen, the Indiana Pacers were a heck of a franchise, they won all these games, something was going right there, somebody symbolizes it, somebody from that group belongs in the Hall of Fame. Now let's figure it out.' "
Maybe in the years to come, better late than never, they finally will.
Next up: The series concludes with a look at the prospects of Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who has been ignored by the Hall for years despite a remarkable career as a player and coach.