Pacers Maintain Strong Bond with ABA Tradition

Mel Daniels dunks on Artis Gilmore as Darnell Hillman looks on during the heyday of the ABA. Daniels and Hillman both are in the Pacers' front office.
(Pacers Photo)
By John Clayton
Indianapolis, March 23, 2004

The Pacers will wear the retro uniforms of the 1972-73 ABA Champions for the final time this season when they travel to Orlando Friday night.

Call them retro. Or throwback. Or what you will. But the connection to those uniforms, that team, those players and that era is more than simply a fashion statement. The tangible soul of the Pacers franchise still beats to the rhythm of that era of red, white and blue.

“That was our roots and our foundation and our history, and the tradition we wanted to try and live up to,” said franchise Chief Executive Officer and President Donnie Walsh. “We didn’t do that in the NBA for a long time. But when I got here, I decided that a lot of teams here have tradition but so do we.”

It is not unusual to wander the halls of Conseco Fieldhouse and bump into the players who originally wore those early blue and gold Pacers uniforms with the swooping lines down the side -- or the man who coached them, Bob “Slick” Leonard. Leonard is still a fixture on the Pacers’ radio broadcasts, providing color commentary alongside play-by-play voice Mark Boyle.

Mel Daniels and Darnell Hillman are employed by the team in divergent capacities. Hillman is the Director of Camps and Clinics and Alumni Relations. Daniels is the Pacers' Director of Player Personnel.

"We want to keep the relationships built between our former players, letting them understand and realize that they're still part of our family," said Hillman. "Even though we played many, many years back in the past, we're still recognized around town. Our fans still think very highly of us and until the franchise wins an NBA Championship, I think we're still going to be the guys everyone still remembers and calls upon (as champions)."

On any given day Billy Keller, the team’s ABA leader in 3-point field goals, or center Bob Netolicky might be seen at the Fieldhouse or on Pacers broadcasts. Even though George McGinnis starred in other organizations during his NBA career, his home is in Indianapolis and his connection with the team he led to prominence in the ABA and returned to as his NBA career wound to a close remains alive.

“They’ve done everything I’ve ever asked them to do and they’ve done it well,” said Walsh. “They’ve lived up to what we’ve wanted them to do – and that’s be a part of the franchise today, not because of they were part of the franchise then.”

The Pacers were one of only four ABA teams to survive as part of the NBA when the leagues merged in 1976. The San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey (nee New York) Nets and Denver Nuggets also made the jump to the NBA. But that merger took a toll on all four teams, who had to pay a heavy financial price to enter the league and were forced to trade away some of their better players.

But all four have survived with the Pacers, Nets and Spurs all making it to the NBA Finals over the past few years. The Spurs have won a pair of NBA Championships, including last season when they defeated the Nets in an all-former-ABA Finals. The Pacers made it to the NBA Finals in 2000, but lost to the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

Whether at Market Square Arena or Conseco Fieldhouse, the Pacers have kept a door open for players from the ABA era to return. When this season’s Pacers first donned the 1972-73 uniforms earlier in the season, several members of that team returned and were honored in a brief halftime ceremony. Members of that team, including Keller, Daniels and McGinnis, were also named among the 50 greatest players in Indiana basketball history when the Fieldhouse was opened in 1999.

“I think most players who have a connection to a franchise, particularly one that has had some success, want to maintain ties to that franchise as long as you’re open to doing that,” said Walsh. “We’ve always been open to doing that.”

Whatever reward is in that relationship for the former players is returned to current players, who can receive a walking history lesson from a guy whose name could be on the back of one of their hip retro jerseys. Those former players can also be a bridge for older fans, many of whom remember the first time those uniforms came around.

“I get a lot of people who say, ‘Remember the ABA?’” said Daniels. “And my response is, yeah, those were great times, but these young men are playing very well now in the NBA and are having a lot of success in the NBA. It’s a comfort situation for the older fans and it’s also a part of history they can relate to from the past to the present. So, I think it’s good to have older players around, visible so people can relate to them.”

While those former players are the bridge from another era for Pacers fans, they are also mentors and not-so-subtle reminders for today’s players of where the game, particularly in Indiana, has come from.

Daniels said he has no misconceptions of how vital a role the function of the former players play in winning a championship or even a game, but the role should exist.

“I don’t think it’s important, but I think it’s something that should be recognized because we created a good situation here,” he said. “Through Donnie’s efforts, we’ve continued to have that type of heritage and history that we can draw from and I think that’s good.”