An Unlikely Tale for a Late Starter (Part 1)
by Mark Montieth
September 5, 2012
Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series on Pacers Hall of Famer Mel Daniels. Click to see Part II.
The versions of the story vary slightly, but offer the same conclusion.
According to Will Robinson, phys ed teacher and basketball coach at Detroit's Pershing High School, the name on his class roll had gone unclaimed for a couple of weeks, so he went looking for the truant. He finally caught him as he rounded a corner in the hallway, and ordered him to the gymnasium.
That was on a Monday. By Wednesday, the kid still had not appeared in class, so Robinson went looking for him again and ordered him to the gymnasium.
The way Mel Daniels, the skinny and evasive sophomore, remembers it, he was ordered to report to the gymnasium at 3:30 to join the basketball team.
"Chief, I want you in the gym today," Daniels recalls Robinson telling him. "If you're not in the gym, I'm going to come get you and beat your a—."
Either way, that figurative foot in the backside set in motion a career and a life. One way or another, Daniels wound up on the basketball team where he was fitted with a pair of black high-top Chuck Taylor Converse shoes that were a size-and-a-half too long. Daniels grew into his shoes, grew into the game and ultimately grew into a Hall of Fame player. Official confirmation of that will come this weekend at the induction ceremony at the Naismith Memorial in Springfield, Mass., where he'll accept his slice of basketball immortality.
Daniels' journey, from frightened midsized teenager … to junior college … to NCAA Division I stardom … to two-time Most Valuable Player of the ABA and backbone of three Indiana Pacers title teams … to this weekend's defining moment … stands out among all Hall of Famers for its unlikely nature. Many members grew up poor or lower middle class, but did anyone else wait so long to begin learning the game as Daniels, and take up the game so fatefully? He not only had never played in a basketball game when Robinson accosted him in the hallway, he had never watched one. There were playgrounds all over Detroit in those days, not to mention a university and professional team within the city limits, but they all had escaped his notice.
Robinson would go on to win a state championship at Pershing, become the first black NCAA Division I coach at Illinois State in 1970 and scout for the NFL Detroit Lions and NBA Detroit Pistons. Most impressively, he landed scholarships for more than 300 of his high school players. Surely no challenge, however, was greater than the Daniels kid, who had to be molded from raw clay at a relatively advanced age. But perhaps no pupil was more willing.
Maceo Daniels had moved his family to Detroit from Lincoln, N.C. when Mel was three or four years old. They lived with Mel's grandfather at first, then in a tenement on 8 Mile Road and then in a modest house on McDougall St. Maceo worked in an automobile parts factory, and took his work ethic home with him every day. He had no interest in basketball, and didn't understand what his son had gotten himself into until he went to the gymnasium one day to see for himself. But he unwittingly instilled the blue collar mentality and respect for authority that fueled his son's uncommon path. Maceo Daniels was of the I-brought-you-into-this-world-and-I'll-take-you-out school of parenting. Daniels never stopped fearing him.
Robinson put Daniels on the junior varsity team that first season. "Not that he belonged there, to keep tabs on him," he would say years later. (1) He also gave Daniels a clear and fundamental definition of his role, which Daniels gleefully retells:
"This end is called offense. There's a block here and a block here, and there's a basket in between. If your teammates shoot it you try to rebound it and put it back in the basket. On the other end it's called defense. The idea is to stop the other person from scoring. If you get the rebound, wait for someone to come and retrieve the ball from you. Once they retrieve the ball from you, you may proceed down the floor to the offensive end. That's your responsibility."
"Will Worked Him"
Some young players progress quickly because they possess natural athleticism. Daniels advanced mostly through hard work, and Robinson gave him no choice in that matter. He insisted that his players stay active year-round, and put them through demanding drills and conditioning programs. He recalled watching Daniels in distance runs around the indoor track above the gymnasium, the one that made shooting from one of the corners impossible. "Jesus Christ, he would always be a bad last," Robinson said. "Not just last, but a bad last. The guys would lap him."
Daniels barely played at first, getting in for the final 30 seconds or so in those JV games. "My mom, bless her heart, she'd be up there clapping for me," he recalled.
A breakthrough for Daniels came in an exhibition game following that trial season against the University of Detroit High School, when he scored and rebounded well. That provided a confidence boost heading into the summer, during which Robinson required his players to participate in three leagues. That meant a game nearly every night, an investment that paid off with all those scholarship offers Robinson's players received. By his senior year, although still rail-thin, Daniels had grown to nearly 6-9 and was showing promise.
"He had a winning spirit," Robinson said. "He tried all the time after he found out the swing of things."
Ted Sizemore, who went on to play in 12 major league seasons as a second baseman for the Dodgers, Cardinals, Phillies, Cubs and Red Sox, was one of Daniels' basketball teammates at Pershing. He confirms the coach's perspective.
"Will worked him," Sizemore said. "One thing Mel never did was give up. He kept coming back and Will made him work, work work. He just kept developing and developing. He just did a lot of work. A lot of drills, footwork, handling the ball … he just got coordinated all of a sudden."
Daniels' grades weren't good enough to land a Division I scholarship, so Robinson got him into Burlington Junior College in Iowa, and then to New Mexico. They weren't difficult decisions, since Robinson pulled the necessary strings. "Chief, we're going to New Mexico," Robinson told him. Daniels always assumed he would head back to Detroit and find a factory job after his college career ended, but by his senior season he had become a second-team All-American center (behind Lew Alcindor and Wes Unseld) and a first round draft pick of the Cincinnati Royals of the NBA and the Minnesota Muskies of the ABA. Daniels would have been a good fit for the Royals, whose roster included Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, but they only offered about $15,000 in salary and a $15,000 bonus. The Muskies, he says, offered $27,500 and a $15,000 bonus. That made the choice easy, although he turned out to be the only first-round draft selection in the NBA to sign with an ABA team.
The financial windfall came as stunning news for his father, who was earning $7,500 annually at his factory job.
"You're going to make what to do what?" Maceo asked him.
"We've got to come up with $100,000"
Daniels' humble, grounded nature was exposed from the outset of his professional career. The 1959 gold Chevy Bel Air he had driven as a college senior had "kind of run its course," so he took some of his bonus money from the Muskies and did what most rookies do: he bought a new car. New to him, anyway. He went with a 1955 blue and white Buick station wagon, for $850. He also sent some money to his parents.
It didn't take long for the fans in Minneapolis to get to know him, either. In his first regular season game, against the visiting Kentucky Colonels, he got into a fight and was ejected. The Muskies went on to finish 50-28, four games back of eventual league champion Pittsburgh in the Eastern Division, and 12 games ahead of the third-place Pacers. They lost to Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs in five games. He averaged 22.2 points and a league-best 16.6 rebounds during the regular season and 25.2 points and 16.1 rebounds in the playoffs, becoming a clear choice for Rookie of the Year honors.
Daniels also had starred in the ABA's first All-Star game that season, played at Hinkle Fieldhouse. He finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds, but was denied the MVP award because the voting was taken with five minutes left in the game, before he scored eight points in the final 3 ½ minutes to lead the East's comeback victory. Future Pacers coach Larry Brown won the honor and the car that went with it, and told Daniels afterward that he felt terrible about winning. Not terrible enough to give him the car, though.
Despite their success on the court, the Muskies only averaged about 1,200 fans that season and were drowning in a thousand lakes of red ink – reportedly more than $400,000, a huge amount in an era when the average player's salary was less than $20,000. The Pacers jumped on the opportunity to relieve them of their financial woes, quickly offering two players from the end of their bench, Jim Dawson and Ron Kozlicki, and a reported $100,000 for Daniels. (2) It remains the most one-sided trade in franchise history, and perhaps in all of professional basketball. It's not much of a stretch, in fact, to say the impact of the trade can still be seen and felt today.
It probably saved the Pacers franchise, for starters. Without him, they likely would have remained a mediocre team that failed to draw enough fans to finance an operation that would lose money even with Daniels. The owners had lost about $125,000 the first season, and likely would have shut down if they had endured another season so deep in debt. As the cornerstone of the ABA, the Pacers might have taken down the entire league if they had collapsed.
And what of the city? Without the Pacers' success there would have been no Market Square Arena, which sparked Downtown revitalization in the 1970s. Without MSA there would be no Bankers Life Fieldhouse today, and, perhaps, no Colts franchise either, because the city wouldn't have had the opportunity to prove itself capable of supporting a major league team. Imagine Downtown without a professional sports team and what do you have? A larger version of Fort Wayne, perhaps?
The man owed most of the credit for making the trade for Daniels possible is Lyn Treece, a Lafayette real estate agent who had built an empire of Burger Chef fast food franchises, eventually owning 41 of them throughout Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. He put up a personal promissory note, and likely was the only member of the original ownership group capable of doing so. If Daniels' arrival saved the Pacers franchise for Indianapolis, Treece was the primary financier, although another co-owner, Chuck DeVoe, recalls having to recruit a couple of others to sign for the note as well.
"(Brother John Devoe) called me and said, 'We've got to come up with $100,000 for Mel Daniels,'" Devoe said. "'We've got to act fast. We need to know by tomorrow.' I remember thinking, Wait a minute, $100,000 for one ballplayer?"
It was fortunate they acted quickly, because the deeper subplot is that the Pacers barely landed Daniels before Kentucky owner Joe Gregory got to the Muskies owners with a check for more than $200,000.
"The way I understand it, I was 10 or 15 minutes away from being a Kentucky Colonel," Daniels said.
The trade was announced locally on Friday May 24, 1968 in a banner headline in the Indianapolis Star sports section. Daniels was flown to the city that day and taken immediately to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a 3 p.m. news conference. It only made sense, as most of the local media members already were gathered there a day ahead of the opening of the second weekend of qualifications for the 500. Wearing a suit and tie, Daniels posed for a photograph with a red, white and blue ABA ball with an STP sticker attached to it. A few days later, still wondering what had hit him, he was riding in a convertible in the 500 parade downtown.
The Muskies, meanwhile, announced on the same day the trade was announced that they were moving to Miami to resume operations as the Floridians.
Daniels said all the right things to the media at his introductory press conference, but he wasn't happy about the trade at first. It made him feel unwanted, and it seemed as if he were going to a lesser team. Had it been left up to him, he probably would have preferred to move to Miami with his teammates. It turned out, however, to be a perfect fit all around.
The Pacers had an established nucleus of Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis and Bob Netolicky, but not much else. They had tried Reggie Harding at center, but his level of talent far exceeded his level of responsibility (3) and he was released the same day Daniels was acquired. The acquisition of Daniels allowed Netolicky, an All-Star center that first season, to move to a more natural forward position. It brought the league's best rebounder. And, it cemented the on- and off-court chemistry that would bring three ABA titles.
Daniels was physically tougher than anyone else on the roster, and his passion for winning was unsurpassed. He was humble and responsible. He played hard in both practices and games, and barked at teammates when they didn't. He was intensely loyal, sticking up for teammates in the media and on the court, even if it meant throwing fists. His teammates quickly learned that if a fight broke out he had their back, and coach Bob Leonard often reminded them of that when exhorting them to play more aggressive defense.
In short, he turned an average team into a very good one, once Bob Leonard was brought in as coach nine games into the second season. The trade galvanized the team, which galvanized the city. For the Pacers' fans and players, it all seemed too good to be true from the moment it was announced.
"I was like, 'Oh my goodness, how did this happen?'" captain Freddie Lewis recalled thinking. "That was exactly what we needed."
The Backbone of Each Championship
If Will Robinson set Daniels on a path toward stardom, Leonard waved him across the finish line. In Leonard's first practice with the Pacers after original coach Larry Staverman following a 2-7 start in the 1968-69 season, Daniels fired up an 18-foot jumper, something he had done without complaint in Minnesota. Leonard stopped practice and indelicately told Daniels if he ever took another shot like that he'd be rewarded with a punch in the nose.
"So roles were defined," Daniels recalled with a laugh.
From then on, Daniels did most of his work in the confines of the foul lane. He had honed hook shots with either hand and a turnaround jump shot that was particularly deadly over his right shoulder. After hitting just 41 percent of his field goal attempts in Minnesota, his improved shot selection enabled him to hit 48 percent over six seasons with the Pacers, including two seasons over 50 percent.
He averaged 19.4 points and 16 rebounds in six seasons with the Pacers, playing at least 76 games in each one. He set what were then single-game franchise records with 56 points and 31 rebounds against the New Jersey Nets on March 18, 1969. He was an All-Star in each of his seasons with the Pacers, adding another game MVP honor in '71 with 29 points and 13 rebounds. He was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1969 and '71, and finished his career as the ABA's all-time leading rebounder. Despite playing just six seasons, he remains the Pacers' all-time leader as well, 1,637 ahead of Dale Davis.
Most of all, he was vital to those ABA championships in 1970, '72 and '73. He wasn't the MVP of any of those playoff series, but he was the backbone of each. He's one of four Pacers to own all three championship rings, along with Lewis, Brown and Billy Keller.
"You never had to fire Mel up," Leonard once told the Star. (4) "He got in a lot of skirmishes in his time. I can remember one playoff game where we were down at the half and he came in and was so mad he dumped a whole row of lockers over. You didn't have to worry about Mel going out and competing."
Go to Part 2
- Robinson died in 2008. I interviewed him about Daniels sometime during the 1990s.
- Kozlicki, a 6-7 forward who averaged 2.9 points that first season, never played professionally following that first season. Dawson, the Big Ten's MVP out of Illinois in 1967, was a starting guard for the Pacers early in the season but was called to National Guard duty and played just 21 games and averaged 5.6 points that first season. He reported to the Floridians camp but was released and became a successful stock broker. He's now retired.
- Harding, a 7-footer from Detroit, played 25 games for the Pacers and averaged 13.4 points and 13.4 rebounds. He had some outstanding performances during that stretch. He set a franchise record with 27 rebounds against New Jersey, and outplayed Daniels in a March 13 game at the Coliseum. Harding finished with 30 points and 22 rebounds, and while blocked shots weren't kept in those days, the Star's account said he had at least 10. Daniels, who was ill according to the newspaper account, finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Harding, however, repeatedly missed practice or arrived late for games and was released before the playoffs. He probably still holds the franchise single-season record for relatives dying.
- Leonard said it to me, actually, in an article published in May of 2004. I had selected an all-time Pacers playoff team that included Daniels, Miller, Brown, Lewis and George McGinnis.