An Unlikely Tale for a Late Starter (Part 2)

by Mark Montieth

September 6, 2012

Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part series on Pacers Hall of Famer Mel Daniels. Click to see Part I.

The numbers speak loudly, but only anecdotes can illustrate Daniels' intangibles. Only four games into his first season with the Pacers, after a 1-3 start, a story ran in the Indianapolis News that Daniels was upset with fans for booing teammate Jimmy Rayl, a former Mr. Basketball from Kokomo and Indiana University star. "I wish they'd boo me instead of the other players," Daniels said.

It wouldn't be the last time he publicly defended a teammate. The most notable one came two years later, when another former Mr. Basketball and Purdue All-American Rick Mount was embroiled in controversy over his role with the team. Mount was upset with his lack of playing time and inconsistent role, and many fans were in agreement with him. Leonard, however, did not see Mount as a good fit for his system or personality, and balked at playing him more in a talented backcourt that included Lewis and Billy Keller, among others.

The Star's Robin Miller, a passionate Mount supporter, shook the foundations of the franchise with an article at the top of the Sunday sports section headlined "Mount Fed Up With Leonard's Excuses." Mount aired his grievances, as did an unnamed player in support of him. That player was Daniels. Lesser known is a practice incident in which Daniels walked out in protest after he thought Leonard had verbally attacked Mount too harshly.

"Mel didn't want anybody to be embarrassed," Lewis said. "He was pleasant, he was caring and he looked out for his teammates."

A Poem for Reggie

Mel Daniels, by his estimation, has written more than 20,000 poems in his lifetime. His favorite poet is Edgar Allen Poe, but Mel’s work isn’t nearly as dark or mysterious as Poe's. Here’s the poem he wrote for fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Miller five years ago when Miller was considering coming out of retirement. He believes it influenced Miller's decision to stay retired.

Once the decision is finally made, and you're comfortable with the thought
There's no turning back now, my man, your body has just shut off

And no matter how you make the statement on that final day
Clean your locker and your mind, and quietly walk away

And for the next few months, and especially in the fall
That old urge will come over you and you'll still think you can play basketball

You'll analyze the game and how it's being played
And say to yourself, 'If it was me, that shot I'd have easily made.'
But the same reality of it all, and it has a lot to do with the truth
The game has passed you by, let's leave it to the youth

It's true that you may hit a shot and set a screen like you once did
But that's one shot, one screen, one board, let's leave it for the kids
Because in the era that you played, those things alone would never have been enough
You've had pride in your game and confidence in yourself, and besides, you were double-tough

Knowing when to say when and leaving the game better than it was
Knowing in your heart of hearts, you've heard the final buzz

And thoughts of giving it one more shot will eventually fade away
But that secret desire inside your heart will keep telling you that you can still play

But as long as those thoughts are just a thought and you cling to it for fun
Just remember, when you did it the way you did it, your body was quick, you mind was fresh and my man, you were still young

– Mel Daniels

Daniels, however, was and is fiercely loyal to Leonard as well. He had the occasional complaint about a coaching decision, as any player would over the course of six seasons with the same coach, but would fight for Leonard still today.

Daniels' all-for-one approach sprung from his roots in the Detroit streets. His family lived in a predominately Polish neighborhood after his father bought the house, and Pershing High was a bona fide melting pot, filled with children of automobile factory workers. Robinson was black, but two starters, including Sizemore, were white. The players hung out together frequently on and off the court, such as gathering for Sloppy Joes at Sizemore's home. "We all stuck together," Sizemore said.

With the Pacers, Daniels became close friends with Netolicky, his alter-ego in color, background and personality, a relationship that remains strong today. They were a virtual comedy team at banquets. Daniels' work ethic, meanwhile, was bound to win over any fan, even those with prejudice. He recalls getting a letter from a young boy stating his family believed that white ballplayers were better than black ballplayers, but they liked him anyway, and could they please have an autograph? Daniels obliged.

Daniels' ability to shatter color barriers came naturally. His father was black, his mother, Bernice Lynette, was three-quarters Cherokee Indian, his wife, Cece, is Spanish-American and his son married a white woman.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Daniels' playing career ended with a whimper, as it does for most players, even Hall of Famers. Following the 1973-74 season, the Daniels-Brown-Lewis nucleus appeared to have run its course in Indianapolis, and the franchise could no longer afford to pay all three if they weren't going to contend for championships. Meanwhile, former Pacers general manager Mike Storen had stepped down as ABA commissioner to take over the front office in Memphis, where the Pros and Tams had failed but new ownership was regrouping with the Sounds. Storen tried to put the Pacers band of brothers back together by trading for Lewis, signing Brown as a free agent and picking up Mount from the Colonels. Daniels, however, had a no-trade clause. He could have stayed with the Pacers, and wanted to stay at his home in Indianapolis, rather than go live in an apartment by the airport in Memphis. He knew, however, that it was better for the Pacers if he left, given their rebuilding mode. He agreed to join his former teammates in Memphis after Storen promised to keep them together.

The team started poorly, though, and Lewis was traded after just six games. Brown was sold after seven. Mount, who was heading toward a likely All-Star selection, separated his shoulder early in December and missed 58 games. Daniels strained abdominal muscles early in the season, and then strained his back when he fell in the bathtub as he picked up a bar of soap while showering at his apartment before a game. Feeling like a stranger in a strange land, he averaged 9.8 points and 9 rebounds in 23 minutes over 71 games.

He sat out the following season and then attempted a comeback with the Nets in the NBA. He lasted 11 games before he was released, which was as much a relief to him as a disappointment. He was 32.

From Player to Coach to Scout to Hall of Famer

Daniels returned to Indianapolis, but was soon called on by Indiana State coach Bob King, his former coach at New Mexico. He was on the bench for two seasons, helping coach, among others, Larry Bird, as the Sycamores reached the final game of the NCAA tournament in 1979.

He returned to the Pacers in 1986 as a scout—an arrangement Cece initiated with general manager Bob Salyers—and worked as an assistant coach or scout until just a few years ago, when he no longer fit with the revamped front office. His relationship with the franchise has improved since Donnie Walsh returned as team president. The ceremony at the final home game last season, when Daniels was honored for his Hall selection—and presented with a new pickup truck—helped rebuild the bridge as well.

The Hall of Fame induction will only add to his gratification. His reaction since being told of the honor, however, has been revealing. When the call came to inform him of his selection, he thought Netolicky had put someone up to it as a prank. Then he became angry that Leonard and Brown had not been selected ahead of him. Then he was irritated that it had taken so long for the ABA to receive recognition. Then he was annoyed at all the media attention. Finally, he has learned to enjoy it, appreciative of the chance to hear from so many old friends and add a positive finishing touch to his playing career. Mel Daniels Ranch landscape photo

There Are Few Bad Days on the Ranch

Daniels is best revealed, however, by his ranch, 42 minutes from the Fieldhouse, where he keeps his vehicles and horses. He has a Hummer and five pickup trucks, including the one Cece drives and excluding the 1976 Ford dump bed with only 25,000 miles on it. He has 10 horses and keeps three more for former New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey, who covered the ABA early in his newspaper career and has been an advocate for its players ever since. Daniels' mother had ridden horses as a young girl growing up in the South, and Mel fell in love with wide-open spaces and horses while attending New Mexico. He and Cece live on about 80 acres, gradually built up from the 20 originally purchased while he played for the Pacers. Mel with his horse

The trucks and horses reflect Daniels, and help explain his value as a basketball player. They are basic and fundamental, are not high-maintenance and return loyalty. He tends to hang on to them as long as possible. He's sold several horses over the years, but many never leave the ranch. One of them, in fact, is named Keep, housed in the stalls that Netolicky and Brown helped him build. Daniels has named horses after them along with several other Pacers players and front office personnel over the years. Reggie, for example, now lives in Montana. Murphy (Troy Murphy) lives on his ranch.(5)

Daniels has few bad days on the ranch, because he finds peace with his horses. He has assisted in births, taught some of them to be ridden, learned how to communicate with them and cared for them – a coach, doctor and teammate all at once. One of Daniels' best days on the ranch, however, was when Robinson visited several years ago. Daniels paid him the ultimate compliment by making him an honorary cowboy, presenting him with a hat, boots, jeans and a western shirt.

"Chief," Robinson said, "you've come a long way."

Go to Part 1 »