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Pacers Lose a Most Valuable Player

by Mark Montieth

August 24, 2012

A basketball team consists of more than men in uniform. All of the people in the locker room before, during and immediately after the games contribute to the final score, whether they're dropping game-winning threes or treating knees.

That's why the passing of Dr. F. Robert Brueckmann on Aug. 20 had special meaning to the veterans within the Pacers organization. He was the team physician from the franchise's founding in 1967 into the 1990s, meaning he doctored everyone from Jay Miller to Reggie Miller, from Billy Keller to Billy Knight, from George McGinnis to George McCloud. Talk to the players and others who knew him, and the impression given is of a perpetual Most Valuable Player candidate, the man who helped keep valuable players on the court—or off it, if that was in their best interest.

Brueckmann's funeral attracted several of them. Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky, Jerry Harkness, Darnell Hillman, McGinnis and Keller attended the calling on Wednesday, as did Roger Brown's wife, Jeannie. Billy Knight was among those at the service on Thursday, flying in to attend. People don't go to that kind of trouble unless they feel a strong desire to pay their respects.

"His contributions were unbelievable," Daniels said. "He kept us going back in a day when we didn't have sophistication in the training room with all this high tech stuff. He always had a positive attitude in the locker room. He was a guy you could talk to. He'd tell you the truth."

Daniels' lasting image of Brueckmann is in the bare bones locker room at the Coliseum, treating Brown's knees while Brown sat on a training table with a cigarette in one hand and a beer ("our Gatorade," Daniels said) in the other. This was before the days of arthroscopic surgery, so an operation was always the last option. Careers were shorter in those days, but players seemed to miss fewer games during the season. Daniels, for example, had to retire at the age of 31. But in six seasons with the Pacers he never played fewer than 76 games.

It was up to people such as trainer David Craig and Brueckmann to keep them going, but to do so with integrity. That might mean telling a somewhat injured player he should play, or it might mean telling a more seriously injured player he couldn't play.

Or, it might even mean telling a player it was time to retire.

Jerry Harkness, who was 27 years old when the Pacers were founded and already ailing from knees pounded to putty by pickup basketball games on hard city pavement and long runs for his high school cross country team, was one of those nudged into the real world by Brueckmann. He had played 71 games that first season, long enough for him to hit what was then the longest shot in the history of professional basketball, a game-winning 88-foot three-pointer at Dallas. In the 10th game of the following season, however, at Minnesota, he stole the ball and was racing for a breakaway layup. Well, maybe not racing. Donnie Freeman caught him from behind and swatted the ball away, something that had never happened to Harkness in his memory.

"I played (that first season) because of his knowledge," Harkness said of Brueckmann. "I was able to play that full season. But I was constantly trying to take the pressure off my knees and my back went out. He helped me, but at the tail end he pretty much told me it was not going to get any better. I could see it in his eyes that my back and knees were going to consistently come at me.

"I'm glad he did because I could have been hurt almost permanently. He did me a justice. I didn't want to let go, but it was the right thing. I've never needed a knee operation, and that's unbelievable. A lot of other guys have had knee operations, but my knees are great now."

Craig joined the Pacers in 1970 and lasted for 35 years before becoming a team consultant. He credits Brueckmann for helping to instill the player-first philosophy that some professional teams never adopt, bringing a small-town doctor's touch to the training room.

"I could count no more than five times when he injected someone," Craig said. "Certain medications he knew caused adverse effects, and he would not use them. That was our philosophy. It's not just for this game, not just for this season, but what effect will it have when they're no longer an Indiana Pacer.

"To me, he was a great diagnostician before they had these fancy MRI's and everything. I called him my happy cherub. He was just a good human being. He was an excellent, excellent physician with a very small ego. He had a lot of pride, but he didn't have to tell people how good he was; people were just drawn to him."

Brueckmann didn't just tell players when it was time to retire, though. He knew when it was time for himself as well. When arthroscopic surgery came into play, he realized he was running behind the times. He left the Pacers voluntarily, turning the role over to Dr. Sanford Kunkel, but remained a presence and influence.

"He was always here," team president Donnie Walsh said. "And was always a resource for us. He had such extensive experience, he could give you another opinion. He was a good resource for me and I always had a lot of respect for him.

"He was one of the constants here that a lot of (fans) didn't know but was really an important part of the team."

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