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Roundfield had indelible impact on the Pacers

by Mark Montieth

August 15, 2012

Dan Roundfield, who passed away last week from a heroic drowning accident, played just three seasons for the Pacers in the 1970s, but he made an indelible impact on the franchise – both by arriving and by leaving.

The greatest impact came when he became a free agent and signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks in 1978, flexing his hard-earned free agency muscle with a decision nobody could dispute. The Pacers could only offer about half that amount, and management would have been groping sofa cushions to come up with even that. The fact remains, however, that if Roundfield had stayed, the Pacers probably would have drafted a junior out of Indiana State named Larry Bird.

Dan Roundfield

We'll get to that part of the story later, though, because to ignore Roundfield's three seasons with the Pacers would deny the foundation of a career that encompassed 12 seasons and included All-Star selections from 1980-82.

Roundfield, for whom a funeral service will be conducted in Norcross, Ga. on Friday, was the last of the Pacers' first-round ABA draft picks in 1975, when the league was limping toward one final, faint gasp of a season. He had led Central Michigan to the Mid-American Conference championship earlier that year, and to a two-point first-round victory over Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. He scored 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked five shots in that game, and then had 20 points and 11 rebounds in Central Michigan's 17-point loss to Kentucky in the second-round game. Kentucky center Rick Robey, who also would figure into the Pacers' intrigue with Bird, had just 11 points and seven rebounds in a foul-burdened, 14-minute performance.

Roundfield signed with the Pacers rather than the Cleveland Cavaliers, who selected him in the second round of the NBA draft and showed less interest in him. But while Roundfield would make a lasting impression with the Pacers, his first impression wasn't favorable. He was so lost, so out of sync during training camp that coach Bob Leonard was ready to dismiss him as a hopeless cause.

“He was terrible,” Leonard recalled. “He was jumping and coming down when the ball was up in the air, just all kinds of things. I really thought he was putting me on. I was all over him.

“But one day Nancy and I are sitting here on a Sunday afternoon in the family room and up drives Danny and (wife) Bernie. They came in and we sat down and talked about it and I changed my whole opinion about him. They were truly sincere people, like someone from a small town. We talked about his problems, and I said we'll work it out. He turned into a heckuva player.”

Leonard and teammates remember Roundfield as a gentle, sincere man, even somewhat innocent. He grew up in Detroit, but gave the impression of coming from a small town. Above all else he was eager to impress and improve, hence the Sunday drive to his coach's home.

“Even though he was from Detroit, he didn't live like that,” Darnell Hillman said. “He was able to mature and get away from the mentality of some of the folks in Detroit. Danny was a good family man. He fit in so well with us, because we had such a family environment.”

Roundfield averaged 5.1 points as a rookie, but offered a glimpse of his talent in the season's fifth game, a win over Denver, with 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. Billy Keller, in his last season with the Pacers that season, remembers that he broke his wrist during practice later that season, an injury that limited him to 67 games. The injury wasn't diagnosed properly for a couple of weeks, though, because Roundfield tried to play through it with minimal complaint.

“He was a hard worker and a really good guy,” Keller said. “He was an encourager. He always had a good attitude.”

When center Len Elmore suffered a knee injury in training camp that kept him out for all but the final six games the following season, Roundfield took advantage of his enhanced role. In the franchise's NBA debut against the defending champion Boston Celtics, before 16,128 fans at Market Square Arena, Roundfield contributed 23 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three assists. Boston center Dave Cowens, a first all-defensive team selection the previous season and a future Hall of Famer, had seven points and six rebounds before fouling out. He called Roundfield “a nice sleeper.” The Celtics won the game in overtime after overcoming an 18-point second-quarter deficit, but Roundfield had helped send the fans home full of optimism.

Related: Dan Roundfield's Career Stats »
Look back on his career via NBA.com statistics

He averaged 13.0 points that season, and then 13.4 points and 10.2 rebounds in his third with the Pacers. Rail-thin at 6-8 and 205 pounds when he entered the league, he gradually became stronger and developed a mid-range jump shot, rounding out a valuable skill set. When he became a free agent after the 1977-78 season, the Pacers stitched together an offer of about $200,000.

“We offered money we didn't even have,” Leonard said.

The problem was, Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo quickly anted a $400,000 offer, and then Atlanta trumped everyone with a deal for about $450,000.

Dan and Bernie Roundfield, who had married while in college, were comfortable in Indianapolis. His $35,000 rookie salary had seemed like all the money in the world to them at the time, and they had bought a newly-built 3,000 square foot home before his third season with the Pacers at 9074 Sweet Bay Ct. in the North Willow Farms edition near St. Vincent's Hospital. The Hawks' offer couldn't be denied, however, and the Roundfields moved on. He thrived in Atlanta over the next six seasons, earning All-Star Game selections from 1980-82 (he nearly won MVP honors in 1980), before completing his career with a season in Detroit and two more in Washington.

Roundfield's death in Aruba on Aug. 6, after an undertow pulled him back into the ocean as he helped Bernie to safety, was devastating to those who knew him at each of his stops, particularly in the Atlanta area. He had remained an active Hawks alum, making community appearances on behalf of the franchise; he can be seen in a YouTube clip reading to school children.

He left behind two sons, Corey and Christopher. Christopher, who left a stable corporate position with Nabisco, recently graduated from Dayton University's law school and begins work next week for a Dayton law firm. Corey, who was born in Indianapolis, followed his younger brother's lead and now attends Dayton's law school. They are their father's greatest legacy.

Professional basketball, indeed the world, was a different place when Roundfield played for the Pacers. All teams like to consider themselves a family, but the Pacers of that era fulfilled the concept. The players, coaches, front office workers, stat crew members, ushers, Pacemates, nearly everyone associated with the franchise, operated as a classless society. They gathered after games and for other special occasions and supported one another in times of need. Although Christopher was born in Atlanta, his parents asked Pacers front office executive Sandy Knapp to be his godmother. Christopher called Knapp, who now lives in California, after his father's death and left a voice mail message for her so that she wouldn't have to hear of it via the media. Bernie hasn't seen anyone from the Pacers of the late 1970s in many years, but she and her sons reconnected seamlessly with Knapp and the Leonards via long telephone conversations in the days following the tragedy.

“It was a different time than it is now,” Bernie said. “Back then we had a very naïve way of thinking; you were more trusting, more giving, more caring.”

Related: Roundfield’s pro career hard-earned »
More on Dan Roundfield from Sept. 2011

If the Pacers had been able to keep Roundfield in their close-knit but impoverished (by NBA standards) family, the future of the franchise might well have been altered in a way that surely makes longtime fans agonize over the lost possibilities.

Following the 1977-78 season, before Roundfield signed with the Hawks, Leonard met with Bird and Bird's representative, Terre Haute banker Ed Jukes, in a now-famous clandestine meeting at the downtown Hyatt Regency. Bird had just completed his junior season at Indiana State, but because he had sat out a year after transferring from Indiana, he was eligible for the draft. He was committed to returning to Indiana State for his senior season, however, and made that clear to Leonard over a couple of Heinekens in the hotel restaurant.

The Pacers had the first pick in the draft that year, having won a coin flip with Kansas City for the dubious honor. Leonard wanted to dedicate it to Bird and wait a year, aware that signing him would bring an avalanche of ticket orders from Terre Haute – and, for that matter, throughout the state. The team's ownership and executive board, however, were thinking short-term, insisting upon drafting a “name” player to try to reignite the interest of the fan base. Had they been able to re-sign Roundfield, Leonard believes, they would have had the luxury of drafting Bird and waiting on him. Losing Roundfield, though, ramped up the sense of urgency for a quick fix. Besides, nobody was predicting then what Bird would become.

We'll pause a moment to let Pacers fans mull this over, and calm their nerves. With just slightly better financial fitness, the franchise could have kept the future All-Star power forward Roundfield and then added the future Hall of Fame small forward Bird a year later. Another high draft pick would have followed in 1979, and with reasonable personnel savvy a championship contender could have been constructed from that nucleus to make Market Square Arena both fan-filled and fun-filled for years to come.

Instead, the Pacers traded the No. 1 pick to Portland for Johnny Davis, Clemon Johnson and the No. 3 pick, which was used to take Robey – the player Roundfield had outplayed in the NCAA tournament three years earlier. Nancy Leonard recalls a Pacers board meeting when a key member adamantly expressed his desire to draft immediate help, adding that his daughter attended the University of Kentucky and had reported back that Robey was as good as Bird, anyway. That wasn't such an outrageous opinion at the time. Bird had not yet played his sensational final season at Indiana State, and many still considered him a small college hero who wasn't athletic enough to star in the NBA.

Meanwhile, Boston general manager Red Auerbach, who owned the sixth and eighth draft picks, was playing a hand that allowed him to gamble. He grabbed Bird with the sixth, displaying foresight that sealed his reputation as the NBA's savviest personnel executive. What does it matter now that Auerbach's selection with the eighth pick, Freeman Williams, proved to be a bust, or that the Celtics suffered through a 29-53 season the following season while Bird was leading Indiana State to the historic NCAA championship game with Michigan State? Those were minimal sacrifices to land Bird, who led the Celtics to three championships in the 1980s.

The Pacers, meanwhile, floundered so badly on the court and in the box office that the franchise was nearly sold to a group in Sacramento before Mel and Herb Simon were called in on their white horses. Bob and Nancy Leonard, who directed the front office, were gone by then, by mutual choice with the franchise's imported and bankrupt braintrust.

In recent years, when Bird has been back home again to coach or manage the Pacers, he and Leonard have had ample opportunity to reflect on their meeting at the Hyatt, and the fateful decisions that followed. They can joke about it now.

“Ah, you sent me out to Boston, where I didn't even know anybody,” Bird likes to complain. The imagination races at the thought of Bird staying within the Pacers' family.

Roundfield, too.