Mel Daniels Packs Knockout Punch as a Poet

The greatest enforcer the Pacers have ever had, the guy who seemed to get into more fights during the late Sixties and early Seventies on basketball courts than Muhammad Ali had in boxing rings, is sitting in the corner booth of a restaurant and reading poetry to me.

They are gentle, heartfelt poems on a wide variety of subjects. Living in a senior community ... a retired athlete reflecting on his glory days ... a young athlete trying to please his father ... the love between a father and daughter ... athletes and their money ... older women.

It seems incongruous, this 6-foot-9 Hall of Famer with the vice-grip handshake reflecting on such tender topics with such sincerity. That is, unless you get to know him. And then it makes perfect sense that this bare-fisted brawler has written, by his estimation, at least 20,000 poems.

Daniels' dual nature comes naturally. His father, Maceo, worked at an auto parts manufacturing plant and lived the traditional blue collar worker's life. He had no interest in sports, and didn't even want Mel wasting his time with them. Mel's mother, Bernice Lynette, was a gentler soul. She read poetry to him during his childhood. She also was the one who attended his junior varsity games after he had gone out for basketball for the first time as a sophomore, cheering on the awkward beginner who played like a newborn colt.

Mel Daniels and Darnell Hillman during a game

Macho poet? Sensitive scrapper? Take your pick. Daniels has shown plenty of both sides throughout his life, although today, at 71, he's far more likely to sit down and scratch out a poem than raise his fists in anger.

Daniels considers his poetry a form of doodling, something to do to pass the time and relax the mind when he's not busy tending to the horses on his ranch in Sheridan. He's been writing them since he was eight or nine years old, long before he was an All-American center at New Mexico or the two-time Most Valuable Player in the American Basketball Association who helped lead the Pacers to three titles.

Daniels doesn't claim to be anybody's poet laureate, and hasn't tried to get his work published, although others have talked of that possibility. It's just a hobby, and one he's mostly kept to himself.

Growing up in a tough, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Detroit, he didn't dare tell his classmates about it. He didn't take a poetry class in college at New Mexico. It certainly never came up for discussion with his teammates during his seven seasons with the Pacers, either. He was the backbone of the Pacers' on-court machismo and had a reputation to uphold. He played in a rowdy era when a player could throw punches without being labeled a thug, or even be kicked out of the game, and he took full advantage of the opportunities to take a stand. He is easily the franchise's all-time record-holder for fights started and/or ended during games, and more than anyone other than coach Slick Leonard established an intimidating tone for those teams.

His poetry, therefore, was not a topic of conversation around his teammates.

"Oh, no," Daniels says, laughing. "Could you imagine Neto (Bob Netolicky) and Roger (Brown)? No, that wouldn't have worked.

"This is the side I've kept quiet."

Billy Keller, who like Daniels played on all three of the Pacers' championship teams, says he had no idea Daniels dabbled in such a gentle pastime until Brown died in 1997, and he saw or heard a poem Daniels had written for the occasion.

Daniels' hobby wasn't an absolute secret, though. I recall him reading a poem he had written about Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he attended college, on the radio in a pre-recorded interview with former Pacers play-by-play broadcaster Jerry Baker at halftime of a game during his playing career. For some reason I remember the opening lines – "You take a little sand, and you call that Albuquerque ..." He doesn't recall writing it or reading it, and it's among his lost efforts.

Many of Daniels' early poems were destroyed in a barn fire on his property several years ago. He still has thousands of them stashed in boxes and briefcases at home, though. The ones he read to me in the restaurant, representing more recent efforts, were neatly reprinted on white paper in a spiral-bound notebook.

Daniels' favorite poem is The Bells, said to be the last work of his favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe. He's drawn to Poe for his writing style, although he's intrigued by his troubled personal life, too. That's typical. Daniels has always maintained a soft spot for someone's everyday struggles. He had his teammates' back on the court, but also acted as the locker room den mother, the player most likely to stand up for a teammate's emotional needs.

Just a couple of weeks into his first season with the Pacers (1968-69), Daniels publicly took a stand for Jimmy Rayl, who was hearing boos from some of the home fans, saying he was "hurt" by it.

"I wish they'd boo me instead of the other players," Daniels told The Indianapolis News. "I feel I can take it better than they can, though I know I can't, really."

A year later, the Pacers lost a game to Dallas in Moody Coliseum on the Southern Methodist University campus. Daniels and Keller, a rookie at the time, walked back to the team hotel together afterward and had a meaningful conversation along the way. Keller still remembers the moment, recalling how it helped him feel an important part of the team for the first time.

"That was the first time I ever really talked with him or had much of a conversation with him," Keller says. "I realized he really was a good person."

A season or two after that, Daniels walked out of practice in support of Rick Mount, who had come under a verbal harangue from Leonard. Years later, Mount, who played two unhappy seasons with the team, recalled Daniels fondly as the heart and soul of the Pacers' title teams, "and a really nice guy."

"Mel didn't want anybody to be embarrassed," Freddie Lewis, the Pacers captain throughout Daniels' seasons with the team, summarized. "He was pleasant, he was caring and he looked out for his teammates."

Further proof of Daniels' sensitive side is that he considers the highlight of his playing career not to be any of his individual honors, but the memory of Brown, who rarely showed emotion, letting down his guard enough to kiss him on the forehead in the locker room after the Pacers won their first title in Los Angeles in 1970.

All that, from the man who got into a fight in his first professional game with the Minnesota Muskies in 1967, and on many more occasions with the Pacers.

Daniels has written poems for several people over the years, but doesn't usually show or read his work to them. Donnie Walsh, Slick Leonard, Roger Brown, Reggie Miller, Jeff Foster and Mark Jackson are among his subjects.

One of his best and perhaps most influential poems helped convince Miller to stay retired when Miller was thinking of signing with the Boston Celtics a few years after leaving the Pacers:

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 sad 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

Daniels wrote that in about 20 minutes, and read it to Miller over the telephone. They're close friends, and trash-talk one another constantly.

"Reggie told me I was too stupid to write that," Daniels says, laughing. "He said someone else must have written for me."

Whether or not the poem was an influence, Miller stayed retired.

Daniels kept up a ritual of dunking a basketball on his birthday every year after his retirement in 1977, through the age of 62 in 2006. It was about that time he had another flashback to his playing career. He told Foster he still could score on him one-on-one. Foster said no. So, after a team workout on the practice court one day, Daniels put on gear and backed his claim. On his first possession he dribbled from the right wing into the lane and swished a fading jumper over his right shoulder. He howled, then gleefully danced off the court, laughing all the way while Foster begged him to come back. He still reminds Foster of it in their telephone conversations.

"It was the luckiest shot of my life," Daniels says. "He was so mad! He was back in the locker room going, 'C'mon, let's do it again!' I just called him a chump. I said, 'You can't stop me!'"

That's one side of Daniels. The other is represented by his poems. Such as the one about touching the rim, a metaphor for an aging athlete's desire to play again. Or the one about the locker room and the memories it holds for retired players.

It reads in part:

Good times, bad times
times you'll never forget
times of doubt and despair
times that surface yet

Mel Daniels hand-written poem

Many of Daniels' poems have nothing to do with basketball, however. He visited a senior community in Indianapolis one day and wrote about the experience after he returned home. He calls it "Nursing Home."

Sitting lonely in myself
Wishing I was younger and someplace else

Trying desperately to remember the past
When I was younger and living fast

Just now realizing time moves at its own pace
Wishing I was in another place

Crowds gather in every room – moments in time
They'll be leaving soon

Stirring memories of the past
Wishing and wishing they would last

Life has a great and bitter taste
As I sit here alone with myself
Wishing I was in another place

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