Daniels Brought Heart and Soul to the Pacers
About 15 minutes after learning Mel Daniels had passed away, it sunk in. And I started crying.
Mel was that kind of guy.
Larger than life. A fighter. A poet. Tough. Sensitive. A man with a steel trap handshake and a soft heart. The kind of guy you couldn't help but love, even if he drove you crazy sometimes with passionate ramblings that kept you on the phone for an hour.
Pardon my rambling, but I'm writing this with a million thoughts racing through my head, and don't know where to start. We journalists are supposed to remain dispassionate and maintain distance from the people we cover, but what the hell, Mel was retired when I got to know him and I didn't cover his playing career. I remember it, though, and could never forget it. I'll never forget him, either.
It was appropriate that Mel was the first of the Pacers players to go into the Naismith Hall of Fame, because he was the heart and soul of the three ABA championship teams. Freddie Lewis was the captain, and Roger Brown, Lewis and George McGinnis were the MVPs of the finals, but Mel was the guy.
Mel was the guy who fought for his teammates, and not just by throwing fists, although he did that more than any player in franchise history. He would stand up for a teammate in the newspaper if he was being booed by fans (Jimmy Rayl). He would stand up for a teammate by walking out of practice if he thought the coach had been unfairly harsh toward him (Rick Mount). He would stand up for a rookie with a heartfelt conversation after a game, making him feel part of the team (Billy Keller).
He stood up for an entire franchise, really, by his mere presence. It's not much of a stretch to say the Pacers might not exist today if not for Mel.
The Pacers finished their first season, in 1967-68, with a 38-40 record. They didn't draw well after the initial burst-of-out-of-the-gates enthusiasm, and were losing money. They likely would have folded or moved if they had gone on that way for long. But in the greatest stroke of luck in franchise history, any franchise's history, really, they were able to trade for him by sending $100,000 and two players who would never suit up again, Jimmy Dawson and Ron Kozlicki, to the Minnesota Muskies.
Daniels had been voted Rookie of the Year of the first year of the ABA, but the Muskies were in dire financial straits and about to move to Miami to become the Floridians. They held a fire sale to reduce their overheard, and the Pacers were saved. Once Slick Leonard was brought in to coach the team, three ABA titles were on the way, providing enough momentum to get them through all nine ABA seasons and into the NBA.
Greatness never went to Mel's head. He came from a humble, blue-collar background in Detroit, where his father worked for an auto parts manufacturer. He never touched a basketball until his sophomore year in high school, when his high school coach, Will Robinson, literally stopped him in the hallway and ordered him to the gym. He never lost his humble, blue collar roots.
Above all else, he was unselfish. The greatest thrill of his basketball career, he said, wasn't when he won his two league Most Valuable Player awards, or any other individual accomplishment. It was when the normally stoic Brown walked across the locker room and gave him a kiss on the forehead after the Pacers won their first title in Los Angeles in 1970.
I called Mel to congratulate him after hearing of his selection to the Hall of Fame in 2012. He was the first ABA player to go into the Hall, but he wasn't celebrating. He immediately began complaining. Slick should have gone in before him. Brown, too. Certain ABA opponents as well. His selection only dredged up his feelings for other people.
Mel expressed many of his feelings through poems. He wrote thousands of them. He considered them his form of doodling. He wrote poems about senior living communities, poems about basketball, poems about friends. Poems for friends, too. Most prominently, there was the one that helped convince Reggie Miller to stay retired, reminding him that his day had passed. Reggie told him he couldn't have written it, he was too dumb to come up with something like that. Mel always burst out into that distinctive laugh – the one that somehow managed to be both high-pitched and deep at the same time – when he told that story.
Mel loved his horses, too. He had become a cowboy when he went to the University of New Mexico, and never gave up the lifestyle. He didn't own a single pair of dress shoes; just cowboy boots. His horses weren't just something to ride or look at, though. He gave them names, in honor of friends. He sold some of them, but kept most of them. It's probably safe to say now, he buried them on his property when they died, because he didn't have the heart to have them rendered.
That was Mel. Of all the accomplishments he rang up in basketball, the one of which he should be most proud is the quantity and quality of relationships he formed, in and out of basketball. I've never met a Pacers teammate who didn't have ultimate respect for him. Brown was the cool guy, Lewis was the on-court leader, McGinnis was the reckless man-child with unmatched physical dominance, but Mel was the enforcer with the poet's heart who established the demeanor of those championship teams.
He was just as close with some of the latter-day Pacers, too. He literally had dreams that he got to play with them in games. Miller called him Uncle Mel, and they were one-half of endless late-night poker games. He loved Jeff Foster, too, not only for Foster's style of play, but because of his ability to get under Foster's skin. About a dozen years ago, he bet Foster he could still score on him. Foster took him up on it. So after practice one day, Mel put on sweats, took the ball without warming up, dribbled left into the lane and hit his patented fadeaway jumper from about 15 feet. Then he walked off the court, cackling, refusing to give Foster another chance. I watched it.
I could go on forever about Mel, and have in other articles I've written, so I don't know just where to stop. We last talked a couple of weeks ago. I had heard he had been in the hospital, and sent him a text to inquire. He called me back and we talked for about 45 minutes. I thought I'd see him soon, at a Pacers game. He attended Thursday's home opener, but I missed him.
Now I'll miss him forever. So will generations of friends and fans.
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