Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

At Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Pacers Connections Run Deep

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Talk to any basketball player, no matter how far their careers took them, and they'll likely tell you their fondest memories are from high school.

That's when they were the most dominant, the pressure to perform wasn't as great, and the possibility of being traded or cut hadn't even entered their minds. School spirit ran high, media scrutiny ran low and fans weren't likely to be complaining about the crucial free throw they missed, or the fact they were outplayed by a future Naismith Hall of Famer.

The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, which will be honored during halftime of the Pacers' Hickory Night celebration on Friday, is the depository for those more innocent moments, for fans and players alike. It's both a storage unit and a chapel, a place to house memorabilia and memories as well as a place to worship the great players, teams and games of a sport that for many is a religion in Indiana.

TICKETS: Pacers vs Pistons »

That's why it remains a special place and honor for George McGinnis, who received the ultimate basketball recognition in September for his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. That's a worldwide honor, reserved for the elites of the sport, but the New Castle Hall remains just as great an honor for McGinnis because of his memories of leading Washington High School to an undefeated season and state championship in 1969.

"It was just as special as going in (the Naismith Hall)," McGinnis said of his high school hall induction in 1995. "It was really special.

"Winning the state championships was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me as a basketball player. I never thought about becoming a hall of famer for the Naismith Hall of Fame, even when I was playing (professionally). It just wasn't something that crossed my mind. But winning the state championship in high school, I was obsessed with it."

The Pacers, naturally, are well-represented in the Hall of Fame in New Castle. Any player good enough to play professionally was likely an outstanding high school player, and virtually every Indiana high school star who played for the Pacers and is eligible for the Hall has been inducted. The lone semi-exception is Wayne Pack, who played 21 games for the Pacers in the 1975-76 season, but got in as a member of Washington High School's undefeated 1969 state championship team, which was inducted en masse.

HICKORY CENTRAL: Learn More at Pacers.com/Hickory »

In all, 17 men who either played or coached for the Pacers are in the Hall. They range alphabetically from Tom Abernethy, who played 29 games for the Pacers in the 1980-81 season, to Randy Wittman, who played four seasons for the Pacers and then became an assistant coach, launching his career as an NBA head coach.

The group includes three members who went on to achieve Naismith recognition: McGinnis, Larry Bird and Bob "Slick" Leonard.

Leonard was a latecomer to the Naismith honor, finally receiving induction in 2014. He was asked repeatedly if he was bothered by his omission from that hall of fame despite having coached the Pacers to three ABA championships, and always responded with the same thought: I'm a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, and that's the one that means the most.

Billy Keller led Washington High School to the state championship in 1965, and earned Mr. Basketball honors from The Indianapolis Star as a result. He also quarterbacked Purdue into the championship game of the NCAA tournament in 1969, and was voted the first recipient of the Naismith Award, which goes to the best player in the country under 6-foot tall. He played seven seasons for the Pacers, and is one of just four players to have been a member of all three of their ABA championship teams.

Being in the high school hall was never a goal, but now that he's there, it keeps him connected to the game and the state's basketball tradition.

"The goal was to be the best you can be, to win, and to be doing what you love to do," said Keller, who was inducted in 1992. "And when it's all over, that's the time something like the hall of fame becomes more important.

"I think it means more to players the older you get. "You're finished playing, you're finished with all your athletics, and all you have now is your memories. Being in the hall of fame is the result of being a student of the game, loving the game, being coachable, having great fans around me, and having a supportive family … all of that.

"It means more to me now that it's over than when it happened."

Did You Know?

1. The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame was co-founded by legendary Indianapolis sportscaster Tom Carnegie in 1962, along with a prominent Lions Club official, Ray Johnson. It began as a feature of the Downtown Lions Club, then achieved standalone status in 1965. It moved to its current location in New Castle in 1990.

2. Although technically a hall of fame for people with direct links to Indiana high school basketball, its membership includes some exceptions who were inducted as recipients of the Silver Medal Award. Those include former Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings, former Purdue University and Fever coach Lin Dunn, former Purdue coach Gene Keady and former Indiana University coach Bob Knight. Jerry Baker, the former radio and television voice of the Pacers who is now the public address announcer, also is a member.

3. Some of the New Castle hall of fame members achieved greater recognition for other endeavors. Lee Hamilton was an all-state player at Evansville Central High School, starred at DePauw, and went on to become a member of the United State Congress. Edwin Hubble coached New Albany to an undefeated season in 1913-14 and was a noteworthy player, and went on to become an even more noteworthy astronomer. The Hubble Telescope is named after him. Actor James Dean, while not a member of the hall of fame, played high school basketball for Fairmount High School.

4. More than 300,000 visitors have visited the hall in its 27 years in New Castle. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and $3 for children 5-12. The pricing is meant to align with the cost of attending a high school basketball game. Those funds don't cover the hall's expenses, so it raises money from the doubleheader played each year in New Castle, an annual golf outing in the summer and personal and corporate contributions.

5. Permanent exhibits have been established for the hall's three most famous members. John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, as well as for the 1954 Milan High School team.

6. Visitors can view a new film called "Only in Indiana" at the beginning of the tour. The 17-minute feature includes the likes of Bird, Robertson, McGinnis, Steve Alford, Damon Bailey, Bobby Plump, Judi Warren, Katie Douglas and Stephanie White telling their personal stories. The hall also includes an exhibit of 96 photographs of high school gymnasiums throughout Indiana, taken by Michael Keating and Chris Smith.

Pacers Connections

Player High School Pacers career
Tom Abernethy South Bend St. Joseph, ‘72 1980-81
Larry Bird Springs Valley, ’74 Coach, team president
Ron Bonham Muncie Central, ’60 1967-68
Don Buse Holland, ’68 1972-77, ’80-82
Steve Green Silver Creek, ’71 1976-79
Billy Keller Indpls. Washington, ’65 1969-76
Bob Leonard Terre Haute Gerstmeyer, ‘50 Coach, GM, announcer
Kyle Macy Peru, ’75 1986-87
George McGinnis Indpls. Washington, ’69 1971-75, ’80-82
Rick Mount Lebanon, ’65 1970-72
Bill Newton Rockville, ’68 1972-74
Jerry Oliver Rochester, ’48 Asst. coach
Jimmy Rayl Kokomo, ’59 1967-69
Wayne Radford Indpls. Arlington, ’74 1978-79
Jerry Sichting Martinsville, ’75 1980-85
Scott Skiles Plymouth, 82 1987-89
Randy Wittman Indpls. Ben Davis, ’78 1988-92

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.