James Edwards Made Memorable Impact on Pacers History
The highest-scoring center in the Pacers' NBA history is unknown to most current fans, and an afterthought to those who saw him play. But he left his mark on the franchise, both by his presence and – especially – by his departure.
James Edwards averaged 15.9 points per game over four seasons with the Pacers, shooting better than 50 percent from the field in the final three. He would eventually find employment for 19 seasons in the NBA and play for eight teams, including two stops with the Lakers. He appeared in 1,168 games, 38th-most in NBA history. He never was an All-Star but he played on three championship teams, two with Detroit and one with Chicago in his final season, at age 40.
His seasons with the Pacers, from 1977-78 through 1981-82, provided the momentum for that career.
Edwards had been a third-round draft pick of the Lakers in 1977, but was thrust into the starting lineup almost immediately. The Lakers opened their season at Milwaukee that year. Just a couple of minutes into the game, the Bucks' rookie center, Kent Benson, doubled over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with an elbow to his midsection. After taking a few moments to catch his breath, Jabbar punched Benson in the face, broke his hand and missed the first 20 games of the season.
Edwards came off the bench to score 11 points in that game, and was in the starting lineup the following night when the Lakers played in the Pacers' season-opener at Market Square Arena. Edwards scored 25 in a 133-120 Lakers victory. Two weeks later, when the teams met again in Los Angeles, he scored 19 when the Lakers won again, 111-99.
Those games left an indelible impression on Pacers' coach Bob “Slick” Leonard, whose team lacked a legitimate center. The Pacers were 10-13 on Dec. 13, when Leonard rolled the dice and traded his leading scorer, Adrian Dantley (26.5 points) and undersized center Dave Robisch to the Lakers for Edwards and Earl Tatum.
Edwards still recalls the moment Lakers coach Jerry West called him into his locker room office before the Lakers were to play in New Orleans and told him he was being sent to Indiana. Leonard picked him up at the airport in his Lincoln Continental and drove him to his downtown hotel. Edwards had grown up in the Pacific Northwest, had been living in Los Angeles and was coming from New Orleans, so he wasn't prepared to be somewhere with a foot of snow on the ground.
“I said, Coach, you've got to take me to get some boots and a coat,” Edwards recalled.
Edwards warmed up to the situation quickly. He was destined for a sedentary existence with the Lakers behind Jabbar, who went on to play 20 NBA seasons, so the Pacers gave him an opportunity to develop. A 7-footer with a post-up game and mid-range jumper, he averaged 15.4 points the rest of the season with the Pacers, then 16.7, 15.7 and 15.6 in the following seasons.
The Pacers made the NBA playoffs for the first time in his final season, under first-year coach Jack McKinney, and were swept by Philadelphia in the first round. Cleveland's free-spending owner, Ted Stepien, offered him a free agent contract worth between $600,000-700,000 annually after that season, more than twice what he was making with the Pacers. The Pacers' financially inadequate ownership in that pre-Simon era couldn't come close to matching it. They received two second-round draft picks as compensation, which were used on Ray Blume, who was packaged in a trade with Chicago and wound up playing 49 games for the Bulls, and Guy Morgan, who played in eight games with the Pacers.
And here's where the story gets interesting, making Edwards an unwitting accomplice to what turned out to be the most devastating trade in franchise history.
McKinney had just been voted the NBA's Coach of the Year for getting the Pacers into the playoffs. He believed he could land a contract with a more financially stable team if he could follow up with another postseason trip, so he went in search of a starting center to replace Edwards. (McKinney had the authority to make the trade because there was a void in the Pacers' basketball braintrust at the time. The general manager from the '80-81 season, Dick Vertlieb, departed that summer and his replacement, attorney Bob Salyers, was not involved with basketball-related decisions.)
Four days before the '81 draft, McKinney traded the Pacers' first-round pick in 1984 to Portland for Tom Owens. He was coming off a season in which he had averaged 10.6 points for the Blazers, but had averaged 18.5 two seasons earlier. Owens, who had played a partial season for the ABA Pacers in 1975-76, was 32 at the time and on the downside of his career, but McKinney hoped to be gone by the time the '84 draft came around.
He was gone, but just barely, after the 1983-84 season. The Pacers won just 26 games, so the pick he had traded three years earlier turned out to be the second pick in that year's draft. Portland infamously used it to select Sam Bowie, passing on Michael Jordan, who went with the third pick to Chicago and became widely regarded as the greatest player of all time.
It's the ultimate what-if in the Pacers' history. Jordan could have been a Pacer if that future first-round pick had not been traded to the Blazers. But then McKinney wouldn't have needed to trade the pick if the Pacers could have re-signed Edwards in '81. But then again, the Pacers probably wouldn't have finished with just 26 wins in 1984 if Edwards was still on the roster.
By such twists of fate are careers and championships determined.
Edwards' time in Cleveland did not go well. The Cavs played in the boondocks of Richfield, Ohio, too far from downtown for fans to go to watch a losing team, and Stepien's personnel moves were so disastrous the NBA front office eventually had to intervene and award draft picks to help stabilize the franchise. Edwards was later traded to Phoenix and then to Detroit, where he played on the championship teams in 1989 and '90, starting on the second one. He wore a Fu Manchu mustache, which inspired his nickname of Buddha. He also played for the Clippers, the Lakers again, Portland and the Bulls' championship team in 1996.
Having drained every last minute from his playing career, he returned to Seattle. Three years ago, he moved back to Detroit and took a job with J & M Automotive Transport. Former Pistons teammate Vinnie Johnson is the "J" of that ownership group. He also does some public relations work for the Pistons, and maintains a home in Seattle.
Without the launching pad the Pacers provided for his career, who knows how it might have turned out?
“Once I got to Indiana, the guys accepted me right away,” he said. “It was a great move for me. I wasn't going to play in Los Angeles behind Kareem. It worked out for the best.”
Edwards has fond memories of his seasons in Indianapolis. He owned a condo at 56th and Emerson, and formed some relationships that survived for many years. He called George McGinnis a few months back to check on him, and stayed in touch with others such as Billy Knight and Ricky Sobers for awhile. He also enjoyed playing for Leonard, who then and now calls him “Jimmy.” One of his lasting memories is of the time Leonard punched Pacers forward Mickey Johnson in the locker room after an emotional homecourt defeat.
All these years later, Edwards remains one of the best centers of the Pacers' NBA history. His 15.9-point scoring average with the franchise ranks first, ahead of Rik Smits (14.9), who played 12 seasons. Jermaine O'Neal averaged 18.6 points in eight seasons with the Pacers, but played mostly power forward. Mel Daniels averaged 19.4 points in six ABA seasons.
Edwards has his memories, his rings, and something none of them could ever have: an innocent role in a process that cost the Pacers the opportunity to draft Michael Jordan.
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