Remembering the Pacers' First Championship, 50 Years Later

It won more games than any other ABA Pacers team. It played in the franchise's first nationally televised games. It was feted in two parades, not to mention a ham and bean dinner. And then the players all went to Bermuda, where the star player crashed his mini-bike into someone's house.

The Pacers team that won the 1970 ABA championship 50 years ago Monday wasn't the best of the franchise's three teams that won titles, but it had the most fun, the wildest ride, and the greatest impact on fans in Indianapolis, where a "major league" team had never won a championship.

The title was clinched with a 111-107 victory over the Los Angeles Stars, in Los Angeles, on May 25 — technically the 26th in Indianapolis because the game didn't begin until 11 p.m. local time. It could have happened in Game 5 in Indianapolis if not for a star player going water-skiing the day before the game, but we'll get to that later.

Point was, the Pacers won it all and the city didn't care how, when, or where. It just wanted something to celebrate, and how it went about doing so revealed the team's impact.

The Pacers flew home via commercial jet the next day. A parade was conducted the day after that, the 27th, carrying the players, coaches, and front office executives from the team office at 638 E. 38th St. west to Meridian and south to the Circle, where 7,500 fans were waiting.

So were Mayor Richard Lugar and Governor Edgar Whitcomb, who jointly declared it to be "Indiana Pacers Day."

"Indianapolis has finally been put on the map," Lugar said. "It's truly a big-league city. For this we will always be grateful to the Indiana Pacers."

Lugar was guilty of some in-the-moment hyperbole. The Indianapolis 500 had done a good job of making the city known to the world long before that. Still, the championship had real-world value. It boosted civic pride, acted as a unifying force, and amplified the brewing argument for a new arena that came to fruition four years later when Market Square Arena was completed.

Later that evening the Pacers were honored again at a ham and beans dinner in the Farmers Building north of the harness racing track at the State Fairgrounds. Hambeens Junction, a local restaurant, helped sponsor the event, which made it possible for fans to buy tickets for $1.25 each. One newspaper article reported about 700 people were turned away.

That idea came from general manager Mike Storen, who had built the Pacers into a championship team and was about to leave to take over the Kentucky Colonels.

"Mike gets all the credit," recalls Bill McGowan, who organized the banquet. "He didn't want a big-shot dinner. He wanted the real fans."

The Pacers' 37-year-old coach, Bob Leonard, and the players returned downtown to mingle with the fans the next day for the annual 500 Festival Parade. They brought up the rear in a line of convertibles containing drivers in the 500-Mile Race, three astronauts, and television celebrities such as Merv Griffin, Edie Adams, Buddy Ebsen, and, most memorably to some of the players, Frank Sutton — better known as Sergeant Carter on "Gomer Pyle."

"The biggest cheers of all were saved for the Indiana Pacers," a story in the Indianapolis News reported. "As they headed up Meridian, dozens of young fans, both girls and boys, flocked to their cars for a handshake or an autograph."

As if all that wasn't enough recognition for one team, Leonard and his wife, Nancy, were included in the pre-race parade laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway two days later, waving to fans from another convertible.

"I'd never been on the track before," Nancy recalls. "I didn't realize it was tilted. It was amazing riding around the track. Someone you knew would yell at you and you could actually hear them and see them."

Harmonious and hungry

The team that brought on all this commotion played at a turning point in the city's history, and in fact helped create that turning point. Local leaders were diligently working and planning to make Indianapolis a major league city, and winning a championship in a major basketball league that was growing in stature was as good a way as any to project that image.

The Pacers' later ABA championship teams, in 1972 and '73, were more talented than this one but lacked the harmony, raw enthusiasm, and unspoiled demeanor of this one. They didn't win as often or as easily, either.

The 1970 champions' frontline of Roger Brown, Bob Netolicky, and Mel Daniels all had played in the All-Star game at the Fairgrounds Coliseum that season. Point guard Freddie Lewis had played in the All-Star Game two years earlier and would be voted MVP of the game five years later.

Rookie Billy Keller had led Washington High School to the state championship five years earlier and earned Mr. Basketball honors, and had quarterbacked Purdue to the final game of the NCAA tournament the previous season. A late draft choice, he established himself as much more than a local fan favorite in his first season and started throughout the playoffs.

The rest of the 10-man playoff roster included guards John Barnhill and Tom Thacker, both veterans of the NBA, and forwards Art Becker, Oliver Darden, and Jay Miller.

Each player accepted his role. Each player was happy to be there.

The Pacers won a league-best 59 games in the 84-game regular season, eight more than any of the 10 other ABA teams. The could have surpassed 60 victories without much trouble, but had gone 5-7 over the final month of the season because Leonard went to a platoon system to save legs for the playoffs.

The highlight of the regular season came in a 177-135 victory over Pittsburgh at the Coliseum on Sunday, April 12. It was a 2 p.m. game, the third in less than 48 hours, and the third-to-last of the regular season. It might be panned as a mockery today, but was accepted gleefully then. Pittsburgh was a poor team, winning just 29 games that season, and the Pacers were fouling quickly at the end to get the ball back so they could break the record of 172 points they had set the previous year.

Still, 177 points don't come easily under any circumstance and none of the Pacers went longer than 31 minutes, so it wasn't a total farce. It remains the most points scored by an ABA or NBA team in a non-overtime game. Only two Pacers failed to reach double figures, but they contributed in other ways. Daniels, who took just 11 shots, grabbed 17 rebounds. Thacker, who took just five, had nine rebounds and 11 assists.

If any one game could reflect a team's balance and depth, that was it.

"We are ready for the playoffs," Leonard told reporters afterward.

The Pacers were the obvious favorite to win the championship. Barnhill even predicted late in the season they would not lose more than three games in the playoffs and he turned out to be right. They swept Carolina in four games in the first round and then eliminated Kentucky in five games in the second.

Keller was called into the starting lineup in the first game against Kentucky in the second round because Lewis came down with the flu and he kept that spot the rest of the way. When Lewis was healthy enough to play again, Barnhill went to the bench. Keller made his greatest postseason contribution in that series, when he clearly outplayed Kentucky's All-Star guard, Louie Dampier.

Freddie Lewis, Bob Netolicky, Billy Keller

Freddie Lewis (left), Bob Netolicky (middle), and Billy Keller (right) filled out the Pacers' starting lineup in the 1970 ABA Finals. (Photo Credit: Pacers Sports & Entertainment)

That left the championship series against the Stars, who had put on a late rush to win 43 games and barely qualify for the playoffs. Bill Sharman, who by then had been inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a player and would be let in again 34 years later as a coach, directed the Stars to an upset of the Western Division's best regular season team, Denver, in the second round.

The Pacers easily won Game 1 on a Friday evening in Indianapolis, 109-93, as Brown, Netolicky, Daniels, and Lewis each scored between 18 and 22 points.

Game 2, on Sunday afternoon, made history as the first ABA game to be televised nationally other than an All-Star game. Don Criqui and Pat Summerall handled the broadcast for CBS. Summerall was a prominent football announcer for the network, but who else was it going to get when it hadn't been carrying basketball games?

The Pacers wore their navy blue road uniforms in Game 2 because their home whites didn't contrast well enough with the Stars' powder blue road uniforms. It made for an odd sight in an era when the home team always wore white, but it was a small sacrifice to make for the opportunity for unprecedented exposure. The broadcast was blacked out locally but was a point of pride for fans who craved national recognition.

The Pacers won that game less easily than the first, 114-111. Netolicky led the scoring with 32 points, hitting 14-of-22 shots, including 10 in a row in the second half. He also grabbed the game's biggest rebound with six seconds left, drawing a foul and hitting two free throws to complete the scoring.

"I played that way for my man Johnny Rutherford," said Netolicky, a rabid race fan. "He inspired me yesterday when he almost got the pole for the 500-mile race."

Mel Daniels added 31 points and 27 rebounds and permitted Stars center Craig Raymond just eight points.

"I thought we played terrible," Daniels said. "But Los Angeles played a terrific game, especially that second unit."

The ABA schedules were notoriously illogical and unforgiving in those days, even in the playoffs. After Game 2, both teams headed for the airport and boarded the same flight to Anaheim, where Games 3 and 4 would be played the following two nights. Netolicky remembers migrating to the first-class section where he got a look at Conrad Hilton Sr., the 82-year old founder of the hotel chain.

The Pacers lost Game 3, 109-105, after squandering a 21-point at the end of the first quarter but came back the following night to take a 3-1 series lead with a 142-120 victory.

And here is where Roger Brown began cementing his legend.

Brown scored 53 points, still a franchise playoff scoring record, while hitting 18-of-29 shots and 14-of-16 free throws. He also grabbed 13 rebounds and passed out six assists, both team highs.

Brown was just a few days short of his 28th birthday and at his physical and emotional peak. His body hadn't begun breaking down and he hadn't yet been softened by success or his poor health habits. He was virtually unstoppable offensively, living up to the "Man of a Thousand Moves" nickname some newspaper reporters had attached to him, and he played with the regal bearing that made his more common nickname, The Rajah, a perfect fit.

Brown cited two factors in his 53-point outburst: news shoes and miniature golf.

He wore navy blue adidas "Superstars," a recently released leather model accented with three stripes that was about to take over the national marketplace for basketball shoes from the Converse Chuck Taylors. He said they made him quicker. Keller, for one, thought it strange a player would wear a new pair of shoes in a game without breaking them in first, but this was a break from canvas shoes of old.

Brown also found a way to calm his nerves. Admittedly putting pressure on himself earlier in the series, he had played miniature golf with a few teammates that afternoon near the team hotel, which was across the street from Disneyland.

"I thought walking around the course would relax me," he said.

The Pacers had a chance to wrap up the championship four days later, on a Saturday afternoon, back at the Coliseum in another game broadcast by CBS — with "color cameras" the Indianapolis Star pointed out. Champagne was on ice in the locker room and the city was braced to celebrate on its own turf.

Pat Vidan, the longtime starter for the "500," met the team at the airport and waved a white flag, signifying one lap to go. The headline in the Indianapolis News read, "Pacers Are Near Own Victory Lane." A standing room only crowd of more than 10,000 fans turned out to see it unfold.

The players, however, succumbed to the moment. They admitted later they were emotionally uptight. And one was physically tight.

Netolicky had gone water skiing the previous day on Morse Reservoir with his attorney, Mike Quinn. Capable of slaloming on one ski, he put a strain on arm and shoulder muscles that he hadn't used in basketball. It's no wonder, then, he hit just 7-of-22 shots and fired a few air balls in the next day's game, a 117-113 loss in overtime.

"I missed about 10 easy shots," he recalls. "If I hadn't gone water skiing, we would have won it at home."

He says he waited about four years before admitting his misadventure to Leonard.

"The jerk," Leonard says today, not angrily.

Netolicky wasn't the only Pacer missing shots, though. Lewis hit 6-of-21 attempts and Brown's 10-footer at the buzzer that could have won the game in regulation rimmed out. Brown, however, owed no apologies. He finished with 39 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists.

The players have acknowledged they failed to handle the moment, then and now.

"We were all nervous," Lewis says. "That's why we blew the game. We were like, 'Oh, boy, we're going to win this thing at home before our fans!' But they fought us to the wire."

Leonard, though, promised the championship would come.

"We will see what they (the Stars) do Monday night, and if we don't win Monday, we'll win Tuesday," he said. "The Indiana Pacers will win the ABA title; you can be sure of that."

So, the two teams headed back to California for Game 6, this time to Los Angeles instead of Anaheim. The downtown Sports Arena, where the NBA Lakers had played before The Forum opened in 1967, was available for this one, unlike in Games 3 and 4. A crowd of 8,233, a record for the Stars in L.A., showed up, including Lakers stars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, comedian Bill Cosby, and movie star Mickey Rooney. Keller isn't sure, but he believes noted actress Debbie Reynolds was on hand as well.

More than likely they had come to see Brown, who was making headlines in the Los Angeles newspapers. So maybe it wasn't such a bad thing Netolicky had gone water skiing, after all. It gave Brown an extra opportunity to put on a show, and in the world's entertainment capital.

If he was anxious, he didn't let on. Nancy Leonard recalls standing to the side of aisle leading from the locker room to the court, anxiety threatening to get the best of her.

"Roger came by and took one look at me and said, 'My god, you look like you're about to go to the death chamber,'" she remembers. "He didn't seem nervous at all."

Brown went on to score 45 points, 21 of them coming on seven 3-pointers — a franchise record at the time — to lead a 111-107 victory that clinched the championship. Lewis hit the game's biggest shot, a 16-footer with 16 seconds left, and added a free throw nine seconds later. Brown, fittingly, scored the Pacers' final points with two free throws with two seconds remaining.

The Pacers got a break when L.A. center Craig Raymond sprained his ankle and had to sit out the last 19 minutes, but the Stars fought to the end without him. Literally, on one occasion. Netolicky, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, exchanged blows with George Stone in the fourth quarter and needed eight stitches to close a cut above his left eye. Neither player was kicked out, which is how things tended to go in the ABA.

Brown let down his guard when the final buzzer sounded, rushing to the sideline to hug Leonard. He had just put on a postseason tour de force never to be forgotten in Pacers lore by averaging 28.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists over the three postseason rounds and 45.7 points on 71 percent shooting over the final three games against the Stars. He had played every second in those three except for part of the final minute in the Game 4 blowout when he scored 53 points.

The locker room champagne celebration that had eluded the Pacers in the previous game in Indianapolis came off this time. But once things calmed down and the players began to shower and dress, Daniels — who had grabbed 27 rebounds in the game and blocked a shot late in the game — experienced what he claimed years later to be his career highlight: Brown walked across the room, kissed him on the forehead and said, "Can you believe we just won this championship?"

Brown created a lot of lasting memories that night.

"You have to have a Roger Brown in order to win a championship," Darden says. "The Stars knew they had to stop him to have a chance and they couldn't do it. He put on a show. And I had the best seat in the house."

Sharman had seen plenty of great individual performances in his playing and coaching career, but never one like this.

"In my 20 years in pro basketball, I've never seen a player come up with such consistently superb performances in playoff games," Sharman said. "Roger just dominated, and that's tough for a forward to do."

West, one of the greatest guards ever to play the game, was equally impressed.

"I have no doubts he could start on any team in my league," West told the Los Angeles Times. "I bet we could even find a spot for him on the Lakers."

Eternal memories

The celebrations didn't end with the parades.

In June, the Pacers' ownership paid for the players and their spouses to vacation in Bermuda. Becker had to miss it to attend his sister's wedding and Leonard stayed behind to be with his college coach at Indiana University, Branch McCracken, who was near death in an Indianapolis hospital. Everyone else, however, had a typically fun time.

Darden and Keller recall Brown, of all people, losing control of his motorized mini-bike and riding over a mound and into a house. Daniels' wife, Cecelia, ran her bike across the road into a cluster of bushes.

"After that happened, I think everybody became a lot more careful," Darden says.

Rings later were distributed. Leonard, who had held onto his job with Herff Jones as a graduation supplies representative, designed them. Each one included the motto he had adopted during the regular season: Pride, Poise and Perfection.

Most of the surviving players have stored them away, either in lock boxes at home or in bank safety deposit boxes. Darden gave his to the second of his three sons. Brown's is with his oldest son, Roger Jr.

Championships aren't about rings, though. They are about the lasting memories of accomplishment, and this team produced them in abundance — not only for themselves but for a fan base that finally got a taste of what it was like to live in a big-league city.

Even if that taste bore a faint resemblance to ham and beans.

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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