Mel Daniels

The Story Behind All Three of the Pacers' ABA Championships

by Mark Montieth Writer

The Seventies were awfully good to the Pacers. The first half, anyway.

While the latter part of the decade that will be honored at Saturday's game against Portland at Bankers Life Fieldhouse brought decline and near-extinction, the first half brought three championships and an unexpected trip to the ABA finals. That stretch remains the best period in franchise history, one resulting from a favorable set of circumstances that could never be duplicated in today's world.

The seasons completed between 1970 and '75 brought an average of 51 wins despite a massive rebuilding effort before the sixth season. They resulted in titles in 1970, '72 and '73 and ended with an improbable run to the finals. Although the titles were condensed within a five-season period, only four players were members of all three teams – Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown and Billy Keller. The starting lineup was different for each of the teams, but the coach remained the same. All were clinched on the road, two of them after failing to do so at home in the previous game.

Here's a look at each of the ABA championships and how they were won.

1970: Brown Outshines the Stars

The Pacers primed for their first title by reaching the finals of the 1969 playoffs in their second season. They had lost seven of their first eight games, and were 2-7 when Bob "Slick" Leonard took over as coach. He won just three of his first 11 games, giving the team a 5-15 record, but gradually stoked the fire in the furnace and brought his players to a boiling point.

They won 13 consecutive games before the final two meaningless games of the regular season to finish 44-34. They came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Kentucky in the first round of the playoffs, then disposed of Miami in five games in the second round.

Beating Oakland for the title was going to be a different matter entirely, however. The Oaks had gone 60-18, dominating the league with experienced veterans Larry Brown and Doug Moe and the league's Rookie of the Year, Warren Armstrong. They were so gifted they didn't even need Rick Barry, the NBA star who had jumped across the bay to the ABA but had to sit out the second half of the season with a knee injury. They won four out of five games against the Pacers to claim the championship.

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The Oaks moved to Washington D.C. the following season, however, and were never the same again. Their future Hall of Fame coach, Alex Hannum, refused to go with the team, as did Moe. Barry played, but wasn't healthy until late in the season, and never was happy. Armstrong, who later changed his name to Jabali, blew out a knee in January, just a few days after scoring 46 points against Denver.

So much for the defending champion. The only other former title team, the Pittsburgh Pipers, had lost former league MVP Connie Hawkins to the NBA, and was no longer a factor, either.

That left the Pacers to rule the league. Their roster included four players who had played in the All-Star game at least one of the first two seasons – reigning league MVP Daniels, Brown, Lewis and Bob Netolicky – and an improving bench bolstered by rookie Keller and NBA veterans Tom Thacker and John Barnhill.

They jumped out to a 27-5 record, and finished the season 59-25 despite winning just five of their last 12 games while Leonard rested his starters and experimented with new plays. They made history in one of those late wins, however, with a 177-135 victory over Pittsburgh to set an all-time scoring record for a professional game. They scored 51 points in the fourth quarter of that game, fouling at the first opportunity throughout the last three minutes to stop the clock and gain more possessions.

Despite coasting to the finish line, their record was 14 games better than Eastern Division runner-up Kentucky, and eight games better than Western winner Denver. They went on to sweep Carolina in four games in the opening round of the playoffs, then won four in a row over Kentucky after dropping the first game in overtime.

That left a finals matchup with the Los Angeles Stars, who had won 17 of their final 21 games to finish the regular season with a 43-41 record and then advanced to the finals by upsetting Western Division winner Denver in the second round. The Stars couldn't match the Pacers' talent, but were mentored well by Bill Sharman, who is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, and maximized their talent.

The Pacers won the first two games at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Game 2 was the first in ABA history to be televised nationally, on CBS. The Pacers wore their visiting blue uniforms because the Stars' road uniforms were light blue and didn't present enough contrast to the television audience, particularly those with black and white sets.

The Stars won Game 3 in the Sports Arena back in Los Angeles, but the Pacers won Game 4, 142-120, to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Brown exploded for 53 points in that game, hitting 18-of-29 field goal attempts and 14-of-16 free throws, while adding 13 rebounds and six assists.

The Pacers could have wrapped up the championship at the Coliseum four days later before a standing-room-only crowd and another national television audience, but the long layoff between games and the assumption presented by the iced champagne and television cameras set up in their locker room sapped their momentum and focus. They led by 10 points midway through the third quarter, but couldn't hang on.

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Brown, who finished with 39 points, had a chance to win the game in the final few seconds of regulation, but his 10-footer on the baseline spun around the rim and out. The Stars won in overtime, 117-113.

"We were just too cautious," Brown said. "Too cautious."

That sent the series back to Los Angeles for Game 6, where Brown turned in yet another classic performance to clinch the championship. With L.A. celebrities on hand, along with Lakers stars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Brown hit seven 3-point shots on his way to 45 points to lead a 111-107 victory.

Brown needed help, though. Lewis, who finished with 18 points, hit a key jumper with 16 seconds left and a free throw at nine seconds. Daniels hit just 5-of-17 shots, but had 27 rebounds. Netolicky had 14 points and 13 rebounds. Thacker came off the bench to contribute 11 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and strong defense on Stars guard Merv Jackson, who hit just 5-of-18 shots.

The day, and the series, belonged to Brown, however, who later was the obvious selection for Most Valuable Player in the finals. He hit 14-of-27 shots, including 7-of-12 3-pointers. His teammates combined to hit just 24-of-72 shots.

"He was the man in the whole series," Sharman said. "Whenever they needed something, he gave it to them. He was simply phenomenal."

1972: Lewis States his Case

The Pacers followed their 1970 championship with a 58-26 record in the 1970-71 season, the best record in the ABA. They swept Memphis in the first round, but lost to Utah in the second in a seven-game series that ended with a 108-101 loss at the Coliseum.

Leonard tinkered with the starting lineup in that series, bringing his captain, Lewis, off the bench in some of the games, and it backfired. Lewis was distraught over his demotion and the outcome of the series, and vowed to prove himself all over again the following season.

The 1971-72 season was rocky, with some internal unrest, and the Pacers' record dropped to 47-37. They managed to right themselves in the playoffs, however. Having been moved to the league's Western Division, they survived a seven-game opening-round series with Denver, then another seven-game series with Utah. That left New York, where Barry had migrated.

Lewis was primed. He led the Pacers with 33 points in Game 1 of the series, played at Assembly Hall in Bloomington because the Coliseum had been booked for a horse show. Game 2 returned to the Coliseum, but the Pacers lost 117-115 to give home court advantage to the Nets.

They got it back in Game 3 in New York with a balanced six-point victory led by rookie George McGinnis' 30 points and 20 rebounds, which negated Barry's 44-point effort. But they gave it back again with a five-point loss in Game 4 in New York.

With the series tied 2-2, the Pacers won Game 5 at the Coliseum, 100-99, in one of the most dramatic playoff games in franchise history. They hit just 5-of-22 field goals in the first quarter and just 1-of-11 free throws in the second. They trailed 40-20 at one point in the second period and by 15 at halftime, but forced a tie in the third quarter. Still, New York held a four-point lead with 27 seconds left after Barry hit two free throws.

It didn't hold up. Keller hit a 30-foot 3-pointer – his third in a row – to make it a one-point game then Lewis stole the ball from Ollie Taylor, drove, and drew a foul. Given three chances to hit two, he hit the second and third attempts with eight seconds left to give the Pacers a 100-99 lead. Barry, who finished with 33 points, then let the inbound pass from midcourt slip through his hands and out of bounds on the Nets' final possession, giving the Pacers the victory and a 3-2 series lead.

They wrapped up the series in New York with a 108-105 victory. Brown, who had been relatively quiet in the series, summoned another clutch performance with 32 points, hitting all three 3-point attempts, and all five starters – Keller included – scored in double figures. Just as in Los Angeles two years earlier, the team had to confine its celebration to the privacy of its locker room, pouring champagne on one another and throwing front office personnel and media members into the shower, before a public gathering could be held in Indianapolis.

The individual payout for the title was a reported $7,000 – which was an annual salary for many workers at the time. "We smell the money," McGinnis had said during the series. "That isn't bad, $7,000."

Lewis was named MVP of the series, having played a starring role in each round. He averaged 19.2 points in the playoffs, up from his 15.5-point average during the regular season, and aside from his heroics in the Game 5 comeback against the Nets had made crucial contributions in each round. He clinched Game 7 of the opening series with Denver with two foul shots in the final seconds, then scored the winning points in Game 7 of the series with Utah with two foul shots with 24 seconds remaining. He finished that game with 24 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

"This is the best playoff I've ever had," Lewis said. "I really get up for the these games. The whole season is on the line. I always thought we had the talent to win it – although we didn't have a particularly good season – and I felt it was my job to pass on that spirit to the other guys."

1973: McGinnis Takes Over

The Pacers had needed all the positive spirit Lewis or anyone else could generate, because two key players – Netolicky and Rick Mount – had voiced trade requests in newspapers during the 1972 playoffs. Those requests were happily granted in the off-season, with Mount going to Kentucky and Netolicky to Dallas. They were sold, actually, bringing much-needed cash to the franchise and removing two disgruntled players from the roster.

Although Daniels, Lewis and Brown remained, the team was now built around the 22-year-old McGinnis. Veteran guard Donnie Freeman was acquired to fill the "off" guard spot, while Lewis and Keller shared the point guard role. Brown, his body wearing down, started barely more than half the games while second-year player Darnell Hillman started 52 of the 84. A rookie, Don Buse, made several contributions, and an NBA veteran at the end of his career, Gus Johnson, was brought in to bring bench strength and leadership.

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That revived group finished with a 51-33 record after winning 11 consecutive games late in the season, but that was just the fourth-best record in the league behind Carolina and Kentucky in the East and Utah in the West. They would only have homecourt advantage in the first round against Denver.

The Pacers eliminated an ailing Rockets team in five games in the first round. They won the first two games in Indianapolis, with Lewis scoring 30 points in Game 2, lost Game 3 in Denver, then took control of the series by winning Game 4 on the Rockets' court, as Keller hit a game-winning 3-pointer from the left wing off a broken play with 14 seconds left for a 97-95 victory. That shot gained historical value in passing years, because Leonard rose off the bench and shouted "Boom, baby!" as the ball dropped through the net. It would become Leonard's signature call on every Pacers' 3-pointer as a broadcaster in following decades.

The Pacers clinched the series back home in Game 5 as Freeman scored 30 points and Daniels scored 29 and added 23 rebounds.

After dropping the second-round opener to Utah, the Pacers came back to win the series in six games. Hillman stepped into a starting role in Game 5 when Brown had to sit out with a bad back, and came through with 13 points, 19 rebounds and six assists. A 58 percent foul shooter, he hit two free throws with 58 seconds left to provide the final two-point margin.

The Pacers then won Game 7 with a rare series-clinching victory on their home court, 107-98. Brown returned to score 13 points in 23 minutes off the bench before his back gave out again, and Keller scored eight of his 15 points in the final 6 ½ minutes. Hillman, starting again, had 13 rebounds and contained Utah star forward Willie Wise.

They had a week off before beginning the finals against arch-rival Kentucky. Brown took advantage of the layoff to recover well enough to start Game 1, and all five starters reached double figures in an overtime win in Louisville. Lewis led with 29 points. Kentucky won Game 2, then took Game 3 in Indianapolis when Leonard tried a new lineup featuring Brown in place of Freeman in the backcourt.

Down 2-1, the Pacers won a memorable Game 4 at the Coliseum. Freeman and Mount got into a brawl that ended with both players rolling on the floor in the second quarter, then Leonard got kicked out at halftime after picking up his second technical foul. Angry at Lewis for a turnover late in the half, he stomped his foot and shouted. Referee Joe Gushue thought Leonard was yelling at him, and called a second technical that brought an automatic ejection from the game.

Leonard, who didn't have an assistant coach that season, paced the locker room in the second half. Johnson, meanwhile, coached while sitting on the court, which he found more comfortable. All five starters reached double figures again, and the Pacers held on for a four-point victory as Hillman finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds and held Colonels forward Dan Issel to 7-of-23 shooting.

The players seemed to rally around Leonard's absence, but he was incensed and vented his frustration with the officials.

"I've never complained publicly before about the officials, but I'm through holding back," he said after the game. "The league can take its officials and stick 'em."

The Pacers won Game 5 in Louisville as Lewis scored 31 points and McGinnis picked off a pass at midcourt and drove for the winning layup in a three-point victory. Once again, they were poised to win a championship in Indianapolis.

They didn't, falling 109-93 at the Coliseum before a standing-room crowd of 10,079. Burdened with anticipation just as they had been three years earlier against the Stars, they missed their first 11 shots of the fourth period.

It was the fourth game of the series won by the visiting team. It was appropriate, then, that the Pacers won the championship in Game 7 in Louisville. Both teams shot poorly, but the Pacers scored seven more points from the foul line in an 88-81 victory that was more one-sided than the final score indicated. McGinnis scored 13 of his 27 points in the final eight minutes of the third period, in which the Colonels scored just 11 points. Once again, Hillman started and kept Issel in check.

"Before the game, we were very relaxed in the dressing room," Hillman said. "It was surprising to be so relaxed and I was wondering if we could go outside and do the job. But you saw it – we did!"

Once again, wives, front office personnel and media members were tossed into the shower while champagne was sprayed throughout the smoke-filled locker room. A more formal public celebration was held back at the Coliseum a couple of nights later, where fried chicken was served to 1,600 fans – 100 more than the number of dinners that were available.

The clock hadn't ticked off the final seconds of the Game 7 clincher when the Pacemates held up signs that read "Four in '74." A fourth title certainly seemed possible at the time, with rising stars in McGinnis and Hillman, but it wasn't to be. Plagued by complacency during the regular season, the Pacers' record dropped to 46-38. They tried to rally late, winning six of their final seven regular season games, but couldn't sustain the momentum in the playoffs.

They needed seven games to eliminate San Antonio in the first round, then fought back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the second-round series with Utah. That turned out to be the last gasp of a proud but aging group, however, as they fell hard in Game 7 in Salt Lake City, 109-87.

An Era had Ended

Daniels, Lewis and Brown were shipped off to Memphis in the off-season, where they reunited with the original Pacers general manager Mike Storen, as the Pacers rebuilt with a young group around McGinnis. They were seven games under .500 in January, but finished 45-39. They eliminated San Antonio in six games to advance to the second round, then battled Denver for seven games to improbably reach the 1975 finals.

Out of miracles, and with an injured McGinnis limping throughout the game, they fell to a better Kentucky team in five games. Still, it remains one the more impressive seasons in franchise history for its surpassed expectations. McGinnis, the league's co-MVP with Julius Erving, had grown too desirable for the Pacers to afford and jumped to the NBA after the season.

The Pacers wouldn't have a winning season for six years. Despite joining the NBA for the 1976-77 season, their greatest challenge over the next 10 years was mere survival. No matter how dire their circumstances became, however, the glow cast from the three championships remained as a beacon of hope and reminder of possibilities.

Through 50 seasons, it still shines.

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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.


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