Time to Raise Another Jersey to the Rafters

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 28, 2012

Here are summaries of four former professional basketball players. Find the one that doesn't fit.

  1. Played on three championship teams, and was voted MVP of the finals once ... First-team all-league once, second-team all-league twice ... Four-time All-Star ... Scored 10,498 career points.
  2. Played on three championship teams ... Voted MVP of the league twice ... Voted Rookie-of-the-Year ... Seven-time All-Star ... First-team all-league four times, second-team all-league once ... Scored 11,778 career points.
  3. Played on two championship teams, and was voted MVP of the finals once ... Voted co-MVP of the league once ... Three-time All-Star ... First-team all-league twice, second-team all-league once ... Scored 17,009 career points.
  4. Played on three championship teams, and was voted MVP of the finals once ... Four-time All-Star, and MVP of the All-Star game once ... Scored 12,033 career points ... Team captain throughout his career

Anything stand out? Anyone not belong? No, and that's the point. These four player profiles mesh, just as their performances meshed during the seasons they played together for the Pacers. One of them, however, stands apart for a glaring omission that could quickly, although belatedly, be corrected in one evening with one ceremonial swoop.

The profiles belong to (1) Roger Brown, (2) Mel Daniels, (3) George McGinnis and (4) Freddie Lewis. Despite the similarity of their careers, however, Lewis is the only one not to have had his jersey number (14) retired by the franchise. He's not campaigning for the recognition, although he certainly wouldn't mind it, but those he played with are adamant in their support of him becoming the fifth Pacer to be recognized.

"He's the most underrated point guard to ever play—certainly to play for the Pacers," Daniels said. "He had leadership qualities, athleticism, the ability to defend and score and a high basketball IQ. When you have all those things working for you, you're in an elite class."

Freddie Lewis Pacers basketball player

Philadelphia in the playoffs. Storen told him he was going to become the general manager of a new team in a new league in Indianapolis and drew up a three-year guaranteed contract offer on a yellow legal pad with a healthy increase over the $12,000 salary Lewis had been paid by the Royals as an eighth-round draft pick. Lewis, whose playing time was destined to be minimal playing behind Oscar Robertson, jumped on it. So, if Lewis wasn't the first player to sign a formal contract with the Pacers, he was the first to agree to one.

Lewis went on to become the team's leading scorer in the its first season, and is the only player to begin his career in the NBA, play all nine seasons of the ABA and finish his career in the NBA.

Those aren't reasons for retiring a jersey number, though. Lewis' playing credentials, as listed above, are retirement worthy and his intangibles only enhance his case. He was such a natural leader that he was elected captain of every team he played on except his rookie season with the Royals. His reputation throughout the ABA was such that when he was traded to the Spirits of St. Louis from Memphis early in the 1974-75 season, he was informed by a team employee during the ride from the airport to his first practice that he had already been selected captain.

He's still regarded that way. A telling episode occurred at the annual Indy Old-Timers banquet a few years ago, when some of the ABA Pacers were brought in as keynote speakers. Daniels, McGinnis, Bob Netolicky, Darnell Hillman and Lewis were there, and spoke as a group. It wasn't long, however, before Lewis took over and began organizing and directing them, a point guard even then.

Lewis was a nurturing captain. He tended to take the blame for everything that went wrong to help keep his teammates relaxed, and he performed the hidden off-court things that help keep a team together. Jimmy Rayl, a shooting guard on the first Pacers team, recalls sitting on a bus that would take the team to an arena or airport. Lewis boarded later, and handed him a cup of coffee. It was a small gesture, but one obviously meaningful to Rayl, who otherwise wouldn't have remembered it so many years later.

Lewis could show a firm hand, too. Daniels, who roomed with Lewis throughout the six seasons they played together, recalls a game in his first season with the Pacers (1968-69) when he complained to Lewis that he wasn't getting the ball often enough.

Lewis erupted: "My wife is nagging me, my kids are acting crazy, my dog's running around the neighborhood biting people, and you want the ball?! If you want the ball, get it off the backboard!"

Case closed.

Lewis also could be tough. He had a fight with future Pacers coach Larry Brown, when Brown played for Denver in the 1971-72 season. During the third quarter of a December game in Denver, Brown committed a hard foul after Lewis had used up his dribble. Lewis swung an elbow in response, and Brown threw a punch. Lewis dropped the ball and dropped Brown with a flurry of punches and then kicked him, leaving treadmarks on his cheek, a black eye and a cut that required three stitches. "I wish Adidas was here; I might get an endorsement," Brown said afterward.

The argument can be made that Lewis was the least expendable of the championship era Pacers. That point was made painfully clear in the 1971 playoffs, when they were the defending champions and finished with the ABA's best record (58-26). They swept Memphis in the first round, but wound up losing to Utah in seven games in the second round. Lewis struggled through the first four games, as the Pacers fell behind 3-1, and lost his starting spot for the rest of the series. His replacement, Billy Keller, sparked victories in the next two games, forcing a Game 7 in Indianapolis. The Pacers lost, 108-101. Lewis, who hit just 2-of-12 shots off the bench, was so distraught that he left the Coliseum in his uniform and sweats, drove to Washington Park, sat under a tree and cried.

"I said to myself, This is never going to happen again," he recalled. "I wasn't able to contribute what I knew I could contribute to our team. Somebody had to take us over that hump. I was the leader of the team. I could tell we were having problems in other areas and I needed to pick it up."

One year later, Lewis led the Pacers to their second championship. He contributed 23 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in the final game of the Pacers' second-round series with Utah, and then averaged 19.2 points in the finals against the New York Nets to earn MVP honors. He led a comeback from a 20-point deficit in Game 5 of that series, capping it off with two free throws with nine seconds remaining, and the Pacers went on to clinch the championship in Game 6.

Lewis started and captained the Pacers' third title team as well, the one that defeated Kentucky in seven games. He was on track for finals MVP honors that year as well. He had 29 points and 13 assists in the Game 1 win at Kentucky, and averaged 20.5 points through the first six games. He injured his shoulder and later picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter of Game 7 in Louisville, however, and sat out most of the remaining minutes. George McGinnis led the closing charge that brought the last championship and was named series MVP.

Lewis played one more ABA season for the Pacers, in '73-74, when the aging nucleus of the team began sputtering. It needed seven games to get by San Antonio in the first round, then fell behind 3-0 against Utah. Lewis scored 40 points in Game 4 to lead a surge that tied the series 3-3, but the Pacers were drubbed in Game 7, 109-87.

Lewis, Brown and Daniels all were dispatched to Memphis after that season. But while Brown and Daniels never regained anything resembling their peak form, Lewis continued to thrive. After just six games in Memphis, he was traded to St. Louis. He went on to average a career-high 22.6 points for the Spirits, and was voted MVP of the 1975 All-Star game in San Antonio after scoring 26 points.

Lewis' accomplishments for the Spirits shouldn't be discounted when considering his Pacer jersey retirement qualifications. After all, he hadn't demanded the trade that sent him to Memphis. Leonard brought him back for the 1976-77 season, the Pacers' first in the NBA, but it didn't end well. Lewis once again was named captain at the start of the season, but played just 32 games. He was an older player on a young, rebuilding team, and expendable. He says that when word of his possible release began spreading throughout the league, the Celtics told his attorney that they would sign him if the Pacers let him go before the trade deadline. The Pacers assured him they would keep him for the rest of the season, but let him go. He was told that a front office job would be found for him, but that didn't happen, either.

It was an unfortunate but rather appropriate ending for Lewis, who often bore the brunt of the blame when the team struggled but never received the credit accorded Daniels, Brown or McGinnis. He's bounced around since his playing days, living in Las Vegas, California, Washington D.C., Indianapolis and now, back in his hometown of McKeesport, Pa. He comes back regularly for Pacer-related events, and remains devoted to the franchise.

He should be brought back at least once more, to take his deserved place in the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The lineup of Miller, Brown, McGinnis and Daniels needs both a point guard and a captain. Freddie Lewis would fit perfectly.

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